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by Valerie Moselle

 

“Come into the present moment and appreciate a sense of connection and interconnection with all things. OM.”

 

Parched, we drink it in.  Do we even really hear it anymore?  Yet if it’s not said outright in yoga class, the subtext is there—an implicit promise of transformation.  We gobble it up like hungry little fish rising to the surface to feed. It’s implicit in the sculpture of the deity perched on a shelf, or in the photograph of someone meditating.  Stillness. Peace. We hunger for this. So we devour the promise.

 

“Practice, practice, practice; All is coming” ~Sri Pattabhi Jois.  

 

What is coming?  

Transformation. 

Oh yeah.  Cool. Wait…what?

 

Change.  One thing becoming another.  Your current self becoming something new.  A different self. A transformed self. For the better, we hope.  The human condition is unsatisfactory, and we must do something about this, we believe.  Sore back? Yoga. Anxiety? Yoga. Stress? Yoga. Sleeplessness? Yoga. Depression? More Yoga.  Wisdom? Insight? Illumination? Yoga. Enlightenment? Yoga. Loneliness? Yoga Festival. Duh.

 

How can this thing we show up for….this class we walk into…this habit of flexing and extending the spine, turning limbs here and there, chanting, breathing, and sitting together keep so many of these promises?  We expect a lot of our yoga. Or rather, we bathe in the promise of our yoga.

 

And yet, there is truth in the grand promise. We transform.  I’ve seen it. Sure…it depends on the yoga, the teacher, the readiness of the student, the context, the collection of previous experiences that prime us for growth.  Yes it happens through the fire of effort and discipline and simultaneously through surrender and humility. When we listen, and when we start to listen carefully…on a cellular level…at a molecular level…we change.  And when we don’t listen, and we are torn limb from limb (emotionally or physically), we change then too. Sometimes that change matures us, and we become more patient, more kind, more loving, more present.

 

Imagine a disembodied population of human beings with everything they need to survive and then some.  Consider that this population has been historically compelled to seek more secure shelter, more calorie-rich food, and gentler climates with more accessible comforts.  This population has been conditioned to wonder whether around the next bend or beyond the next mountain the landscape might offer more abundance. Give this population unlimited access to food, shelter, art, entertainment, information, and resource enough to waste, and what you’re left with is a population that has no idea how to enjoy what they have.  

 

Human beings evolved to watch for the turn of season, the strike of the predator, and the spear of the enemy.  In the modern absence of those things, we don’t know what to do with our leisure-time, so we re-create (and invent) scarcity, fear and violence.  This manifests from a deep place of “I need more.”

 

Our yoga teachers sometimes invite us to become conscious of our dissatisfaction with our human condition.  (Though without the following statement, this may not be very good for business.) From within that ‘noticing’ we are quickly advised to “open our hearts” to a sense of compassion/gratitude/forgiveness”.  With this exercise, she (usually ‘she’) reminds us that if we focus on the compassion/gratitude/forgiveness, our attention shifts. I’ve said it myself as a teacher, and must admit that in the context of modern practice, it works.  For the moment.  

 

Consider, however, that this is shallow training from teacher to student.  It is nothing more than another soundbite. Not because it’s not true, or because it can’t open someone to feeling, or because it’s not worth saying.  It is shallow because that mat, that retreat, that clean studio with the sculpture, those friendly people, that beautiful teacher, that context, does not ask the student to stretch (except maybe limbs).  It’s easy to see the ‘light’ from within the privilege of comfort and self-care. 

 

This moment is not a transformative moment, it is a moment of celebration—the validation of a wish.  There is nothing wrong with that. Indeed, we should celebrate.  We should wish. But let’s call it what it is: Short of the occasional minor revelation, the reminder is but a shallow exercise in revisiting something we already know but are not yet courageous enough to fiercely apply.

 

“Open your heart” is not a bad thing to say.  But it is not meaningful training.  It is void of the work.  Feather light. All sentiment and no meat.  It is devoid of the weight of serious implication.  It is detached from explicit result. Just outside the door we may spite each other with a signal-less turn, a rude comment, an obscene gesture.  It is out there where the hurtful words from a friend sting, a child rages, a parent disappoints, or a spouse becomes disloyal. It is there where we exercise our confusion, and remain concerned but unmoved to truly rise up against racism, wrongful imprisonment, the dying earth, or the plight of the refugee fleeing genocide.  

 

Yet inside the studio we yoga teachers promise transformation—implicitly, and often explicitly.  We ought to acknowledge that we can’t really deliver.  We can remind, and wish, and hope. We can invite inward reflection and breath. We can inspire tears and mobilize emotion.  In the studio we can reveal and be revealed.  These are good things, yes.  But they rarely prompt transformation.  The danger in reveling in this sentiment without true transformation is that we become complacent to the tragedies around us.  Our exercise in self-soothing can become a cultural indulgence with real-world implications. “It’s all good.” Except when it’s not.

 

Instead we must all be prompted by our teachers to practice when it’s not natural or comfortable.  We must exercise our compassion, gratitude, and forgiveness when it doesn’t feel good. That is practice.   “I’m furious at you now, but I’m going to insist on finding my empathy, damn it!”  Each of us needs to realize that if we still have to practice, we are not yet transformed.  If we suffer, we are not yet transformed. In those not so careful moments, when our context is chaotic, or humbling, or painful we can only pose for our transformation, like we pose for our instagram yoga pic.  Like a child trying on her parent’s shoes, we can only employ the actions of higher consciousness and at the same time do our best to overcome the impulses we know are no longer serving us.

 

We ought to recognize that what we call yoga practice: showing up with others to bend and breathe, chant, sweat, and then nap, is nothing more than a touchstone.  It serves an important purpose as a gateway into remembering what we care about most, and how we want to live. It serves to support us in our daily choices and to reaffirm our commitment to our community.   This is good work; and we should do it often, and in the company of others. But we shouldn’t stop there.

 

I don’t know what is next for Modern Yoga, and how we will dig deeper into our progress. Those of us who have been doing this for a while have held onto the promise, foolishly perhaps. We have not given up hope.  We’re the diehards. The believers. The zealots. We remain standing in the dry desert, parched, hanging on every scattered raindrop and waiting for the downpour of change.

 

Practicing.

We still think we’re onto something. 

Maybe we are.

And maybe we aren’t.