What I have learned these past 4 months during my yoga teacher training is that yoga is not only about the poses (asana in Sanskit). Yoga is a practice, and like other practices every day is different. The regularity of the practice varies from person to person. What you put into the practice is what you’ll get out of the practice. I am almost near the finish line of this yoga teacher training journey. I wish I could honestly say it was a good journey in that I am coming though it with a happier perspective, but instead I am coming through with a broader perspective and disillusionment.
Los Angeles has grown to be a yoga mecca outside of India. If you google the studios that have proliferated in the Los Angeles area in the past recent years you might see a concentration of studios have budded and matured mostly in the west side. It has grown into a glamorous industry far away from the grass roots yoga images and institutions from where it was birthed. There’s aerial yoga, water yoga, pre-natal yoga, maybe one day yoga flavored ice cream. There’s even a social justice motivated yoga where I studied for my training.
My earliest practical experience of yoga was in a Bikram studio in Vancouver. I really liked it, and practiced yoga regularly there and also here in Los Angeles. Then my practice became dormant while I explored other parts of myself with acting, writing and music. All these other traditions take time so yoga fell off my radar. To revitalize my interest in it I chose to enroll for 200 hour teacher training for myself, without any immediate intention to teach yoga. In my enthusiastic haste to embark on this project the studio I chose to study was the one closest to where I lived in South Central Los Angeles. The cost was reasonable compared to other places offering 200 hour teacher training and the schedule was workable for me.
The course material is Yoga Alliance approved which is what most students would like to do as it gives their training credibility should they choose to audition and teach at a studio. The 13 weekends spent with my fellow classmates covered material from the basic asanas, yoga history, anatomy, ayuvedric nutrition and the different styles of yoga (kundalini, Iyengar, hatha, vinyasa, etc.) There was one module on social justice which was a very difficult class because of the discussions that came up. The primary divisor between the students was the topic of race. The subtlety of yoga is that people are drawn to it for a variety of reasons, but most of what I learned is that people were drawn to yoga for its healing aspects. A professional doctor or therapist may have prescribed to “try yoga” to alleviate an injury from an accident or to help someone manage stress and depression.
What can happen in a yoga class for those unsuspecting of its deep tension releasing asanas and “breathing into that space” is it can bring up emotions related to trauma that has been buried in the tissues of the body. This can happen with deep stretch poses that opens up the hip area. This is the part of our anatomy where we carry the most weight of our traumas related to family and our relationships with others. It is the area of the first or root chakra, and also the second chakra (our creativity). During the eleventh week of our class, the module social justice started with a brief apology from the instructor for not having more people of color teach other modules. The reason was yoga is a new practice that have mostly been learned and taught by white culture.
There’s already an inherent risk in raising a differentiating factor by using a person’s color. What surprised me most was yoga does not differentiate in any form – not color, not age, not body type, not socio-economic reasons, not religion. Certainly yoga is not always affordable and someone curious or really intent on practicing yoga in a shared environment would need to dig to find “free yoga” or “yoga by donation”. They do exist, and there are more and more of these places available. Some students began to rattle names of people of color who are qualified to teach yoga. Then the instructor further explained that the experts she brought in offered their teaching and time for free.
I asked people in the class to clarify what “people of color” meant to them. I have my idea of what it means to me, but I wanted people to express and hear for themselves what they were thinking and saying. The answer most commonly said was that “people of color” meant not-white. When I looked at the ratio of the people that answered vehemently on describing the expression, my observation was they were also the people in the class who seemed to live in their vocabulary of woundology. It is a word created by Carolyn Myss (a medical intuitive, author of “Anatomy of the Spirit” and “Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can” http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/m/myss-heal.html).
“Woundology is the tendency to insistently hold on to old traumas. You define yourself by your hurts, not by your strengths, and there in those hurts you stay stuck forever.” – Source (Victor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy in Israel. He is the author of a book called “Man’s Search for Meaning”. He was a neurologist and psychiatrist and a holocaust survivor.)
Of the 14 students in the class there was only one non-person-of-color and I will call her Wendy. Wendy bravely spoke out on her views and feelings. I’ve observed her to be a sincere and loving person, and I knew where she was coming from when she said that she does not see people of color, because she sees people by their behavior. I get it when she said that. I am reminded of song by George Brassen called “Quand On Est Con”. The message of the song is when you’re a jerk you’re a jerk (When you were a zygote you were a jerk, and when you were a kid you were a jerk, and when you’re old, you’re still a jerk.) It’s funny and it’s not funny which makes it even funnier to me the way life is (and I’m probably the only one laughing.)
The responses towards Wendy included “well, if you don’t see people of color then you don’t really see me.” It went as far as the teacher admonishing to her that as white women it was their responsibility to teach others about this lack of awareness in society. I was taken aback by this landslide of peoples’ emotions and lack of discrimination between emotion and reason. What I saw was an alienation of someone who had been part of the group from the beginning that was coming to its end. The woman’s eyes welled with tears. I spoke up. I said “Wait. Whatever happened to personal choice? What about respecting peoples’ capacities? It’s my personal choice whether or not I turn on the TV. I don’t like it when people shove their beliefs and ideology down my throat. I came here to learn about yoga and not talk about politics.” Someone rebutted passionately with “Yoga is everything!” And that response made me see that there were many wounds in the midst of the students. I’m not immune to wounds. I’ve had snowballs thrown in my face as a dark skinned islander in the midst of a mostly white community in Northern Alberta. I’ve been beaten and called “chink” and “china man”. There are other wounds too, but I’m not going to bring them into a yoga teacher training environment. People came to this class for a different purpose.
I consulted privately with others in the class after that event. Some agreed that the topic should not have been brought up, especially to those unsuspecting. Racial discrimination issues in this city is not an easy topic and it should be facilitated with thought and finesse. One black student gently reproached me for standing up for a white woman. I thought hmm? I stood up for a human being – one of us who belongs in that class like anyone else. Wendy resolutely pressed on till the last class of the course. That class was spent at the beach. Near the end of the day as we packed our things I gladly ran to my motorcycle to put my things away and dress in my riding gear. As I walked back to the group for a group photo by the water’s edge I saw Wendy walking towards the parking lot. When I asked her what happened she tearfully said, “I’m so done with this class. I can’t even say anything without someone making a case of it.” She explained that she said she needed to get out of the sun soon, otherwise she would turn purple like an eggplant. One person in the class told her that it was a derogatory remark. I wasn’t there to hear this and watch whatever happened unfold, but the result it exactly the opposite of what yoga is supposed to mean – “Union”.
If you’ve tried yoga, a good teacher will begin the class by asking students of injuries or pain that need to be addressed, so that the teacher can offer a modification to a pose to make it gentler or simply to ask the student to refrain from doing a pose that could aggravate the injury. The point is to take care of oneself. So another characteristic I would add to yoga is self-reliance. We all have built in capacities for survival. Unfortunately, some of us may have been exposed to harmful environments that suppressed that natural instinct. I believe that yoga is a tool that can be used as a practice to learn self-reliance to give our mind, body and spirit the vitality to enjoy life. One of the virtues spoken in the bible of yoga “The Yoga Sutras” by Patanjali is ahimsa.
“Ahimsa is a multidimensional concept, inspired by the premise that all living beings have the spark of the divine spiritual energy; therefore, to hurt another being is to hurt oneself.” (source Wikepedia)
I am grateful for what I have learned in this journey to become a yoga teacher. Learning does have a price and over time I hope that everyone in my yoga teacher training class, will heal. The process will make us all better teachers. We can begin with practicing ahimsa.