On how I don't do Yoga anymore
I received an email this summer, from an Ashtanga Yoga practitioner in Costa Rica thanking me for my blog post about why I do Ashtanga Yoga. They’d been practising 5 days a week for 7 years and woke up that morning simply not wanting to do it. They asked the internet why this still happens every now and then, found my piece and were re-inspired to get back on the mat. Yay!
… Except that piece of writing was from 2013. And I don’t actually do, teach (or endorse) Ashtanga yoga anymore.
I re-read the post (it had been awhile) - and apart from some very unfortunate (and premonitory) comments about me being ‘an insane person, a crazy person’ to do this practice - there is some nice sentiment there, too - that doing Ashtanga allowed me to sink into my emotional landscape, to tune deeply into what was happening for me on an emotional level and thereby driving some less than conscious behaviours. Great. But is pushing my body through a very demanding and rigorous practice for 2 hours every day really necessary for me to connect to my inner workings? Maybe it was then, but it’s not anymore, thank goodness.
As a parent, carving out the time for a structured practice often seems less important than taking time to sit in stillness, to write or hike or garden. And I’m sharing this not to judge or convince anyone to whom yoga is a helpful and supportive practice - but to tease out the reasons it no longer (or not in the same way) feels like a fit for myself.
My relationship with yoga has become so much more complex in the past few years. The blind insistence that it was going to make me a “better person” has fallen away. I’ve recognised the ways in which tying my worth and self-esteem to a physical practice was harmful to my health. In which giving the agency of my body away to other people was potentially dangerous.
There’s been the horrifying revelations in recent years about sexual abuse perpetrated by the founder, the guru, of Ashtanga yoga. And a rather nauseating lack of denunciation from current leaders in the community for that abuse, along with some victim-blaming narratives from other well-known teachers such as “well, my experience of him was supportive and positive, so I don’t see the problem”.
There’s the rampant body shame and disordered eating encouraged by the highest certified instructors of Ashtanga Yoga. “Trouble perfecting that one asana? Maybe you need to lose 5 pounds and should [...indiscriminately, all…] try intermittent fasting!” - I kid you not, from someone with over 21 thousand Instagram followers. How many of them young women with enough body-toxic bullshit shoved down their throats every waking minute? As if suggesting that people who do 2 hours of rigorous physical activity every day need to stop eating to improve themselves. What the actual fuck…. So harmful, not only to physical health, but mental and emotional health and well-being.
And their oblivious response, “ I don’t see the harm, it’s honest!”.
When I was in Mysore (India) practising, the commonly held belief was that if you ate in the evening, you wouldn’t be able to wake up at 3 or 4 or 5 am and do (perform) your practice ‘well’. Which inevitably just ended up with me starved, unable to sleep, desperately binge-eating bags of cookies every night before bed. No wonder I was severely depressed and depleted by the end of that trip (not to mention the dislocated clavicle, torn hamstrings, and injured back).
There’s the problematic “yoga-industrial complex” - white people getting really fucking rich for exporting//teaching/selling traditional practices that were actually outlawed in India under British colonial rule. These studios and “wellness” spaces which are most often non-diverse, intrinsically racist and most definitely not body-positive. We see the most common images of yoga practitioners being white, thin, wearing expensive clothing, and doing advanced asana (postures) - with little to no mention of the other 7/8th of the lineage of yoga or the other types of bodies that might enjoy it.
Over the past year, more and more I’m sitting with and examining what exactly it is about yoga that so drew me in. Yes, getting sweaty in a warm room and stretching and working my body regularly felt amazing. I found an instant community in the way so many high-demand groups deliver.
And there’s this piece about how (supposedly, relatively) intact cultures, or aspects of them, are so damn appealing! Of course they are - when our own European pagan, indigenous roots and knowing lie shattered, tortured, burned, and buried at the feet of 2 thousand years of persecution. When we are so far removed from our own sense of vitality and connection within our bodies and the natural world around us.
Yoga - and Indian culture - feels so whole, so well, so ancient. Like North American Indigenous spirituality, it’s really appealing to us rootless settler orphans, blown so far, so long ago, from our own homelands. There is goodness and authenticity to be found in studying other cultures deeply. I learned a lot during my years immersed in it. But it doesn't feel like mine to explore, and certainly not mine to share and teach.*
These days, I’m diving into the practices and magic and ritual within my own lineages. I’m listening, deep in my bones, to the whispers of wisdom hidden, nearly forgotten, waiting to be remembered. Listening to how my body wants to stretch and move and breathe and dance and heal. Maybe for the first time since childhood, letting that impetus arise from within, rather than trying to force myself into shapes prescribed from the outside, viewed from the outside, reflected in a mirror or another’s eyes.
I can and do appreciate aspects of my Ashtanga indoctrination, but consider myself a recovered yogi. As these cold autumn days descend, some desire is stirring to return occasionally to a hot and humid Mysore room - to reconnect with old friends, work up a refreshing sweat, and take blissful, exhausted rest.
But I’m also certain that I’m going to be just fine if I don’t.
* and yes, this coming from the white woman making a living by practising acupuncture. Still working my way through that discomfort, likely a longer blog post coming around this eventually.