Yoga Ethics

We Are All So Much More Than Our Hip flexors

Get this pose on camera before I fall out of it!

Get this pose on camera before I fall out of it!

There are few things more divisive in the yoga world (outside Bikram, at least) than an Instagram photo of a beautiful person in a perfectly executed forearm balance, very likely clad in an upmarket brand of yoga gear. "That's not yoga!" cry the classicists. "Where is the pranayama? Where is the meditation? Anyway, most people aren't even built for that", whilst others will point out that such pictures inspire people to get to classes so that they too can do that pose, one day. And maybe it will inspire them to go further. Maybe even in that outfit.  

I seem to spend a lot of time ruminating on this subject, more than is probably a healthy amount, because in truth, I feel a little torn. On the one hand- full disclosure- I do at times find these pictures irritating. In fact, these days, if I check out someone's Instagram account and it's mostly them in difficult poses in exotic locations, it tends to put me off. 

And yet there are many teachers that I admire and respect hugely that do it. Men and women who live authentic lives, who have chosen yoga as a path both on and off the mat, some of whom I am lucky enough to call friends. And when I see them in postures that seem to require a spine that rotates 360 degrees, my normal reaction is less of an eye-roll, more of an 'ooooohhh, that looks amazing'.

So why, exactly, do I find some of these pictures so irksome and some more inspirational? Well, as yoga requires self-study, I will put my hand up here and say that some of this is good ole' fashioned jealousy. If I put a picture of myself doing compass pose on Facebook I would look like a dog trying to remove an unusually large tick. I would only inspire sympathy, not an excited Google search for a person's nearest studio. As a yoga teacher, whenever I see a lithe, beautiful body twisted elegantly into an asymmetrical knot, there's an anxious little person inside me that goes 'who'd want to come to your classes when you can't teach them how to do that?'

But that's not just it. The truth is, there are one or two 'fancy' poses that I could do well enough for a cute sunset shot and a #yogaeverydamnday hashtag. But that's not really what I stand for. My journey as a yogi has always been more about what it gave me off the mat, how it allows me to release long-held trauma and slowly live more in a state of self-acceptance (when I'm not condemning my compass pose, anyway). And that's why I wanted to teach- to be able to introduce this possibility to other people. I'm not sure I would convey the concept of making peace with one's past on Pinterest through the medium of Koundinyasana I.

No. For me, it comes down to authenticity, and what a person is really trying to tell you with an image. You can see, for example, that some yoga practitioners are very anatomical in their approach to asana, and therefore naturally more focused on the physical. For others, a challenging pose may represent something personal to them; an obstacle overcome, a symbol of where they're at in their life right now, a symbol even of something taking place in the world around them. And this tends to come through- you can tell that whatever that person's reason for documenting a feat of physical prowess, it came from a place of integrity.

But I do get the sense that some people's social media feeds are driven by insecurity; a fear that they aren't a 'proper' yogi without an Instagram account full of King Pigeons and Peacocks. As if their worth is derived in part from the abilities of their shoulder girdle. I'm certainly not the only one that wanted to teach to transmit more of the gifts of yoga; it's what most people seem to say when you ask them why they wanted to teach. And everyone has such unique stories, such an individual energy to share with their students and future students. Surely a bendy back isn't the sum total of this.

There's no doubt that social media has been a boon for yoga teachers. And there's no doubt that Improved physical condition is, of course, another of yoga's gifts. But as yoga becomes more disseminated through media images, wouldn't it be great to see something other than a fallen angel pose in an edgy urban building, unless a fallen angel in an urban building was truly the purest expression of what you actually wanted to say (is it. Is it?). I'm not suggesting that we never put up pictures of our physical practice. But I am saying that maybe, just maybe, we have a little bit more to offer the world, that our journey with yoga could sometimes be represented with images that say more than that. As it is, one of the richest forms of spiritual development is being reduced to a shorthand symbol of a body beautiful with their leg behind their head.

We're all so much more than just our hip flexors, people. Maybe next time we want to put up that #yogilife post, we could think for a second about what we'd like to say to a struggling person who has yet to find a yoga class what #yogilife can really offer.  

Now, excuse me while I go practice my compass pose.

How s**t Is the World, Really?

Last November, a friend and I were about to fly to Morocco for a Festival in the Sahara. The night before we were due to leave, the Paris atrocities took place. We were supposed to be taking the train to Gatwick the next day, but a sense of foreboding made me decide to drive instead.

"You're letting all this terrorist stuff get to you." My friend warned, as I paid for long stay parking online at midnight.

A little context here: My friend refuses to watch the news and doesn't engage in politics. By contrast, if I go a week without reading a paper I feel personally responsible for genocide in the Middle East and worry that puppies have been thrown at walls because of petitions that I didn't sign. I guess you could say we're on extreme ends of this spectrum.

