Surfing the Waves of Change on the Mat

Posted on in Healthy Living by Michelle Cordero

Is Your Yoga a Practice
or a Photo Shoot?


Afriend recently revealed that what keeps her from practicing yoga is how competitive it is. Surprised and a bit shocked, I started to consider the reality of yoga for some people today. I’ve been practicing yoga for 20 years and teaching for 15. I rode the yoga popularity wave as it came crashing onto shore, so I never had an opportunity to stand outside and wonder at all the new studios, styles, and cliques. When I started there were no cell phones, not to mention ubiquitous cameras, videos, and social media.

Imagine how we practiced in 1996: I call one friend and tell her I’m going to a yoga class. She cannot go, and I don’t have time to call anyone else, so I leave the house alone (my phone stays at home) and go to class. I have a blissful experience and leave transformed, smiling from the inside out. That’s the end. It’s not likely that I will come home and call one hundred or more friends to tell them about it.

Today you could tweet an invitation for everyone who follows you to come to class, then “check in” at the studio and take before and after Instagram photos. Depending on how provocative your photos are, you might be “talking” about them for weeks.

Clearly, times have changed, yet ideally we still come to the mat with curiosity, ready to find out what delicious concoction of breath, mind, body we have today. For those who haven’t already been drawn to yoga, I can understand how this era of Instagram yoga challenges and the barrage of sexy yoga pose photos would be a turnoff. Most people have grown up with a focus on “what’s wrong?” rather than “what’s right?” Our knee-jerk reaction to a beautiful yoga pose photo can be to compare ourselves and see only lack. The photos create a culture of comparison, which then feeds a competitive edge.

What if there were an equal amount of faceplanting, shy, scared, courageous media out there to compete with the sexy, pretzel-twisted, gravity-defying photos and videos? Rather than feel separate, we’d see that we are all more similar than we are different. I don’t know why many people record themselves practicing advanced yoga postures or enjoy Instagram photo challenges. It’s not something any part of me wishes to do, and it feels more appropriate to call what they are doing hand balancing or acrobatics than yoga. Still, my hope remains that no matter what brings you to the yoga mat, if you stay it is because you’ve discovered that yoga is far more than just a trendy exercise regimen.

Daily for 20 years now, I have practiced gracefully surfing change on my yoga mat. No amount of self-help and therapy prepared me better for my biggest adult challenges than my yoga practice. I now teach yoga philosophy and the Yoga Sutras in workshops and in two yoga teacher trainings. I am passionate about reminding new yogis of the real reason we practice. Personally, I practice because my life is fraught with constant change and transitions. Some I move through gracefully; others I go through kicking and screaming. The teachings of yoga are my life raft—they keep me floating on the stormy seas of change. When we can meet our challenges with curiosity and willingness to bend into uncomfortable shapes, we expand rather than contract. In my experience, there is no greater truth than feeling my breath and aliveness. No matter what transition or card of fate I’ve been dealt, when I stop to breathe I connect to my inner wisdom. Then I can rest in the seat of my intuition. The physical practice of yoga has health benefits galore, but the real treasures come from the selfstudy—svadhyaya in Sanskrit—and stilling of the mind toward meditation.

We humans are each so unique that the paths are many. If an Instagram challenge brings one more person to cultivate a yoga practice, I applaud it. Still, as yoga grows in popularity in the West, I’m unsure of where we are headed. Further, with the recent passing of Sri T. K. V. Desikachar, we’ve lost the last of our living modern yoga masters who studied with Krishnamacharya, the grandfather of modern yoga.

If the up-and-coming Western yoga teachers are more concerned with rock-star status, Instagram popularity, and teaching huge crowds than guiding the individuals in front of them, then we as a community are canoeing down the river without a paddle. I’ve been to Wanderlust to assist my teacher, Ana Forrest. I’ll never go back because to me it felt like doing yoga at a big outdoor party with beer kegs. I have no problem with parties, but the party I have on my yoga mat doesn’t include other people, alcohol, and loud music. My practice has taught me to be conscious and to feel, so why would I invite the opposite? Yoga is a tool for becoming more self-aware, not a hip new accoutrement or an identity. I practice because yoga makes me a better person, but the physical practice (hatha) is just one of my yogas. Because of hatha yoga, I’ve learned to connect to my heart and feel love for others as well as myself (bhakti yoga); I study the Yoga Sutras and ancient texts like the Bhagavad Gita (raja or jnana yoga) because they inspire me to make positive change in my life and in my community.

In the words of the late great Desikachar, “In yoga we are simply trying to create the conditions in which the mind becomes as useful as possible for our actions. This can only happen gradually—every shortcut is an illusion. It is a step-by-step process, one that includes a great number of techniques from which one must choose intelligently according to the individual need. Every person is different and has a unique set of life experiences. That is why there are so many suggestions for helping the student on the yoga path.”

Desikachar’s suggestions to help do not include rushing in late to class and then moving through a fast and hard power flow practice, barely catching your breath. The “shortcuts” of catching the perfect asana in a photo, wearing the right clothes, or balancing in handstand are the illusion. May we all cut through to what is real: feel your heart, embrace vulnerability, and risk being great at whatever you do. By great, I by no means imply perfect. I often tell my students that greatness can come from falling out of a yoga pose because you were trying something new.

Michelle Cordero, E-RYT500, RPYT, Certified Life Coach, Warrior Goddess Training Facilitator, and Forrest Yoga Guardian In Training, teaches yoga in Berkeley and Oakland.

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