Yoga is good for your muscles and joints, but it’s not just exercise. It has always had a spiritual component. Ultimately yoga is about achieving the natural state of being. The goal of yoga is to recognize within and without what is blocking our birthright of happiness and freedom. Our old wounds and unfinished business add up to a lot of psychic weight we are all carrying around.
It’s only natural that the yoga in our country would mirror our culture, but recently the cultural effect has tipped away from spirituality into dogma of a kind that works against yoga’s ultimate goals.
I started personal training 15 years ago when yoga was just becoming popular in D.C. It was only offered in schools, gyms and churches. I was an amateur body builder at the time and was looking for something deeper. The first time I practiced yoga I felt reborn and awake. I needed to share this with everyone I knew, so I got certified.
Back then the classes were humble. There were only a few styles of yoga. I tried them all and even though I enjoyed some classes more than others, I always felt better when I left. I felt happier.
As the years went on I noticed people began to treat their particular yoga style like a distinct religion and this created much separation and competition in the yoga community. The only exception was the ubiquitous Lululemon outfit. That I saw from Bikram to Kundalini.
Now there are people who feel that they can’t do yoga without that outfit! This is both boring and silly, but not too surprising, given what we see on TV. Hours spent watching the belittling of others on reality TV encourages the same in our daily life, including our yoga practice. The music we listen to about big houses and designer clothes becomes embedded in our minds and we start to question our worth.
But that’s nothing compared to the holier-than-thou yogi who also makes us question our worth. I recently attended a conference in New York where we did three-hour “master classes” and were asked to chant: “From this day forward, I will be a vegan.” The lecture was titled: “Get the look to match your ethics.” Two very attractive young women began to speak about where our clothes come from and what happens to the animals that supply the fur, silk, cashmere, down, wool and leather -- complete with pictures. This information was eye-opening and I was thankful to know it and vowed to be more mindful about my purchases. However, these women were filled with rage, judgment and self-righteousness. They suggested we sell or give away all of our clothes that came from animals and buy vegan clothes. Easy for a wealthy woman to suggest.
They also bragged about berating women on the streets for wearing fur and leather. Don’t we all have enough problems to worry about without being judged on a cold day in New York? My girlfriend walked into this conference with a faux fur coat the next day and a stranger gasped, rolled her eyes and said loud enough to hear: “Ugh. Fur.”
This is not the yoga I know. What happened to non-judgment and the belief that everyone is doing the best they can with what they’ve got? What happened to the idea that if you knew a person’s story, there’s no one you could not love?
But it only got worse. During the Q&A with the two yoga masters “masters” a student asked why this couple did not have kids. They answered: “Having kids is an ego trip. Having a mini-me is very selfish. It is very bad for mother earth. Each child born every year consumes an exorbitant amount of waste. Having children blocks your spiritual practice and enlightenment. The government encourages us to reproduce for guarantee of a future generation to send to fight our wars, so it’s a political statement. Having kids is detrimental for the population control problem on our planet.” Later on at lunch, one student said she had considered adopting a child but did not because these “gurus” strongly opposed it.
Thankfully, there was some relief. The next day one of the teachers started his class by holding up a statue of Krishna, stating: “I love this statue but not enough to put it on a swing and play with it or bathe it every night. The closest I’ve been to enlightenment is having my son.” He then proceeded to teach a large portion of the class holding one student’s five-month-old daughter.
This brings me back to my original definition. To me, yoga is happiness. Yoga is not a fashion statement or a label. I don’t give a damn if my students wear fur, leather, bamboo or Lululemon. I don’t care if they are vegan or eat steak every night. I don’t care if they decide to have children or not. I don’t care if they watch Bravo or the Discovery channel. Life is hard enough and I’ve had students who have battled cancer, drug addiction, child abuse, learning disabilities and many more. At the end of the day I just want my students to feel like everything is going to be OK.
I don’t claim to be a guru and would be very embarrassed if someone bowed at my feet in full prostration. I was always taught to never look up to anyone and never look down on anyone either. We are all human and equal. That’s where the magic is: seeing yourself in all beings and trying your best to use your thoughts, words and actions to contribute to the happiness and freedom of all. That’s my yoga religion.
Oh, and one more thing. It’s not that serious. Be light. It’s just yoga.
Pari Bradlee is a yoga instructor. She is the daughter-in-law of On Faith founder and editor-in-chief, Sally Quinn.