Photo: Martin Jebas
American writer Ray Carver wrote a short story (in a collection of stories by the same name) called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” It’s always been one of my favorite titles. I get the sense from it right away that whatever it is we talk about, it’s something we say because love itself is too unknowable or uncomfortable to be spoken about directly. Something about the way we talk when we talk about love takes us further away from it.
Sometimes when I listen to the ways we talk about practice, I have a similar sinking feeling. What we talk about when we talk about yoga is somehow not as clear and unfailing as the practice of yoga can be. We talk about practices instead of practicing. We end up making sense of things by the insecure light of the esoteric, ascetic, or demanding things we do, rather than by the unmistakeable integrity of sattva.
There’s a well known saying, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.” What’s more ironic about those of us who practice yoga is that we really go out of our way to pick up a new tool, going on retreats, going to programs, traveling to foreign countries, then we get some practice with that new tool and figure out how to use it the way we use the hammer. Fresh insight is excellent at banging home the patterns of our old habits. Look at this, we cry, I just finished a week with a famous teacher! (or I just got back from India, or I’ve been doing a ton of pranayama…)
The master demonstrated the posture, “obviously working very hard,”
and Palkhhivala observes the students were “not impressed.” Mr. Iyengar asks for two volunteers to do the posture, and in short order, they performed “spectacular poses, their chests puffed out dramatically, their knees almost straight.” *
Whenever I hear or read references to “strengthening the container,” I cringe at the noise the metaphor makes crashing into that other old standard, “yoga means union.” Evidenced by Iyengar’s dhanurasana volunteers, all too often what gets strengthened are our illusions and our identification with them. When it’s appropriate, doing invigorating practices to improve health is a wonderful thing; misunderstanding a body as a container for something that’s “in it” is as hopeless as managed care medicine that treats diseases instead of people. There are over 15 million people self-reporting as doing yoga in this country. If “doing yoga” woke people up, we’d have a lot fewer hungry school children, broken marriages, and automobiles, to name a few random things.
A container is an object that can be used to hold something, and in typical American fashion
we want ours to be the best containers, we want ours to hold more
Jon Mooallem, writing in a recent New York Times article, “The Self-Storage Self” noted “After a monumental building boom, the United States now has 2.3 billion square feet of self-storage space. Across America, from 2000 to 2005, upward of 3,000 self-storage facilities went up every year. Somehow, Americans managed to fill that brand-new empty space. In June, Public Storage, the industry’s largest chain, reported that its 2,100 facilities in 38 states were, on average, still about 91 percent full.”
This is true in spite of the change in home size that preceded the storage facility boom and went right on growing alongside the bursting full units. The Washington Post reports, “From 1975 to 2005, the average size of new single-family homes grew by 48 percent, according to the Census Bureau’s 2005 survey of new housing, released this summer. That happened even as the typical household has gotten smaller, falling from 2.94 people in 1975 to 2.6 people in 2004.”
In 1991, the Centers for Disease Control had to add a category to its epidemiological study of weight gain in America. That was the first year there were any states in this country where more than 14% of the adult population were obese.** At that point, “no state had an obesity rate above 20%.” In 2009, 49 states have rates that exceed 20% and “rates exceed 25 percent in 31 states. Two-thirds of American adults are either obese or overweight. ”
Between 2004 and 2008, as houses and bellies bulged and we all bought so much stuff we couldn’t build tin sheds to put it in fast enough,
“Americans spend $5.7 billion a year on yoga
classes and products, including equipment, clothing, vacations and media (DVDs, videos, books and magazines)” according to Yoga Journal’s marketing study, “Yoga In America.”
I want to feel ecstatic about our investment in studying yoga, but I feel uneasy about this $5,700,000,000. Because even though the number of people doing yoga in America dropped by nearly 1 million in the 4 years between 2004 and 2008, yogi spending for “lifestyle choices” went on steroids, increasing during those same years by 87%.
I wish this meant that last year 15.8 million people in America attended $361 worth of yoga classes – averaging something like 2 classes a month. I believe that would exercise a powerful effect on the tenor of our times, especially if every class taken were accompanied by two weeks of personal practice. It would be equally wonderful if these 15+ million didn’t take classes but used their share of the total for retreats or books, dvds and experiences that helped them to practice on their own. But something makes me wonder if it’s quite that rosy in the “doing yoga” world. Mooallem notes, “by the early ’90s, American families had, on average, twice as many possessions as they did 25 years earlier. By 2005, according to the Boston College sociologist Juliet B. Schor,
the average consumer purchased one new piece of clothing every five and a half days.”
Is that astonishing 87% increase in expenditures among almost a million fewer people the result of the same consumerism we see overfilling storage units, quarter acres, and waistbands? In the context of American culture, where “44 percent of yogis have household incomes of $75,000 or more; 24 percent have more than $100,000,” $5.7 billion could be an awful lot of yoga pants and very little effective action for social justice, health improvement or personal transformation.
When Mr. Iyengar watched his students demonstrate those postures he remarked, “These are poses lacking integrity.” In our everlasting perdition of plenty, a yogi ought to seek to erase the concept of the body as a fetish that exists to hold things. Our asana should not cause us to fall into our weakness, Mr. Iyengar said, our asana should educate us.
We are not containers, we are creators. We are already god whether or not we are awake to the staggering result of all our creating. The planet is dying, people are starving, war is raging, and it isn’t because our containers aren’t strong enough, it’s because we’re far too content thinking we don’t have anything to do with how this is happening or how it stops happening.
I believe in the efficacy and even the sheer goodness of taking classes, reading books, going on retreat. I wish I could say that as a community who spent just shy of $6 billion last year, we were inspired by whatever we bought to do 87% more recycling than we did in 2004 instead of just 87% more laundry.
I wish as individuals in a principled and rigorous communityeach of us would have taken 87% more active steps
toward the resolution of a burning public issue, or figuring out how to engage the one thing to which we’ve had a lifelong dream of making a meaningful contribution. I wish we had collectively spent $5.7 billion figuring out what we want to do about something and doing it. Otherwise, no matter what our language or intentions are, we’re just consumers like everyone else.
Mr. Iyengar resumed the wheel posture, “this time also straightening out his legs and puffing out his chest, making his pose look ten times as magnificent as the volunteers’. While in this pose, he exclaimed, “Look! I can do that too!”
“He then came out of the pose and said, “So what?””
*from Iyengar: The Yoga Master edited by Kofi Busia. Boston: Shambhala, 2007.
**The CDC defines obesity as “having a very high amount of body fat in relation to lean body mass, or Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or higher.”
“A Measure of Change,” Tomoeh Murakami Tse
The Washington Post, August 5, 2006
“The Self Storage Self,” Jon Mooallem
The New York Times, September 2, 2009
Centers for Disease Control “Obesity Trends 2008” available on the CDC website
“F as in Fat,” Trust for America’s Health, on line at healthyamericans.org
Yoga Journal press release, “Yoga in America” from the Yoga Journal website.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.