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In Defense Of Yoga

Oops, I did it again. I’m having flashbacks to a couple of years ago when I expressed my opinion of a popular fitness ‘method’ on Twitter. It roused fiery criticism similar to what I’ve seen regarding my recent Facebook post. I commented on one of the latest trends to hit the yoga world called ButiYoga. Based on a 30 second sizzle real that depicted little more than LuLu Lemon sporting, bare midriff exposing, young, fit and Caucasian ladies gyrating and bouncing their hips I concluded that, while cute, it bared little semblance to what I have come to know as yoga over the past 17 years of practice and teaching. Cue the onslaught of criticisms and condemnations from the Buti world. In no uncertain terms, I was tagged as judgmental, insecure and hypocritical (since I myself can be seen on many DVD covers baring my midriff and ‘Sweating Sexy.’) I was told my chakras needed aligning and that I’m not yogic. While I refuse to engage in quick to fire, insidious battles on Facebook, I am happy to write non-reactive, contemplative and judicious blogs to lend my voice to thoughtful debate and meaningful discourse away from social media. This is what follows.

Please do not confuse my opinion of ButiYoga with judgment. I judge none of you for your practice or what joy, peace and freedom you find from Buti. Nor did I write any disparaging remarks about you, or ButiYoga’s creator, Bizzie Gold, personally. I expressed my beliefs merely out of a frustration with the proliferation of fad throughout both the fitness and yoga industries and the commoditization of an ancient tradition that no one can patent or brand. Bikram tried. It didn’t work. So did John Friend. His ‘system’ collapsed as it depended on a leader whose ego overshadowed the teachings. From my point of view, yoga – as it is outlined in scriptures such as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and the Bhaghavad Gita – is a systematic approach to personal and spiritual freedom and fulfillment. Out of 196 Sutras, only three discuss any physical practice as a means to achieve these.

I am not saying yoga defined by spiritual texts is the only way, or even the best way for people to find fulfillment and joy in their lives. My true fear is that as we slap the word ‘yoga’ on every new system, program, regime and concept developed by someone with some insight and creativity, we lose the ancient wisdom and teachings that only can be translated and transmitted from teacher to student. As these new ‘methods’ become more and more popular, less and less seem of us to be interested in a system that needs no improvement, but does demand a lifetime of study, dedication and commitment to personal practice. Proven methodologies and tools that can only be learned from masters of a tradition – not a book or a 200-hour teacher training. Ones that were not made up on some yoga mat or dance floor, but ‘seen’ by sages and swamis dedicated to the practice of spiritual enlightenment and freedom from the confines of the material world. By no means am I suggesting we need to hide out in caves and become renunciates to progress on our spiritual path. But we can – and should – learn from the wisdom of others who selflessly commit their lives to understanding the truth of Divinity and graciously share their understanding with others. Connection to a living lineage imbues one’s practice with grace and protection. There is a reason yoga, despite the Western’s worlds attempt to minimize and morph it to a physical workout or a new age spiritual tool, has lasted for thousands of years. Yes, the teachings may be ancient, but they are also timeless. Because Truth is timeless and needs no improving. Truth trumps trend. Always.

I’m curious to see if people will be practicing ButiYoga 1,000 years from now. Hell, I would like to see if people are still practicing 20 years from now. Tradition requires the test of time to be considered valid by a majority. If Buti lives on past the life of its creator, I will happily eat my words. I’m banking I’ll still be alive to see it fizzle.

I am also of the strong belief that a 200-hour training is simply not enough to send qualified yoga instructors out into the world. I’ll be the first to say, I shouldn’t have been teaching yoga as early as I was. I had no clue what I didn’t know. We don’t let lawyers or doctors loose after a few hundred hours of training. Maybe once we view yoga as the powerful and radical life-changing tool it is and not the exercise du jour, we’ll consider bumping up the requirements.

I do not believe yoga cannot evolve. With regards to the safety of asana, I am a firm believer that yoga should take some cues from the intelligent movement and physical therapy realm to create a more stable and strong practice. Namely because yoga was not created to help the physical body thrive. Thousands of years ago, the gentleman practicing asana were not really learned in the musculoskeletal system or how to stabilize joints. It’s one of the reasons we see a proliferation of students being hurt by current yoga classes. Yoga’s power and purpose reside in creating monumental shifts in the mind. Asana can be a tool, but those who created asana were not body masters – they were mind masters.

I’d also like to speak to the professed ‘kundalini awakenings’ women are claiming to have in class. This exemplifies the simplification of the spiritual teachings and the widespread misunderstanding of kundalini shakti that makes me cringe every time I see someone selling it. Rarely does a true kundalini awakening happen from some hip swivels, banging on the pelvic floor and contraction of the anus. That’s called aggrevation. True kundalini awakening requires a systematic and methodical approach – one best provided through the guidance of a learned and wise teacher who has dedicated his or her life to the teachings and can help their student properly channel awakened energy through the pathway of the spine. (Also known as sushumna.) While I will not deny many women may have likely had a sensual, profound and overwhelming energetic experience from ButiYoga, I would argue kundalini awakening is being confused with kundalini disturbance. My teacher once said something brilliant (he says a lot of brilliant things) – It’s not that She (kundalini shakti) is asleep – She’s already awake. She’s just waiting for you to become fit enough for her to reveal herself. And he didn’t mean physically fit.

