As many of you already know, I am not what I would describe as a ‘sunshine and flowers’ yoga teacher. Listening to teachers talk about how wonderful all creation is and seeing inspirational (but philosophically empty) quotes on my Facebook newsfeed gives me an involuntary facial twitch some would call an eye-roll.
And this is not (necessarily anyway) because I am attached to my pain body or living in negativity. I don’t, I’m quite hopeful (most of the time) but I don’t like the expectation that if I practice yoga, I should be feeling sunshine and flowers all the time.
I practice yoga because it saved me. It continues to save me: from depression, anxiety, and a major eating disorder. It gives me concrete tools to deal with crisis, and gives me a home base to come back to day after day, no matter what’s going on in my life. I practice yoga because it empowered me to understand my own body better, to get stronger, and that minimizes some of the inherited fear I have about sexual assault and predators on the street and in my communities. I practice yoga because it gives me the courage to do things like speak up about injustice. And I know I’m not the only one. Sunshine and flowers is an occasional, and very nice, side effect, but it’s not the reason, and it’s not the goal.
Anyway, who decided that irrepressible optimism, open-heartedness, and blind trust was the true path of yoga?
Let’s ask four of the major philosophical lineages we turn to in Western yoga:
Classical Hinduism believes that the world we live in is Prakriti, a material illusion, separate from true spirit. We practice yoga to get out of this mortal shell and become one with Purusha, the true soul, somewhere out there, that we can never access in our day to day life.
Tantric Hinduism sees that there is no separation between God/Soul/Purusha and us. Everything that exists in the universe is not a creation of, but actually a manifestation of the divine. Nobody ever said that was a good thing: People pooing on the street, syphilis, child molestation, sunshine and flowers: neither good nor bad, but all divine. We practice yoga to remember our own divinity, but not to assume that it’s a good thing. Medicine for syphilis is also a manifestation of the divine.
Buddhism’s main principle is this: Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. We will get sick, we will get old, and we will die. We practice yoga (or Buddhist meditation) to reduce attachments in the world, stay present to the moment, and accept that everything is temporary, including sunshine, flowers, and pain.
For our Daoist perspective, I’ll just go ahead and read you a passage from the Tao Te Ching:
Do you want to improve the world?
I don’t think it can be done.
The world is sacred.
It can’t be improved.
If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.
There is a time for being ahead,
a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion,
a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous,
a time for being exhausted;
a time for being safe,
a time for being in danger.
The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the center of the circle.
Complex, beautiful philosophies, all, but not one of them says their number one value is finding sunshine and flowers no matter who infected you with syphilis. I have no problem with optimism: what I have a problem with is the Western yogic image of irrepressible happiness that is so pervasive that there is no room to feel insecure, to be afraid, to grieve, or to ask for help when you are being threatened or sexually assaulted by someone within your community or outside of it.
I had a very difficult conversation with some folks in my poetry slam community about the many instances of sexual assault and harassment that have happened over the past several years, and how the silence and shame surrounding it avoids accountability, perpetuates the assaults, and allows it to happen to more and more people.
This has happened to me in the yoga community as well. I was harassed by a higher-up in a larger yoga studio, and I didn’t say a damn thing for fear of losing my job, for shame for all the ways I was complicit in it, and for fear of stirring the pot. (This blog post is a great example of what rape culture is and how it works.)
Teaching to open the heart is an incredibly valuable and potentially revolutionary thing. But as teachers, studio directors, blog writers, and community members, we have to take responsibility for the blind trust, shame for trusting, and ensuing silence we may also be passing down to our student body. We all have stuff to deal with when we come to the mat, and if we are lucky, we will find our sunshine and flowers there: secure within the boundaries of accountability and free of the suffocating hold of shame and silence.