celebrity teachers


Last month, I stumbled upon a yoga presentation by Patricia Walden on her 60th birthday. Wow. Her backbends are awesome and need no comment. But it got me thinking about yoga videos, performances, and “demonstrations.”

Bear in mind, I’m talking not about instructional videos. I’m focusing on displays done silently or, more likely, accompanied by music. Some are professionally shot, such as the Briohny Smyth video for Equinox that went viral. Most are self-shot videos posted on websites, on Facebook, on YouTube–followed by lots of likes and “you go, girl!” type comments.

DSC_0315What is the point of yoga displays? To inspire? To share? To instruct without instructions? To advertise? To embrace the new media age? To claim a few Warholian minutes of fame?

I’m not against such videos as a rule, but I wonder if and how they sync with yoga philosophy. How is showcasing oneself congruent with loss of ego? Instructional videos are one thing, but pure performance?

That said, I was unbothered by Patricia Walden’s backbend show (and the ensuing video), perhaps because it was done for a reason, her birthday celebration. Or perhaps because the grainy video was obviously not uploaded for fame or an ego boost. (As a senior-level teacher, among BKS Iyengar’s foremost students, already world famous through her Gaiam videos and long career, she doesn’t need to promote herself.)

Generally, yoga videos are uncommon among Iyengar yogis, who tend to be less “out there” in the way they practice. Once, I complimented Yves, an Iyengar yoga teacher based in Austin, on the elegantly shot portraits on his website. He thanked me almost apologetically, mentioning the need to do some Internet publicity nowadays. I could relate to his dilemma. Creating an Internet presence is expected, but it can feel awkward and showy.

DSC_0317_2Actually, BKS Iyengar himself was a big proponent of the yoga “demonstration.” In his day, yoga was esoteric and he performed in Europe and elsewhere to introduce the practice to non-yogis. Then and now, people are generally first drawn to yoga by its physical feats.

Maybe, simply by seeing a pose, people learn. After all, a good visual can be more effective than words to guide one into a pose. Watching BKS Iyengar practicing (at any age) and Patricia Walden dropping back (and standing up) changes us, doesn’t it?

DSC_0304Perhaps my reaction to yoga performances depends on the practitioner’s attitude (or my perception of their attitude). A few years ago, I taught at a general studio (mostly power/flow yoga); I was the only Iyengar yoga teacher there. When leaving, I’d sometimes see the next teacher doing handstands in the middle of the room before starting his class. It was a large drop-in class of casual students not ready for handstand balance. Why demonstrate a pose you’re not teaching? What was the point of that pre-class performance?

It is a tricky subject. I know serious, deep practitioners who have also performed yoga in a dance troupe. I also know professional dancers who prefer to keep their dance (public/outward) separate from their yoga (private/inward). What about yoga competitions? While much criticized as antithetical to the crux of yoga philosophy, proponents say that being judged onstage motivates them to dig deeper and to develop courage, poise, and other positive traits

I have one general conclusion: We cannot let ourselves get too fixated on asana, the bodily aspect of yoga.  Asana was my introduction to yoga and I love it! But a video or photo or demo cannot quite capture the invisible aspects of yoga.

Light on YogaA friend recently tried a few classes at one of Vancouver’s large, multi-branch yoga studios. While her main practice is Iyengar yoga, she was curious to see what else is out there. She found teaching quality quite variable, and she was amazed at the hordes of students.

“How big are the classes?” I asked.

“At least 30, maybe 40,” she said. “And when we exit the room, the line-up for the next class is just as long!”

I wasn’t surprised. In my own explorations, I’ve attended classes with 60+ students at large studios. Considering probable attrition rates, these studios must constantly attract scads of newbies.

Iyengar yoga, despite its worldwide influence, is comparatively slow-growing. Certainly, established Iyengar yoga teachers, especially those on the workshop circuit, can draw crowds. But most local teachers rarely see 30+ students lined up for class week after week. (I’m not advocating large classes. I’m just looking at popularity, demand, and box office.)

Why doesn’t Iyengar yoga attract the masses?