On that note, many suggested that I am not supporting women or their empowerment and the rise of the Divine Feminine. Believe me, I hear you sisters. Loud and clear. Much of the turmoil and fear that currently exists in our country, and the world, is due to a blatant disregard of the Divine Feminine and her inherent beauty and power. Preach. However, let us not refuse our male counterparts in this awakening for She is not only found in women, but in men alike. She is the force and energy that gives and sustains all life. She is pervasive and all inclusive. We are adding fuel on a raging fire if we neglect to spread this message to a male audience. If you are interested in having a deep and meaningful understanding and connection to the Divine Feminine, I would guide you to someone like Sally Kempton or Uma Dinsmore-Tuli and their work. Both have dedicated their lives to the teachings of Yoga, Tantra and the brilliance and beauty of Her.

Moving on. When I asked what students of ButiYoga are doing #offthemat, I did not mean to insinuate that the women who attend and teach this class are shallow or only concerned with the shape of their bodies or appearance. Clearly many of you are empowered and thriving young women with a strong voice positively contributing to society. I was simply asking what kind of spiritual tools you possess and utilize outside of class? Meditation? Kriyas? Pranayama? Is there a dedicated personal practice outside of the group dynamic? Again, it is easy to fall into a disagreement based on differing ideas and definitions of yoga, so I’ll end it there.

I have studied and worked in the fitness, dance and yoga communities for twenty years. I’ve personally experienced how each discipline can enhance and support each other. There are principles of yoga I apply to fitness and dance, such as the breath, and vice versa. However, they all serve different functions. Fitness keeps my physical body strong and prepared for all life throws my way – whether that be a dance class or a hike or to sit comfortably in meditation for an extended period of time. Dance is my outlet for creative – and yes, at times, sexual, expression. Free movement and dance helps me communicate in a way I often find difficult with words. And yes, at times, it certainly connects me to a Divine experience. Yoga has made me a happier, stronger and more confident woman. Yoga has given me peace and clarity. Yoga has single handily changed my perspective of the world. Yoga guides every moment of every day of my life. But my fitness is fitness and my yoga is yoga. The two have very different aims. According to the Mundaka UpanishadBrahman is the target, Atma is the arrow and Aum is the bow. In other words, the sound of the all-pervading truth of creation (also known as pranava) is the means by which the self unites with the Divine. Not moving the body.

As for Bizzie – I’ve done as you all suggested and watched some of her videos. I really like her and love her message – especially the part about cultivating a coaching or teacher-student relationship sans co-dependence. The self help world needs more of that. I resonate with much of what she advocates. As a mother, an entrepreneur and woman, I respect the hell out of her. She’s beautiful and sassy. I bet I’d like her a lot. However, and I think this is the crux of where the misunderstanding lies, her message is directed at a very different audience than mine. I’ll estimate the median age of those who commented on my feed is 32. Her website states it loud and clear – she is the voice of a Millenial generation. Out of the many labels you can slap on me, Millenial is not one of them. Bizzie speaks to a population I don’t relate to. An age group that writes paragraphs and novels on Facebook and converses in emojis and acronyms. One that is used to the immediacy of texting and constant communication. A population that relies on the interaction social media offers and uses it as a huge platform to congregate and unite. For me, it’s just not that deep. While I use social media for marketing and creating a brand and a voice, I tend not to put a lot of stock in its activity. Even my own comments. I guess that makes me officially old.

All this being said, I’d be happy to take a Buti class. Hell, I may even enjoy it and have some sort of transcendent experience. But I’m pretty sure I will still walk out of the room reluctant to call it yoga.

I feel no need to respond to all the personal criticisms hurled at me. Fire away. I’ve had my own path, and just like Bizzie has said of her life, my own struggles and demons to overcome. I’m proud of the person I’ve become and have the utmost faith and trust in my work and what I teach. We all may be a little guilty of hurling karmic arrows.

I do not apologize for my opinion, but I do apologize if anyone feels personally offended by it. I still am hopeful that after the dust has settled we can all look at each other with love and a smile and agree to disagree. Even better, I’d welcome a public discussion with Bizzie and maybe we can help our individual generations understand each other with a little more compassion.

I hope some of what I have written addresses the reason for my FB comment and appropriately responds to some of your reactions. At the end of the day, I consent with one observation on that thread – it’s all yoga. Every disagreement, every opinion – every moment of every day. If we are willing to look at each and every circumstance in our life as an opportunity to grow and find more peace, joy and contentment in our own hearts, then we are living life on the path of yoga.

Hari Om.

Oil Meltdown

Lest you think it’s all fun and games here at Somatheeram Ayurvedic Spa in India, allow me to tell today’s tale.

