Sunday, December 11, 2011

cult of personality

When Yoga Journal published it's 35th Anniversary issue in 2010, the online gallery of covers provided a unique view of modern, popular yoga in America dating back to 1975. It was cool to see those early issues with their varied and sometimes esoteric articles, but I was struck by a marked change in YJ's look and approach in 1999 when the new normal for their cover art became photos of pretty people in striking asanas (February), and when the subhead of "For Health and Conscious Living" began to disappear (November). I'm not here to critique Yoga Journal or publishing. However I'm troubled by this shift, primarily because I think yoga's benefits are for all people, and this prettying up and cookie-cuttering acts as a barrier (unintentionally so, I'm sure) to someone who may not fit into this published ideal. But more than this, I fear this is one of the things leading to the birth of the yoga superstar, and the beginning of an industry that has fame and money as its driving forces.
 does yoga need a persona?

Whenever something is new, it's comforting to have a guide. Having someone familiar  with the twists and turns, pitfalls, and complicated terrain that await you allows you to step into uncharted territory without overblown fears or unrealistic expectations. In yoga it's helpful if you can relate to the guide, your teacher, in some way. If you can see something in him that reminds you of yourself, then you're more likely to show up again. At first you'll be drawn to the teacher more than to the practice, and you will see what he is offering and him as one in the same. When the practice moves you or frees you, you will give the credit to your teacher, rather than to the practice. This reveals itself most strikingly when your teacher is away and there is a substitute with whom you're unacquainted. Rather than going to class you will choose to skip it and wait for your teacher's return.

At some point this will shift, and who is offering the class will become less important than what is being offered. This is normal. All of our relationships begin with being drawn to charisma and personality, and neither is not a bad thing. It's not possible for a teacher to completely remove his personality from his teaching. That would be unfortunate. Really great teachers can be themselves, share their passion for yoga, and create the space for their students to move and free themselves. Those teachers recognize that they are merely the conduit through which the teachings flow. Those teachers are less interested in being recognized or known or famous or photographed. Those teachers - and maybe this is just a romantic fantasy - practice, study, and share without any consideration paid to the outcome beyond the basic goal of deepening consciousness and freeing the spirit. Of course those teachers are able to bring the teachings to life and inspire others because of their personality. They have a dynamic spark that keeps their interpretation of the practice alive. Things get complicated when personality and the desires of persona supersede the teachings.

Persona is necessary for our human selves to make it in the world. It isn't easy to exist without the safety of our masks, but yoga is a mask-free zone. Yoga is the experience of all the masks and costumes dropping away to reveal the common truth within all beings. When your guide leads you down a challenging path or up a steep trail they lead by example, showing you where to step and what hand-holds will provide you the firm footing  and steady grip you need. Hopefully your yoga teacher provides you with the same service, showing you over time how to drop your masks so you can reveal witness your Divine Self. With a little humility your teacher will show you, even with a mask is still in place, how to avoid feeding it. Because the mask says, "notice me", "like me", "honor me". But "me" is just another way to spell ego, and our unchanging essence is egoless.

most of us come to yoga because something is missing

I often think back to my first yoga class. I stumbled in, a little lost, a little worn down and in a pretty dark place. At the time I was dealing with the sudden death of my voice teacher, and was questioning  everything in my life that previously seemed so me. For years I identified myself as a musician before anything else. I'd spent as much time working on that label as I had on my craft. With the label came the appropriate plan(s), replete with benchmarks which, if achieved by the appropriate dates, would surely propel my career along a successful path. During my grief, I was unable to sing so I spent a lot of time embracing yoga and reflecting on my life. With the aid of a regular yoga practice the sadness subsided. The balance between dark and light evened out again, and the me that reemerged seemed even more me that what I'd known before. I am still a musician because I love music, I make music, I think like a musician, and music informs who I am. But, I am less likely to identify with the label now. Identifying with the label is just another mask because with it comes assumptions and misconceptions from within as well as from others. The masks of yogi or teacher also come with these hidden not-quite-truths; you are ever-calm, always centered, never angry. Knowing this, I try to keep my masking to a minimum, on and off the mat. Yoga is a practice, but it is also a process of witnessing your best you. During this process you will also get to know your not-so-great yous, some of which will perhaps be more exciting, more provocative, and more popular. They will try to entice you, saying, "I'm the one you've been looking for. I'm what's been missing."

Building a relationship to a yoga practice opened parts of me that had been lost or pushed aside, and allowed me to fill up again, not with something new or something foreign  or something more interesting but with more of me. I think this experience is fairly universal; we come to yoga because something is missing but we don't know what is missing. Through practice and self-reflection the what is revealed to be us. Hidden behind all of the masks of who we thought we were or who we thought others wanted us to be is our truth, our Self, and it's been there all along just waiting to be discovered. The Romans would don masks in the likenesses of the Gods and Goddesses to elevate themselves (albeit only momentarily), but we must do the opposite. We elevate our status once the mask is removed.

Here's where it gets tricky: When the mask falls and our truth is free to shine forth, others see us. Our most radiant Self is visible. We are all tired, like the Raven (read his story), of bumping around in the dark and are constantly seeking the light. When we catch a glimpse of it in another being we cannot help but gather around their brightness. With admiration and adoration come expectation, and another mask is born. Yoga teachers are counseled to create healthy boundaries with students because of the potential unfair advantages to be taken when students are open and vulnerable, and when teachers are elevated to a place of power. Why are yoga teachers not counseled to created the same healthy boundary between them and the opportunistic ego? The ego is cunning and is waiting for our guard to drop so it can reinsert itself and throw shade on the light. The practice is never done.

more You and less you

As the years of practicing yoga multiply I am more and more content with who I am. Oddly enough the greater result of finding a true sense of self is feeling less and less of a need to prove anything - my worth, my knowledge, or anything else. This is true both in my personal practices and in my teaching. Where I used to try to manufacture what I was looking for, I instead strive to make room for that thing I seek to manifest in me. If I can do what I need to deepen my own relationship to the Absolute, and if along the way I can inspire someone else to do the same, then that's enough. Somehow the simplicity of that goal gets unnecessarily complicated when notoriety or career advancement (sought after or not) become part of the equation. Sure, I would like to be relevant but without needing validation. Obscurity used to mean that no one knew who you were, but that sort of anonymity doesn't really exist anymore. Someone once described me as kind of monk-ish. It was meant as a compliment and was received as such partly because monks are somewhat obscure. They move among us but we don't really know them. They have a role to play in their community but the day-to-day happenings of the rest of the world are of no concern. Maybe it is my own shortcoming that I need to keep things small and somewhat local (local being wherever I am in the moment) because the moment my energy turns toward the less-than-local I feel a disconnect from my path, my goal, my commitment and my yoga practice. If I can consistently avoid that rift, I find there's a lot more of me to go around and I have lot more to share.

save your adoration

"Thank you" is always welcome. In fact it's important, and not because it's expected but because it's part of our practice of receiving and being open to whatever comes to us. "Thank you" is also enough. My voice teacher used to say, "Just sing the music. There's no need to gild the lily". An honest thanks is enough. You are enough. Your unchanging essence is beautiful. A mask on something perfect only hides its true luminosity. Practice and be free of the bonds of ego and persona, and rejoice in your unadorned obscurity. Take off the mask and run naked through your perfection for all the world to see.

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