Posted by: Joyce T | 19 March 2012

Clearing the Yogic Air

Today, I’m posting on yoga.

I need to vent about yoga in the US for a while.  I realize that the yoga universe is infinitely large and has space for everyone, and yet I need to vent a little bit of my frustration.  Mind you, these are just my frustrations with the asana limb, but it’s an important start.

I started to learn yoga overseas, in Italy to be specific.  The style of teaching and learning are very different in Europe than they are in the US.  I’m not at all certain it’s better for me here.  I can of course only speak for myself.

At a top level here are the things that frustrate me:

  1. US teachers talk too much – Yoga is supposed to be experiential.  It is difficult for me to focus on the experience and be present in my body if you do not stop talking.  A certain amount of talking is okay – but that’s for cuing and explaining.  There are two sets of talkers.  One set reads passages or tells stories as a way to distract us from the fact that we’re holding a pose for awhile.  Excuse me but distracting the mind is exactly the opposite of what we’re supposed to be doing in yoga.  The second set talks to tell me what I should be feeling and where, based on what they feel and where.  Thanks but this is my body and my experience.  With all due respect, I don’t care what you feel in your body. In silence is where the important things happen.  My master would occasionally teach classes in complete silence. Not a word was spoken.  Those were intense classes.
  2. US teachers are infatuated with surya namaskar (sun salutes.)  I spent more time in downward dog and the 3 warriors in my first year in the US than I ever did in all my years of yoga study in Europe.  What is the obsession with these poses in this country?  There are hundreds of poses and thousands of variations and yet I spend probably 70-90% of most classes in some variation of sun salutations.
  3. Floor poses are taught as relaxation poses.  The only pose where my Master in Italy ever had us “let go” was savasana at the end of class.  (This is the only pose that’s ever called by its Sanskrit name consistently in America – and I suspect that’s because the English name – corpse pose – creeps out too many Americans.  But that’s a different rant. ) What frustrates me is that when we get into many of the floor poses (seated and lying down), American instructors encourage me to let go, to let everything go and relax.  To be fair, I have found a lovely instructor now who constantly reminds us of sukha sthira – the notion of being gentle and soft yet steady and firm at the same time.  It seems that for some poses, the notion of sthira is not necessary.   I have challenged various teachers to do a class completely of floor poses (and not 90% standing poses) because the perception is they are not work.  Seated poses are actually rather challenging.  Which brings me to my next irritation –
  4. Yoga is all about standing poses and getting a good workout.  I expect this mentality in gyms. I don’t expect it in yoga studios. Nevertheless there it is.  The hardest classes I ever took were in Italy.  I emerged from classes soaked, with relaxed yet rubber-bandy muscles as I had given all I had.  And yet no one ever talked about “getting a workout.” It was just practicing vigorously on the mat.  These classes were framed for discussion on energetic levels and balance levels, not getting a workout. We were told to go to an aerobics class for that.
  5. Muscles and ligaments and tendons, oh my – In the US, classes seem to be focused on two things – opening the hips and opening the shoulders.  To be fair, this is largely a gym problem.  In yoga studios we get a little more energy-focused.  But in Europe, we had fire classes, water classes – classes for opening the heart chakra, classes that balanced digestive energy, classes that opened the ajna chakra, classes for the feet,  and so on – the focus was much more systemic, esoteric and interesting.  If I want to work on body mechanics, I’ll go to pilates thank you very much.  To be fair, the Iyengar types in Europe were very concerned with form. My Iyengar teacher in Italy would not tolerate any of the US classes I go to as there is a much greater tolerance of bad form.  If this were really not an issue, then books warning about the dangers of yoga done wrong would not be such controversial hits in the marketplace.  Americans want to do the full poses immediately! Completely!  It drives me crazy that I have a teacher that does reverse triangle most weeks within the first 15 minutes of class.  Really?  Keep in mind that most people in that class cannot touch their toes and still need blocks, so my issue is with the level. She does the pose so much because it’s one of her favorites! We certainly DID focus on form in Italy, but the focus was the spine, and it started with basics.  You had to be able to bend forward from the hips, not the waist, and that takes time and effort for most people. The spine is the center of everything in yoga, and yet I’ve only ever heard one teacher express this in the US.  That would be the same teacher who understands sukha sthira by the way.  She’s a keeper.

As I write these frustrations down, it occurs to me that this is truly a philosophical difference in approach between Europe and the US.  I realize I’m generalizing, but I do classes wherever I go, and I expected, living in the Bay Area to find an amazing community for yoga.  Instead, I am largely frustrated and disappointed. The focus is much less philosophical and holistic here. It’s much more compartmentalized here, which would be okay except many of the compartments seem to be neglected if anyone ever knew about them at all.

I suppose that is another thing that irritates me.  In Italy at least people tend to find a school and a program they like and then become students of that tradition. Also, people would not dream of becoming teachers after 2-3 years of yoga practice. My master had been teaching yoga for over 30 years – yes she was over 50 (she started in her teens) and always in the same school.  Here people tend to pull eclectic bits together, practice what they like and disregard what they don’t like or don’t understand.  They want to get a better understanding so they go through teacher training and then come out the other side prepared to teach downward dog and hip openers.  Sigh.  It’s not wrong, but the world of yoga could be so much deeper than this. I’ve found a couple of  good teachers and I believe if I keep searching, I’ll find others.  I can’t be the only one who wants to know yoga at this level.

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Responses

  1. […] Clearing the Yogic Air (joycet0514.wordpress.com) […]

    • What a great blog post! It’s hard to roll out the mat at home in the midst of the noise of family life – it’s much easier to go to the sacred space of the yoga studio to practice, but your points are great. Thanks for sharing. Namaste.


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