A few observations:

  • “Not a workout” One of my students commented that her friends wouldn’t choose Iyengar yoga because it’s “not a workout.” Nowadays yoga is considered exercise, the sweatier, the better. While Iyengar yoga is strenuous (10-minute headstands followed by a million variations!) and encompasses very demanding poses (see Light on Yoga), classes are not usually taught in a fast-paced, aerobic manner.
  • Conceptual learning Iyengar yoga instruction focuses on conceptual learning. Students learn “actions” that apply to the pose being studied, to other poses, and to overall posture. Home practice is somewhat assumed. In class, a student might wish to repeat a pose (“I’m not done with it yet!”) instead of moving on. But the teacher is leading the class elsewhere–and it’s up to the student to flesh out the concept independently at home.
  • Readiness I met a young woman who did Iyengar yoga six years ago and then tried a “hatha” class at her city college. Back then, she embraced the freer, less-strict approach and even completed a yoga teacher-training program at the college. Recently, however, she began to appreciate her former Iyengar yoga teacher’s words–and she’s back to studying Iyengar yoga. One must be “ready” for the discipline of this method.
  • Time commitment Iyengar yoga classes are typically 1.5 to 2 hours long. Drop-ins are allowed, but eventually commitment (to a series/session) is expected. Sessions are akin to those in school: 10 to 14 weeks long, which might seem like forever to casual students who prefer random attendance in a variety of classes.
  • Light on LifeMoney commitment Paying for a per-class series/session inevitably costs more than for a pass allowing “unlimited” classes. If attending three or more classes weekly (class = practice), it’s very economical to buy an unlimited monthly pass for $100. Such passes are atypical in Iyengar yoga.
  • Luxurious setting For some, a luxurious spa setting, including such amenities as saunas and lounges, is appealing. In contrast, I’ve seen fantastically airy, spacious Iyengar yoga studios, but nothing resembling a spa. (Note: My formative yoga experience, which I loved, took place in an unheated basketball court at the UC Berkeley rec centre. While that’s too bare-bones for me now, I might always prefer simpler spaces.)
  • Demographics I know I’m generalizing, but at large studios, most students are youngish and relatively fit. In contrast, a typical Iyengar yoga class includes a wider range of fitness levels and ages. Does the average 20-something seek the company of other 20-somethings? Do they flock to particular venues because their peers do? I know teens who once accompanied Mom to Iyengar yoga classes, but switch to hot yoga to join their friends.
  • Levels Is Iyengar yoga “hard” or “easy”? (Egads, such divergent opinions!) Actually, Iyengar yoga can go either way: Teachers can safely accommodate (and make yoga “easier” for) those with limits–and rigorously guide (and make poses “harder” for) those with agile bodies. If people understand how individualized the Iyengar approach is, there might be fewer misconceptions.
  • “Spiritual vibe” Some teachers read quotes and talk “yoga talk”–and those craving a “spiritual vibe” just lap it up! They probably won’t find such a vibe in Iyengar yoga classes, which might initially seem “technical” and not very spiritual. Especially in beginner classes, teachers generally don’t discuss the sutras or philosophy; they also don’t say things like “melt your heart” or “you are beautiful.” Students have to stick around to discover real spirituality.

For Iyengar yoga to attract the masses, must it change? Maybe. Should it?

Once, I had a student who regularly attended my classes for a year. She then thanked me, but admitted that she missed “flow” yoga. My first reaction: I could have taught her class more dynamic sequences; after all, in my own practice I do sun salutations almost daily! But I later concluded that I should never teach according to what students want. I must teach what’s best for them. In her case, occasional flowing sequences were appropriate, but she needed to work on fundamentals at least half the time.

Likewise, any change to the Iyengar method should be done because it’s effective, not because it’s a selling point.

Vancouver’s indie Book Warehouse is closing its West Broadway location (sigh). All stock is discounted 25%. I was tempted by 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die*, a 960-page reference edited by Peter Boxall, English professor, University of Sussex. But the sheer number put me off.

It’s probably impossible to read all 1,001 selections, but I crunched the numbers anyway. If I read 25 books a year, it would take 40 years. If I rack up a staggering 50 books a year, it would take 20 years. Actually, popular blogger Steve Pavlina made a compelling argument for this very goal, Read a Book a Week.

A book a month is already challenging. A book a week? What a feat!

Is that a worthy goal? My literary knowledge would be broad and varied. I could make smalltalk about virtually every notable writer. But speed reading is not my thing. I prefer to savor good fiction. Plus I need “digesting time” after finishing a book.

