Play tic-tac-toe. Connect a line--horizontal, vertical, diagonal--of three of your teachers and win bigly!
A few years ago, I wrote an article for Elephant Journal, an online yoga magazine, about how I was triggered and then shamed by a yoga teacher at a regional conference. I described the teacher as one of “moderate renown,” and purposely didn’t mention his name. I didn’t want his identity to overshadow the point of the article, which was about practicing ahimsa (non-violence) and not getting bogged down in the dogma of yoga to the point where you harm yourself in order to comply with its tenets. I also didn’t want the article to be about him, because it was about me—my sensitivity to his words and my grappling with both the triggering and the shaming.
Last weekend, I practiced with a master teacher. We did very little asana. Instead, we went into the subtler aspects of yoga. We did a lot of meditation and a lot of pranayama and explored how to live our lives with both wisdom and power. But what stuck with me most is a comment the teacher made in passing. The last time he was in Chicago was in November 2016, days before the presidential election. Apparently, he had warned everyone in the room who knew that the election would go the “right” way that its outcome wouldn’t necessarily result in the best of all possible worlds. And last weekend, without getting political or naming names, he said to the room, “If there is anyone here who was happy with the outcome of the election, and I hope there is, you need to ask yourself if your life is perfect now.”
His tone was neutral; he meant to illustrate how attached we can all be to outcomes, and to remind us that no matter how important we think something is, its import will fade over time so as to become almost inconsequential. But he also welcomed everyone into his space. He knew very well that the room was filled with people who were NOT happy with the election’s outcome and who were in various stages of suffering because of that election. And instead of pandering to the majority and scoring easy points by preaching to the choir, he opened the practice to everyone--subtly, sincerely, without lecturing them or telling them what he thought. He created space for outsiders, anyone who felt like an imposter because of his or her political beliefs. Every person in the room had a right to be there, to receive exactly the same insights and teachings as everyone else.
Yoga teachers are a liberal bunch politically, but what does “liberal” really mean? Are we open to others who have different core beliefs than we do? I think not. Our enlightenment often comes with a healthy dose of moral superiority and a side of judgment for others who aren’t on our side. We are tribal. We are quick to condemn those who aren’t as “open” as we are. Eating meat becomes violent. Core Power isn’t real yoga. Don’t gossip. Don’t watch reality TV. Sugar is poison. Processed foods and antibiotics are bad. You can find rules and proscriptions wherever you look. But if you're looking for your own answers, questioning the conventional wisdom (regardless of which convention to which you're attached), things can get a little trickier.
In 2011, I came right up against this when I suggested that an impromptu lecture about the immorality of meat-eating might be triggering in a vinyasa practice. I became the outsider of the group, the Trump voter in an exclusively blue room. It's not a great place to be. You try to pass, nodding your head when people talk about cleanses and factory farming and eating clean. You don't advertise your beliefs. You stay hidden, on the fringes, never sure whether you'd really be welcome there if people knew the truth. Over time, I grew more comfortable with my status as a quasi-outsider, but I still don't talk about my diet unless I'm questioned. And while I'm honest about what I eat and have finally realized that I don't need to apologize to anyone, there's always a little sense of separation because I don't toe the yoga party line.
So today, when my students come to me looking for advice outside of asana classes, I'm reluctant to foist my own values and choices onto them. I usually counter by asking them questions designed to make them look deeper into themselves and find their own unique truths--what practices work best for them, their bodies, their consciences, their morals. If I change someone's mind, I want to have done it by my actions, not by my proselytizing.
The teacher of moderate renown taught a fast, sweaty class, and the seventy or so students there loved it and laughed and gave glowing feedback. The master teacher taught slow, meditative classes that had a fraction of the poses that the teacher of moderate renown used. The seventy or so students in the room loved the classes and laughed and gave glowing feedback. The difference between the two teachers? One told us what to do and think; the other gave us space to make that own decision for ourselves while keeping the room open for everyone.
It's so easy to get caught up in an us-and-them mentality in our post-election world. But let’s not forget that it’s been happening all along. It happened to me at the Midwest Yoga Conference in 2011. It happens every day. Every judgment we make, every distinction we create between the self and the other, sustains a separation that diminishes us. To heal the rift in our society and the suffering each of us endures because of this rift, we need to be aware of the script that’s playing in the background of our minds as we go about lives. There’s a place for everyone in the room, whether it’s a yoga workshop or an office or a country, as long as we make space in our hearts. Asana teachers may or may not know this, but as long as they keep telling their students what to do, the world won't change. True yoga teachers won't tell you what to do, but if you pay close attention, you'll find all the answers by watching and learning.