BE STILL: BE RAD
by Jess Lazar
It seems we humans are getting better and better all the time--at ignoring the moment. We’ve divided what were once long-term, single-pointed pursuits into speedy, FaceTime forays. And it’s not just our relationship with time that’s shifted seismically; connections formerly known as friendships have been universally relegated, since to be friends no longer requires the investment of actual time spent in the same place, but can be managed neatly with frequent “likes” and emojis on a person’s virtual wall.
As much as I'd like to, it’s no use being curmudgeonly about what is already, inexorably, upon us: as one moment is just beginning, we are hurtling headlong into the next. All of us: me, you, everybody. No matter how slowly and intentionally we’re brewing our home-bottled Kombucha, the times, they are a’changin’, and we are collectively subject to the pressures just below the surface created by those undeniable shifts.
To get ahead in this future-oriented world, we almost have to endorse gussied-up versions of ourselves that don’t yet--and may never--exist. The heat is on to be special, and to compete handily with all the other specials at the job fair. It’s fast times in the USA, and transitively, fast times for the yoga nation.
All you’ll need as evidence of this trend is a day or two looking for a teaching position anywhere in the country. You’ll hit the pavement, still breathing the fragrant and nourishing ethers of your teacher training. Alongside you in the vast fields of gyms, retreats and studios, will be similarly clad legions in pricey stretch pants. You will pronounce yourself ready, having studied your carefully crafted sequences and massaged your yoga-teacher countenance into pacific placidity.
Somewhat ironically, however, you will still be yourself--the same you who feels the acute nervousness or impatience or greed or aggression or inertia that has always been your recurring axis, but you will no longer speak of these personal trends, perhaps not even with your closest confidantes. Especially glaring bad habits (smoking, drinking, yelling, insert your particular way of grappling with your existence here), will be summarily banished to the back room. You are now a Spiritual Healer, so act like one--at least when in good company.
More rich still is that once you’ve secured a position among other fledgling professionals that comprises the baffling directory of yoga “styles”, each with a different primary influence and operating system, you will need to offer some form of redemption, some version of the ubiquitous Judeo-Christian plot lines of Noah, Moses and Jesus, all of whom dutifully watched the rain, trolled the mountaintops and wandered the desert for the requisite forty, and were duly rewarded for their devotion with the divine bestowment of dry land, the Ten Commandments and the ministry of angels, respectively. In fact, there are multitudes of American yoga brands to choose from that feed our Western attraction, largely unwitting, to this “no pain; no gain” story: Do this to gain that. Unlock this to access that. Master this, and be saved from that.
And what’s so bad about a little penance, plus a shot of redemption, you might ask? Don’t we all want to practice that which improves our situation? Isn’t the whole point of doing yoga to get better? to be healthy? to progress?
The answer is, if doing something to get another thing (practicing yoga:attaining mastery of form; entering marriage:gaining security; smoking weed:achieving inner peace) actually eased our suffering and made our existence more workable, this “devotees will be rewarded” approach to everything--yoga included--would be fine, great, even. Put another way, if practicing yoga daily was good because it made yoga masters, and if mastery of yoga asana eased root discomfort for humans--if that was really the rubric of evolution--we would all of us, dedicated yogis and yoginis, be living quantifiably illuminated lives of admirable altruism and ardent asceticism!
Alas, I dare you: look around. Nothing could be further from how things are manifesting.
Go to classes. Troll the internet. Rifle through the books on the bestsellers’ lists. What--and who--is in demand? With very little exception, I venture you will find that many of the most popular purveyors of yoga asana have embarked on high-voltage, meticulously curated navel-gazing self-improvement programs, and they want you to sign up and join them in getting better and better, every day, in every way, through the consumption of their special recipe of yoga asanas.
There’s a lot I could add at this juncture--for color, to show self-deprecation, and to prove my point. But let’s assume we have observed the sorry state of our particular union at this moment, and can thusly agree: this industry we’ve chosen to be a part of isn’t the counterpoint to mainstream values we may have thought it was, or longed for it to be. On the contrary--the sale of yoga asana is driven by the same usual and intimidating suspects running Hollywood, Wall Street and Main Street: Gain, Praise, Pleasure and Fame.
Fukkit, you might be thinking. If this is the reality awaiting us outside the hallowed halls of yogic study, shouldn’t we gird up our sinewy loins with as much Lululemon as we can afford and get in the game? Wouldn’t it behoove us to prepare for battle and come correct with a rock-solid handstand and a modernist revision of that overplayed and worn-out standard, Trikonasana? Enough's enough with that old rag--the precious perpendicular feet and the stick-straight front leg…people just want something new after however many thousands of years of pursuing the same elusive right angles, and can you blame them?
Well, my answer isn’t no (note the double negative--not, I trust you can sniff out, exactly equal to a positive). If what you are hoping for is a “career” as a yoga teacher, I’m not going to lie: the solipsistic Culture of Me that pervades modern American yoga is capitalism by definition, and as such, the Business of You, a newly minted trader in its currency, will have to sell what people are buying in order to get ahead and stay afloat in this for-profit marketplace. Full stop.
