I live in a corner of the world that celebrates all things young, beautiful and thin. I work here, too, in an industry that equates lean, muscular physiques with depth of knowledge and fine spiritual pursuits. It’s a competitive and sometimes elitist industry that generates close to six billion dollars each year in the sale of clothes, accessories, props, fees and memberships.
I am a yoga teacher. I am not lean and muscular. I’m a curvy yoga teacher with size 12 hips trying to push back against the industry’s trend toward exclusivity. I’m a yoga teacher who doesn’t fit in.
“Yoga is meeting with that which you already are.”
If what Bay Area teacher Anirudh Shastri says is true then the sexing-up of modern American yoga with featured ads of Kathryn Budig naked but for a pair of toeless socks shouldn’t bother me. If yoga has introduced me to my basic and perfect nature, as Shastri suggests, then what else do I need? Who else do I need to be except my beautiful, round self? I am all that. We are all that: heart, mind and spirit no matter our shape. Embracing yoga as a personal practice, therefore, requires nothing more than right intention, comfortable clothes and empty space.
But what is right intention? To awaken the body or to awaken Kundalini? Perhaps both. Can my clothes be torn sweats and a tee shirt or do they have to be fashioned from the latest sweat wicking micro-fiber tailored to lift and mold the sagging bits? Let’s face it. The pressure is on to be pretty.
Likewise, should the space in which we practice be four raw walls and a dirt floor? Or must it be a state-of-the-art computer guided environment capable of producing through controlled lighting and pristine acoustics any atmosphere the yogi desires?
As one who practices yoga, I should be able to move beyond the blinding reflection of airbrushed bodies, pretty clothes, perfect lighting and hip hopped chanting.
But can I?
I sat down with Shastri and John Berg for coffee on a bright and blustery afternoon in Midtown, Palo Alto. We were a short walk away from the newly opened Samyama Yoga Center (SYC). I would describe Samyama as jaw-dropping. John is the owner and director.
He would describe Samyama as being a direct result of his teaching philosophy; how he likes to teach and what he likes to see in a yoga studio.
John’s journey to yoga began in 1999 towards the end of his treatment for non-Hodgkins lymphoma. “I didn’t find yoga.” He pauses. “Yoga found me.” After two years of intense practice he attended a training course where Shastri was teaching philosophy. In the tradition of all great partnerships, John says of meeting his close friend, “It was as if we had always known one another.”
Anirudh Shastri describes himself as “a fat kid from an orthodox Brahmin family.” His parents enrolled him in a yoga class as a child in order for him to lose weight. He describes the experience: “Ashram in the morning at 4:30, then school, then ashram, school and home.”
His training included thousands of hours of difficult mentorship with a teacher he both feared and loved, including one full year of Suryanamaskar and in-depth study of the Bhagavad Gita and Patanjali’s Sutras. Shastri is a Senior Instructor and the Co-Director of Teacher Education at SYC.
I discovered yoga during a 1974 high school gym class. When our teacher asked us to sit quietly and close our eyes I felt something happen inside me that I can’t explain and have sometimes doubted but have never forgotten. Ten years later I walked into my first yoga class and ten years after that, in 1994, began to teach. One of the places I teach is Samyama.
Despite our varied backgrounds Shastri, John and I tend to agree on most things. And so I had expectations for our coffee klatch. But the conversation took an unexpected turn when they said,
“Commercialization of yoga is good.”
It wasn’t what I wanted to hear. It was something I needed to hear. Their conviction that commercialism brought people to the practice gave me pause. I had some thinking to do.
To be honest, envy clouds my judgement. I envy graceful magazine models taking a challenging asana with a bright smile and no sweat. I envy anyone who can afford let alone fit into cute yoga ensembles from the shop named after a cartoon character and a citrus fruit. Sometimes I envy teachers capable of setting their humility aside in order to contribute something they believe is new. The teachers who, as John says, “grab hold of a tradition, overlay a new language and then name it after themselves.
But I’m still learning. I’ll always be learning.
I don’t try to hide my flaws. If anything I embrace them. I think I hope that if I love the envy that vexes me enough it will somehow melt away so that I can see the truth.
And maybe the truth is that the question, “is the commercialization of yoga in America good or bad” is moot. The moment Swami Vivekananda stepped on the stage at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 yoga in America became a business. And how does a business succeed? Commercial advertising.
Commercialization, therefore, is not the shiny, blinding impenetrable evil wall my envy wanted to make me believe it is. Rather, it’s like a theatre scrim. Illuminate it from the front and that’s all we’ll see—the smiling models, the fancy clothes. Illuminate a scrim from behind and all those things will still be there, but we’ll see through them to the heart of yoga. We’ll see what Shastri calls, “the richness of the teachings.”
And if that’s the truth—the real truth — then maybe I do fit in after all.
For the better part of two decades Mimm has been a yoga teacher, massage therapist, reflexologist and writer. When she’s not balancing in Ardha Chandrasana or wrestling with a sentence, she’s either playing her guitar or doing homework. This year she begins work toward her master’s degree in transpersonal psychology at Sofia University.