In my disenchantment with the messaging in modern yoga, I turned back to studying to reinvigorate my work. I remember the magic of yoga teacher training – the combination of excitement, inspiration, diving deep into philosophy, and so much more. Nose in the books, feet on the mat, and sweating and exhaling all of the layers of tension I had held on to regularly. Years later, it’s been a while since I have felt the depth and resonation of the power of yoga like I did back then. Cultivating this liveliness, this inspiration, takes work. Diving into yoga theories such as samsara and duhkha (suffering and its cyclic return) can be a downer in this “good vibes only” hyped culture. Admittedly, some books have been discouraging. The state of mainstream yoga businesses vs. yoga philosophy seem worlds apart. Some books are all flash and no substance. However, there have been a few true gems and one that I have been living in recently is Michael Stone’s The Inner Tradition of Yoga. It is a rich and beautifully simple guide to yoga philosophy and a must-read for all modern yoga teachers. In the beginning, Stone discusses his yoga practice coming to a head, having bigger questions arise for him, and this hit so close to home for me. This is exactly where I’ve been.
“After several years of consistent practice, I found that a gap emerged between the theory I was studying and the posture technique, breathing, and meditation I was practicing, so I began asking questions. The first questions were broad questions about how texts related to one another and why certain practices, such as the contemporary yoga sequences commonly found in yoga studios, were not represented in ancient texts. From there the questions became more personal, and related to the absence of psychological understanding in yoga communities and the vanity that comes from a superficial practice. I realized that one might maintain a superficial practice even after many years. As I began questioning what I was practicing, I felt that everything I knew and all the practices I had been working on were slowly beginning to slip away. The questions led first to doubt and then to a state of not knowing why I was practicing or what practice actually was. I saw around me people accomplishing great feats of flexibility and wonderful posture practice, but I saw also that those practices did not guarantee a commensurate opening of the heart. Perfection in yoga poses did not guarantee psychological or spiritual insight.” (p. 16)
Later in the book, Stone goes on to reiterate the importance of yoga as a “living tradition” and emphasizes that “…it is important to study, practice, and continually wrestle with the basic teachings offered by teachers and texts. Without committed practice and critical engagement with the tradition, yoga becomes something of only antiquarian interest.” (p. 33) How can we as teachers expect our students to dive into the heart of practice, and create space for true growth and joy, if we are not carrying the substance of yoga into our ever-changing modern world? Just as our own personal practice is work, so too is translating yoga philosophy into something meaningful for yogis today. Doing this without appropriation, without watering down what we so desperately need from the ancient beliefs, is the biggest challenge. When we are immersed in fast-paced social media culture, one of the last things “We” want is anything ancient, anything slow, anything difficult. We need true yoga now more than ever. It sounds cliché, but in the age of connectedness, we truly are more disconnected than ever – from ourselves, other people, and the world. One yoga class may be based on the same feed of information and inspiration, homogenizing teaching styles and offerings. I aim to spend the remainder of this year truly trying to slow down, feel the pages of my books between my fingers, soak in the slowness of studying to learn and to create, and taking time to bind philosophy to our crazy beautiful modern life.