To read selected works by hundreds of authors also runs counter to another half-baked goal of mine: to read every work by a chosen writer. Reading one author’s entire body of work would narrow, but deepen, my knowledge. I’d become somewhat of an expert on that author. I’d have a “relationship” with that author.

So many yoga teachers, so little time

I’m reminded of a yoga friend’s recent remark about attending workshops with visiting teachers. She skipped the last workshop with senior Iyengar teacher Gabriella Giubilaro because she plans to attend other workshops this year. “They’re all good,” she said, “but how many teachers do I need to study with anyway?”

I agree that too many workshops can lead to information overload. If I need to digest a book, I likewise must assimilate lessons from a workshop. That means repeating the poses, sequences, and ideas—and that takes time.

Of course, it’s hard to resist the draw of an established teacher. Sometimes I already know that the teaching resonates with me. Other times, I’m just curious, based on the teacher’s writing or reputation. Exposure to another face/body/voice can jolt me to attention, and I enjoy the multi-day immersion.

Famous teachers have no trouble filling up their on-the-road workshops. After all, it’s become de rigueur to study with lots of big-name teachers. Teacher bios sometimes border on the absurd, as I wrote about in Naming names.

But there’s a big difference between attending 25 workshops with 25 different teachers and 25 with the same teacher. Can I truly understand a teacher’s teachings in one or two encounters? Do his or her teachings stand the test of time?

Both variety and continuity are valuable. We must experience broadly, otherwise we have no context, only tunnel vision. But eventually, delving deeply, with authors and with yoga teachers, might take us further.

All that said, I’m still eyeing 1001 Books

Image: Gingerbread yogis, Randomization (cookies and cookie cutters from Baked Ideas)

*This book is part of a 1001 Before You Die series.

Big press and little press

Fast becoming the muckraker of yoga, William Broad has written another controversial New York Times article: “Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here” (February 27, 2012) posits that it’s no surprise that yoga produces “so many philanderers”—and that “scientific” research shows heightened sexual response from hatha yoga. (See responses from it’s all yoga, babyYogaDork, and Leslie Kaminoff.)

The same day that article was published, I read a few back issues of the Iyengar Yoga Centre of Victoria newsletter that I’d recently acquired. A slim, homemade-looking pamphlet back then, the newsletter impressed me with timeless content, including exclusive interviews with BKS Iyengar and wise essays by Shirley Daventry French.

Prashant Iyengar on yogasana’s effects

The July/August 1997 issue contained a piece by Prashant Iyengar on how yogasana affects not only one’s physical state, but also one’s psychological and physiological states (and beyond). He gives an example using brahmacharya, explaining that one might avoid overindulgence but that “[i]nvoluntary desires may be tainting us from within.” If trying to follow an moral code, asana can help calm the pineal and pituitary glands, thus “quieting the physiology behind sex.”

In Iyengar yoga, poses affect our bodies and minds in particular ways. We can either rev up or tamp down our energy, including sexual energy. This differs from Broad’s generalization that yoga primarily enhances sexual desire.

Further, Broad implies that doing random yoga classes can markedly affect our physiology. Change does not come easily. It’s tough enough to loosen tight muscles, much less change the workings of inner organs. Would Viagra be a zillion-dollar industry if a round of deep breathing cured sexual dysfunction?

In contrast, Prashant states that asanas must be “done with a sensitive diligence, to experience their depth.” What an understatement!

Power of the pen

Reading Prashant’s and Broad’s articles on the same day, I was struck by the difference between a yogi’s perspective and a journalist’s. I admit that I somewhat empathize with Broad because I, too, am a journalist. On one hand, I believe that a good investigative journalist can do justice to any subject, regardless of personal expertise. On the other, it’s exasperating to read a non-yogi’s statements on yoga.

Actually Broad took up yoga in 1970 (!). But listen to this February 8 CBC radio interview, in which he admits that he sustained his first yoga injury in 2007 in an “advanced” class:

“…. There were a lot of beautiful ladies around, stretching and bending themselves into all kinds of great shapes. I had a gorgeous partner with me. And I was, you know, feeling pretty good. I was strutting. I was talking to her. I was bending way over, and—ouch!—my lower back went out….

What the—?