My day started quite lovely. After three meals consisting of little more than rice gruel, I was able to eat enough veggies last night to feel somewhat nourished this morning. I awoke before 6am, got dressed and attempted to chant along with my morning prayers. While the words are still a mosh of jumbled Hindi, I found myself humming the tune throughout the day. I’m on the right track.

I practiced some self-massage with my Yoga Tune Up balls followed by some asana. It felt good to move my body after 24 hours of having barely enough energy to put one foot in front of the other.

At 7am I attended a pranayama and meditation session. I was happy to join along with some of the chanting including Gayatri, one of my faves. (Yes, I’ve become one of those yogis who randomly hums mantras throughout the day. Annoying to some, I find it rather soothing. A reminder of my connection to something greater than myself.) If they ever create a mantra greatest hits album, Gayatri should be on it. While I prefer my melodic version over the teacher’s, the meaning and soul of the mantra remained in my heart as I floated back to my room for my personal meditation.

I emerged at about 8:45am for breakfast, one of my favorite times of the day. Mostly because I get some protein in the form of egg whites. Apparently it’s only the yolks that are potentially toxic on an Ayurvedic cleanse so, much to my dismay, I’ve made the concession to eliminate them. I even decided to back off of my coffee intake taking only a small cup of the resort’s brewed coffee, which tastes like water. Up until now I’ve relied on my one-a-day Starbucks Via which is more akin to rocket fuel. And then there’s daily papaya. That just makes me happy.

After an hour or so on the computer for necessary travel arrangements, blog posts and requisite social media posts to advertise posts, I notice myself getting sucked into the irretrievable void that is the Internet. I forcefully cut myself off and bounce myself to the beach. I’m finding improved habits at every turn as I slather SPF 35 all over my body and 50 on my face! Did I mention I think I’m getting wiser with age?

I took a walk on the beach and did some strengthening exercises for my hips and booty. While I’m fine with my decreased exercise regime here in India, what I’m not okay with is a bum knee and low back. When I don’t do squats, lunges and other exercises prescribed by my physical therapist, these areas pay the price. I tired easily and feel my body not as strong as when I left. I’m okay with that, truly. But I don’t want to be in pain.

I braved the pull of the tide and cut through shallow waves to eventually swim out to somewhat calmer waters. I enjoyed a few sets of strokes back and forth, but my intuition told me it was a little too rough to swim with abandon, so I heed caution and paddle into shore… with a suit full of sand thanks to my first failed ocean entry attempt .

I followed this with a little more exercise and yoga. I’ve become quite fond of doing Pilates on my beach chair in addition to yoga and pranayama. A short meditation and chanting brought me to lunch. I’m delighted by fresh veggies and fish and am accompanied by a wonderful book by my grand teacher Pandit Rajmani Tigunait called The Power Of Mantra and The Mystery Of Initiation.

After digesting a bit, I read a little more and rested for my 4 o’clock treatment, pleased by my day and just tired enough to thoroughly look forward to my daily oil rubdown and whatever else was in store for me. The “whatever else” abruptly put an end to my sweet, idyllic day.

The treatment started dreamy as not one, but two, therapists massaged me with what else? A liberal dose of oil. Unfortunately that was the last bit of bliss to be found in the next two hours. My main therapist, Sulu, who I’ve come to adore, directed me to sit up on the wood table as both women continuously poured hot thick oil all over my body. They repeated this process for what seemed like forever – on my back, on both sides. I sloshed around in large pools of oil. When Sulu would abruptly tell me to flip over, I would slip and slide like a fish flopping when pulled from its natural habitat. Keep in mind it is 95* outside so while I may have welcomed the treatment on a wintry day in NYC, in this heat and humidity, it felt suffocating.

The room felt so stifling I had to sit outside. The barely existent breeze dropped the temperature by a degree. I found little relief. Next thing I knew there was a large metal instrument against my ear blowing “medicated” smoke. Apparently to clean out my ear canal. Not convinced of this method. It seemed toxic to me, but I trust these Ayurvedic peeps know what they’re doing. The procedure itself was relatively harmless, however I was silently suffering from heat exhaustion.

Just when I thought it was safe to breathe, I was thrown back on the table for a traditional Shirodhara treatment. I usually love some hot oil poured over my forehead for 30 minutes but after the events of the past 40 minutes, I was certain I would spontaneously combust.

The remaining treatments ensured every other orifice in my body other than my mouth (we covered that one the other night) had something put in it. Yes, EVERY orifice. Except the one that men don’t have. But I hear there is a treatment for that too. It was a little unsettling to say the least.

I slid back to my room feeling woozy and slightly traumatized. Despite several attempts with different shampoos, I’m pretty sure I’ll never get all of this oil out of my hair. (Jamie Boone, you’ll have your work cut out for you when I return to Los Angeles!) I spent a restless night sweating and woke at 3am to take a cool-ish shower. I greeted the morning weary and dehydrated.

I suppose this takes some getting used to. I forget that I am purifying my body of toxins – physical, mental and emotional – on a deep level and that’s no joyride. I also had the thought that the rough ending to my day was possibly payback for my flat tummy pride from the previous post. Karma certainly can be a bitch. Rest assured, I had no ego left this morning.

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