Yoga and The Spectacle

Teaching dandasana (staff pose) into pascimottanasana (intense western stretch) at Brighton Buddhist Centre. See my Instagram for full video.

In 2018, I left London and I stopped teaching busy vinyasa flow classes. I deleted social media and spent two years studying at Brighton Buddhist Centre. During this time, I taught the occasional community class but really gave myself space to figure out what my relationship with yoga is.

I grew up with yoga. My mum has been teaching Hatha since the early 90s. I used to experiment in her studio, on my own, with contemporary yoga poses (i.e. the ones codified for western audiences) and intuitive movements. Sometimes I’d pop on one of those Putumayo or natural sounds CDs. I was in my element and not aware of any outside eyes.

I read the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. I also flicked through some eighties publications with posers in dodgy lycra.

I kind of knew that I would become a yoga teacher as well at some point. I didn’t talk about it or dwell on it that much. It was just a natural progression.

After getting my BA, I went to India and studied intensively for a 200-HR qualification. Despite the bad rep that these short courses sometimes get, if you have already been practising for ten years or so, it is enough to get you started.

When I came back to the UK, I began teaching in London. I was lucky, really, because it is so hard starting out as a new teacher unless you’re buddies with a studio owner. It was then that I belated caught up with yoga as a casualised yet competitive industry with its enormous digital footprint fraught with cultural contradictions like an OM symbol tattoed on a foot.

It was then that it struck me: being a yoga teacher would be a struggle for me. Not because I am not a good teacher, but because I never wanted to sign up to marketing myself as a brand.

The best teachers I have ever studied with are not necessarily the most ‘well-followed’. I used to pay good money to attend workshops with internationally renowned teachers and would learn more from their marketing than from their teaching. Some are worth their salt of course. But there is a lot of noise out there.

Personally, I know that I will keep teaching yoga throughout this life. And maybe into the next! Over my past two years of reflection, I’ve learned that as long as I have that direct contact with students in a community-oriented class, THAT is enough. I am ambitious in other parts of my life but yoga practice for me is always about the intimacy and the freedom to move without a care that I felt in my mother’s studio growing up.

Yoga, excellence in action?

In Bhagavad Gita, The Song of the Soul, yoga is described as excellence, or skill, in action: ‘yogaḥ karmasu kauśalam’ (2.50). Despite how simple this phrasing sounds, these three terms denote one of the most nuanced and fundamental concepts to yogic living.

Teaching one of my first yoga classes in Goa.

When I first heard ‘excellence in action’, I admit that my first thoughts were, ‘Oh, so yoga must make you fitter, smarter, or just better’. The word ‘excellence’, after all, reminded me of external goals and of my own competitive nature.

Yet, as I have since discovered, nothing in a yogic text has a single, literal meaning. All quotes and aphorisms that we might cherrypick denote a broader philosophical and experiential context that is learned by osmosis over many years.

As my yoga practice has matured, I have learned what yogah karmasu kausalam means beyond external definitions of excellence. My interpretation will continue to evolve throughout my life but the time feels right to share my current progress.

Yoga is excellence in action not because you, {insert name}, become excellent. On the contrary, yoga is excellence in action because excellence is enacted through you.

Let’s remember that ‘yoga’ (from ‘to yoke’) means ‘union’. So excellence in yogic terms cannot be about individual achievement. Yoga is a practice wherein ‘you’ become a channel for something greater, something excellent.

Such transcendence occurs when knowledge, will and action align. This alignment can only happen, in turn, when the mental chatter and desires of daily life are quietened.

For example, when a parent manages to lift an inhuman weight in order to save their child trapped beneath, they are not operating in ‘ego-mode’. In that moment, their own ‘I-am-ness’ has dissolved and their purpose manifests as a single-pointed channel of energy.

Or, when a spiritual guide speaks, they are not speaking from a first-person perspective in the regular sense; they are drawing on an infinite well of intuition.

Further, the spiritual guide may not have prior knowledge of the messages that flow from or through her mouth. Indeed, her words of healing are often spontaneous. For the excellence that she is enacting is ‘in action’.

In sum, yoga is an intuitive process of responding to the present moment with selfless clarity.

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