Don’t get me wrong. Watching his February 9 video interview with Roseanne Harvey, Broad comes across as likable enough. I’d argue against some of his conclusions, but he probably means well—and, as a journalist, he needs catchy hooks for his articles. But why is he becoming the yoga source?

The Times and other mass media have a huge footprint. The Victoria newsletter and scads of blogs, even well-trafficked ones, have a limited audience. Alas.

On choosing well

I haven’t even touched on the John Friend revelations. But my conclusion regarding mainstream yoga coverage applies to my thoughts on his behavior (and especially on the behavior of his followers):

Are you choosing well? This goes for yoga teachers and trusted allies, reading matter and beliefs, thoughts and actions.

There’s a sea of choices out there. It’s up to us to choose well.

Images: newspapers, Apartment Therapy; Vitruvian Man, Wikipedia; Pololu Valley, Hawaii, YogaSpy.

Last month I acquired a couple of Yoga Journal magazines from the late 1980s and early 1990s. What a revelation! I’m familiar with the magazine, having subscribed on and off (mostly on) since the late 1990s. But what a difference two decades can make.

So impressive were the back issues that I found limited archives online at Yoga Journal on Google Books. Here are my observations, albeit from a third-person point of view:

Personal transformation

Back then yoga was less about fitness and more about transforming one’s mindset. YJ readers were seeking a mind-blowing, life-changing experience. They wanted to uproot their whole way of being—away from convention and banality. Today, most yoga practitioners, even serious ones, aren’t trying to overhaul their lifestyles, but to reduce stress, to tone the body, to still the mind. Mainstream yoga is more popular now because it’s more approachable, less of a leap. Of course, true transformation remains as slippery as ever.

While yoga was the focus, there was ample coverage of other disciplines, including tai chi, aikido, Buddhism, Taoism, and psychology/psychiatry (particularly Jung-based exploration of the unconscious). The common thread was profound awakening. As an Iyengar practitioner, I noticed that Iyengar yoga was prominent, probably partly because BKS Iyengar was still actively teaching worldwide.

Timeless writing

Feature articles back then were satisfyingly lengthy and thorough. Reading them forced me to think. The content remains valid and fascinating. I read interviews and profiles featuring genuine scholars such as Joseph Campbell, Joan Borysenko, Charles Tart, Emilie Conrad-Da’oud, Jean Klein, and Stanislav Grof, names new to me.

The asana teachings still ring true. What a treat to read Elise Browning Miller‘s primer on her specialty, scoliosis (May/Jun 1990), or Donald Moyer‘s inimitable insights on Marichyasana I (Nov/Dec 1987) and Salabhasana (Sep/Oct 1989). Perhaps the coverage is deep because the magazine was run by people such as Stephan Bodian, an editor in chief who is an ordained Zen monk and an Advaita Vedanta scholar.

Don’t get me wrong: I regard today’s YJ (especially the writings of Sally Kempton and Roger Cole) highly enough to subscribe. But it lacks its former gravitas. In 10 years will anyone care to read the September 2011 music issue’s mini interviews with Alanis or Moby or the guys from Maroon 5? (No offense.) Further, the book reviews were actually critical. Nowadays, unless you’re dealing with the New York Times and Ms Kakutani, scoring a review generally guarantees either praise or summary. What’s the point?!

Fringe element

Yoga wasn’t trendy and ubiquitous in the 1980s and prior. Practitioners and YJ readers (judging by the letters to the editor) possessed an exploratory, eccentric bent. With the Beat Generation and the revolutionary Sixties still driving American culture, yoga had a streak of radicalism. Today, it’s more rebellious not to do yoga than to do it!

The juxtaposition between serious study and the far-out fringe element quite amused me. Magazine ads offered futuristic contraptions to alter consciousness; an article bio might read, “… is a writer, ritualist, and hypnotherapist…” I’m not particularly New Agey myself and can’t help regarding ESP, channeling, astrology, etc, with skepticism. But the kooky dimensions don’t detract from the whole—rather, they only emphasize the era’s quest for alternate, higher consciousness, whatever the means.

That said, asana was also a highlight, classily illustrated in pictorial calendars and the occasional magazine cover (see Angela Farmer‘s silhouette above). But most covers featured a portrait of a leading thinker; only in the 2000s did the lithe female “cover model” become standard.