The next day, as we drove to Gatwick, news broke that the North Terminal-where we were headed- was closed due to a gun being found in the bag of a man headed to France. When we arrived, we handed our keys to a valet and were ushered to wait in the hotel next to the terminal, where we spent the next few hours sipping coffee and eating surprisingly good pizza in the subdued but spacious surroundings of the Hilton lounge. The people making their way by train? They were held at stations along the line, with many missing the very flight to Marrakech that we ultimately caught, and missing several days of the trip due to rescheduling problems.

The moral of the story? That smugness is always its own reward.

Just kidding; that's only partly it. And I write this story with the utmost respect for those affected by the awful tragedy that preceded it. We were lucky to even be going on holiday. I am not making light of a terrorist act. But for me, it's a parable. Just because you turn away from bad things, it doesn't mean that those bad things don't happen. And, I am always right.

I hear so many arguments from people about why watching the news is bad or why there's no point in following politics. "Life's awful enough," goes the first, often made by those of a more gloomy disposition. "Why make it worse by seeing all that  horror in the world?" I get it. Sometimes the last thing you want to hear about when you're feeling bad is about someone else being tortured, or detained in Guantanamo Bay for no reason, or raped on a bus. But I heard an interesting story recently at a Marianne Williamson talk. Some scientists were studying a monkey community on an island and they noticed that a few of the monkeys were depressed, apparently for no reason (there was no Made In Chelsea on this island, after all). They took the depressed monkeys away and returned six months later, and guess what happened? The other monkeys in the group had died. The morose monkeys, it turned out, were the empaths of the group. They could see bad things on the horizon. If you work on the theory that we're all connected- and I, for one, totally do- then if you're of a sad disposition, could it be that you're seeing things in the world that many have inured themselves to? And what better incentive to take action?

Then there's the one that really gets my proverbial goat. The one I hear from hippie types on an almost weekly basis as they skip around on waves of love and glitter paint. "I just find it all too upsetting," they say, as they preach love and compassion to middle class white people in yoga classes and dance circles. Yes, it is upsetting. It's also upsetting for the people being displaced, putting their families on boats that have a 60% chance of staying afloat and then arriving in countries that shove them into disease ridden camps. They don't have the opportunity to switch off from it and listen to Deva Premal instead. 

The more sophisticated version of this argument is the one that goes 'the media and the politicians have an agenda. They're fucking with our heads and distorting reality!' Fair point, I suppose; perhaps they are indeed trying. But let me ask you this; if a new neighbour moved next door, and several people in your street told you that this person was a serial killer, would you just say to yourself 'oh, they probably have some kind of vendetta against him' or 'clearly they're just fucking with my head', or would you take pains to find out more, just in case you or your loved ones ended up with your body parts clogging his drains? Quite. Humans have this wonderful thing called the power of discernment. Sometimes we have to exercise it more vigorously than others.

Even for those of us who do keep abreast of what's going on in the world, the constant stream of videos, pleas, petitions and opinion pieces online and in print can make us feel overwhelmed, and like there's nothing we can do. But there's always something we can do. It's naive to think that 'clicktivism' will change the world, but groups like Avaaz and Sumofus have had successes in pressuring organisations and paying for legal campaigns with the public's help. Many people have been galvanised into helping at refugee camps in Calais or Lesvos or helping out after natural disasters after reading the reports filtering in from social media. And heck, if holding a little compassion in your heart from reading about a refugee makes you more likely to buy lunch for a homeless person, then that can only be a good thing, right? It's so often the little gestures that make a big difference.

Horrible things are happening in the world. Horrible things will always happen in the world. Did Londoners get the chance to turn away from reality because it was too upsetting during the blitz? Nope. Because hell was already  raining down on them from the skies. Just because it's not on our doorstep doesn't mean we should afford ourselves the luxury of ignoring it. Personally, I don't think there's ever any more or less evil in the world at any one time; it just presents in different ways, and for different people. Evil is like a vacuum. Wherever awful things happen, you don't have to look too hard to see the good rushing in, like the people opening their homes to refugees, or the people who rush to fill the sites of bombings with messages of love and all-night vigils. The problem is, where there is no awareness, there is no room for this to happen. In short, the world is pretty much as shit as we're willing to let it be.

The hands on approach

The one thing that strikes dread into the heart of most new teachers is adjusting students. You may have your lingo down pat and you may have practiced that forearm balance or warrior to within an inch of its life so that you can demonstrate with ease, but when it comes to adjusting another person's body, there's a whole new skill set involved. Even for experienced teachers, the practice of adjustment constantly calls for ethical judgement and an ability to read into a person's space on any given day, not to mention a deep knowledge of-and respect for- anatomy.

In this podcast, which I made with fellow teachers Ryan Spielman and Genny Wilkinson Priest, we speak to respected teachers Mimi Kuo Deemer, Sarai Harvey Smith and Kate Ellis on when to adjust, when not to adjust and how the tradition of adjustment varies between styles of yoga. Enjoy!

Listen here