Take those uninspiring criteria for success, however, and trump them with the courageous commitment to disrupt the status quo, and you will be choosing to define your job as a yoga teacher on visionary terms. Consider that spiritual leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa and Maya Angelou, have all put themselves intentionally at the center of historic conflict--not at its edges. I'm not suggesting that we yoga teachers share the historic significance of a Buddha or a Sappho, but I am proposing that we model our teaching path after spiritual frontrunners, the intimate purpose (sva dharma) of whom is to see clearly what's occurring and not fall in line reflexively with the norms of the day, however seductive and cozy are their wiles.
Being truthful about who we are as humans, is, in itself a radical act, and puts us as teachers, in the middle of the conversation. Those unsightly propensities you may be reflexively hiding to appear more “yogic”? Rather than sweep them under the rug, hold them up to the light as keys to your spiritual path, for all to see. If you've been discriminated against, speak about discrimination. If you've struggled with addiction, teach addicts. If you've known anger or jealousy, assure others who feel these particular varieties of pain that they are not alone, and that knowledge of their habituation and a commitment to practice with it is what renders them free.
Like activists in the political and social realms, be brave and bring yourself into direct relationship with your own sub-optimal (and usually somewhat--if not completely--horrifying) self-aspects, then turn around and do the same for your students. Gain yourself, then give to your followers--the tools to observe, as Marvin Gaye sang, What's goin' on. If that isn’t hard enough, strengthen yourself with even more self-led study, and learn to refrain from doing with your realizations what you’ve always done with them. Encourage your students to work with habit energy, and to similarly refrain. Highlight--not hide--your awareness of your resistance as examples of what it means to be human and create of them standard-bearing axioms that shed light on what we are all--each and every one of us--up against.
I tell you one thing for absolute certain: this open and real approach to teaching will take the pressure off you, the yoga teacher, to be perfect or enlightened or whatever, beaming at the front of the room, increasingly unsure of why yoga is regarded as sacred, and not just the non-competitive exercise with down-tempo ambient music it routinely appears to be. Instead, there you'll be: the person you've always been, but with growing commitment to share your experience, and evolving capacity to truly receive the experience of others. And that, my beloveds, is perhaps your singular aspiration as a yoga teacher, inasmuch as one is even statable: come home to your suffering. Pause. Teach others how to do that. Pause. Repeat. Pause. Repeat. Pause. Repeat.
For our purposes, we’ll call this whole process, named by my beloved wisdom teacher, Pema Chodron, ‘learning to stay'. Seated practice is the main vehicle of this subject. To work effectively with our strong habits to seek pleasure, praise, fame and gain, sitting still is requisite and non-negotiable. We need to sit down daily in order to smooth out the jumpy hope-fear dialectic that keeps us bouncing ad infinitum between pronouncements of success and indictments of failure. We are billing our practice as a transcendent one, so we must teach people how to work with their human condition, which is the same as our own, and which boils down to this: 1) we want security; 2) none is available, and we resist that; 3) there is a way to work with this inherently difficult situation, and it involves learning to see clearly, then staying with what we see.
Be forewarned: These teachings offer no immediate benefits or sudden measurable shifts--not in forty days, forty years or forty lifetimes, even. Those who aim to see clearly the unworkable patterns of their desiring, speaking and doing may find themselves even more uncomfortable than they were before they began sitting, which is not bad news, but is a tough sell. And you, the guide who encouraged them to dwell with the dreaded loneliness or sadness or whatever it is for them specifically--you need yourself to possess the ability to hold space for that kind of daunting, courageous self-exploration. That is your job description: visionary; realist, holder of space. When you look at it like that, asana comes into sharper focus as a conduit for awakening: you, to yourself; your students, to themselves; the world, to itself--one boring Trikonasana at a time.
Stephen King reminds us in the dedication of his brilliant memoir, On Writing, that all true practices--whether of art or of asana--rest on an unsettling paradox:
“Honesty’s the best policy” (Miguel de Cervantes), and “Liars prosper” (Anonymous).
Perhaps you’re thinking, Geez, Jess! lighten up! We all gotta eat! And I wouldn’t fault you for it. In fact, I want you to know I’m out here doing the very same thing--teaching yoga in the era of Pax Americana--which means I fully understand and heartily concur with any expressions of skepticism or outrage you care to hurl my way. What I aspire to impress upon you this weekend, nonetheless, from this vantage point of mutual benevolent conspiracy we are sharing, is the imperative of seated practice. I believe stillness--and the commitment to cultivate it all day long, in everything you step forward for--is what fills your reservoir and renders your vision clear. I believe that, beyond the limp proffering of aromatherapy and the glib recitation of “don’t worry; be happy” maxims in pigeon pose, there is a field of true potency available to all of us, and that's where I would like to meet you.
In my estimation, if I give you anything of rare value this year, it will be the start and sustainment of a still-point in your practice. In a world gone mad with future-think, your trajectory as a yoga teacher will be shaped by your willingness to recognize, refrain, relax with what is and repeat--for a lifetime. As Cervantes and Anonymous, when read side by side, remind us: telling the truth doesn’t always fill rooms. And if you endeavor to do the former, there will be times when you simply cannot do the latter. I suggest you decide now which will guide your way on.
Now that you’re clear on why I’ve called you to this session, please: sit down. Living in tomorrow is the sign of our times, so perhaps learning to stay with the disquieting moment that is part of today is the most radical shape we make as yoga teachers, and as such, the most advanced asana we pass on to our students.
Abandon all hope of fruition.
Dissolve all fear of failure.
Now close your eyes.
What do you see?