Yogic pioneers

Reading the old YJs was rather a humbling experience. Those who did yoga before the 1990s were pioneers. While we respectfully honor the giants, such as T Krishnamacharya and his successors, we must also acknowledge prior generations of less-famous (or anonymous) yogis. I consider myself a fairly serious student, but let’s face it: I’m a yoga child of the late 1990s and 2000s, swept up with the tide. Those pioneers were the real deal, and they trod a distinct path for us to follow.

Images from top to bottom: Nov/Dec 1988, Nov/Dec 1987, Apr 1982.

The September 2011 issue of Yoga Journal is “the music issue.” It contains a home practice sequence synced with an MC Yogi playlist, interviews with musicians who do yoga, and a look at the kirtan spectacle in America. The online magazine offers Funky Love Songs, “some of the grooviest, most genre-bending forms of mantra music in the yoga world.”

Should we care what Alanis Morissette (cover model), Bonnie Raitt, Moby, Ziggy Marley, and Maroon 5 band members say about yoga? Well, I’m a willing listener of stories and opinions (on yoga, on whatever)—if someone has something to say.

I wrote about doing asana to music in The trouble with mixing yoga and music: Part I (featured in WordPress’s Freshly Pressed and by far my most-viewed post) and Part II. Nothing much to add; I said my piece then.

But I want to share a video of Maty Ezraty, interviewed by Michelle Myhre of Devil Wears Prana, on being a “good” teacher versus being a “popular” teacher. When asked about authenticity and teaching real yoga, she advised against trying to please students just to be popular. At one point (1:30 minutes in), she suggested not playing music in classes:

“… [W]hen the music is on, [the] mind identifies with the music and it doesn’t really go in. You don’t really listen to what’s going in there. It’s not very pleasant always to listen to what’s going on in there, but that’s the yoga: dealing with it, seeing it, to get free of it.”

Maty’s straightforward, clear ideas (and easy smile and laugh) impressed me.  I don’t know her but I’ve long recognized her name and face. She studied directly with Pattabhi Jois (and initially with BKS Iyengar) from her early 20s and founded original YogaWorks studio in Los Angeles, although since selling the company in 2005, it’s become the Starbucks of teacher training. She mentored many celebrity, conference-circuit teachers, including Seane Corn, Shiva Rea, Kathryn Budig, and Natasha Rizopoulos. Considering her influence, she keeps a relatively low profile in the yoga “scene” and I respect her for that. When she and her partner Chuck Miller moved to the Big Island of Hawai‘i, I was somewhat intrigued because it’s my home island and my beat for Lonely Planet.

The clip is the second of a two-part interview worth watching. In Part I, she talks about her mentors, about today’s overemphasis on asana and the physical part of yoga, and more.

When I first saw ads for the Three Minute Egg in Yoga Journal, I hardly glanced at them. I already have my favorite propsand the colorful foam “eggs” seemed gimmicky. But the ads kept appearing. One featured “signature eggs”—featuring well-known teachers Annie Carpenter, Jason Crandell, Aadil Palkhivala (who, like Cher, signed only his first name), and Joan White—which rubbed me the wrong way: I see too many yoga celebrities and yoga fans already.

I was curious nevertheless and Googled the company. I read about the indie founder, whose personal tale about the egg’s origin is quite impressive. I observed the egg’s uses as an alternate to traditional blocks (“think outside the blocks”) and now wonder if they are worth a try.

  • For standing poses such as Trikonasana, they’re less stable but might shift body weight away from the bottom arm into the legs.
  • For Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, they could raise the base of the palm,  alleviating any pain from overflexing the wrists.
  • For restorative poses, they seem to nestle into natural spinal curves, though I actually like the sharp edges of a block under my shoulder blades or sacrum.
  • For arm balances, they’d force one to balance both internally and externally. If one can balance on the eggs, balancing on solid ground would be a cinch! I’ve used this approach at the gym, doing standing balance poses on a upside-down Bosu.

But I’m just conjecturing. I won’t be trying them anytime soon. Having recently acquired a pile of new props, including cork blocks from Halfmoon and solid cedar blocks from a woodworker in Vancouver, I’m under a prop-buying moratorium.

Besides, I’m still doing my research. Have you tried the Three Minute Egg?

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