The Classic Yoga Cul-de-Sac
Looking for what’s right and missing what’s real.
Don’t be confused by what others say is “the right way” to practice yoga.
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
Recently the wife of a good friend asked me what kind of yoga she should do.
“There are all these different classes,” she said, “all these different styles.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” I answered and we both laughed.
“Seriously, though, which one is real yoga?” she asked.
“Well they’re so different. They can’t all be right.”
I want to do the kind of yoga they do in India.
Many years ago when I was just out of college, I worked as a book store manager. Hardly a week went by without someone coming in and asking for “the classics.”
The conversation generally went like a sort of Marx Brothers routine. Attempting to find out what book a “classics” customer wanted led to who’s-on-first chaos.
“What are you thinking of when you say “classics?”” I would ask in as easy going a way possible.
“Well don’t you have a section of them?” the chin-lifting-brow-creased answer would come.
“Ah, we don’t. They’re not all in one place. We have some things like Thucydides’s Peloponnesian War in the Ancient History section over here -”
“What?! Is that what people mean when they say I should read the classics?” The customer’s eyes would bug-out.
You know what I mean. I want the original, traditional stuff.
I’d explain, “Well some people say classics when they mean Homer and Virgil and that kind of thing. And some people mean Beowulf, Don Quixote, and The Invisible Man. What kind of reading did you have in mind?”
It was the early eighties, and no kidding, what some people eventually meant if we talked about it long enough was Danielle Steele or Dick Francis or Ken Follett. There was just no way to know what someone wanted to look at when the word “classics” was involved.
The kind of yoga that people who know what they are doing do.
Interestingly, no matter what topic the word “classic” comes up in, a kind of self-righteousness enters the conversation. From classic cars to classical music, during the discussion of “the real classics” differences of opinion can lead quickly to assertions of right and wrong.
It’s not like I blamed the book customer when our exchange resolved itself with “Thanks, never mind,” because classics is not a word like cookbook. Everyone knows what a cookbook is, but the word classics doesn’t have a shared definition, it has a contested one.
“Classic” is a value, a word people use to assert authority, and for book customers, that was confusing.
The underlying reason it was confusing, though, is the reader really didn’t know what he or she was asking for – they’d heard something and were curious. They wanted me to know what it meant so they could read the “right” thing.
The Real McCoy is a sales pitch.
Many of us find ourselves in a similar cul-de-sac when we ask for advice on anything. We hope the person we’re asking will know what we want, even when we don’t. We should be wary of simple answers. History is a story, and a salesman will always be willing to tell us want we want.
When someone asks me what kind of yoga is real yoga, they are asking for “the classics” with the mistaken impression that there’s a yoga that is “you know, the original kind,” authentic yoga. People aren’t often encouraged to understand there have been many forms of yoga, many practices of yoga throughout time, yoga that was real and right when it was effective for the people who practiced it.
Instead of asking which yoga is “the real one” when it comes to practice we need first of all to understand which is the right form or practice for each of us as individuals.
Try this: imagine this conversation as though it were about houses.
“What should I buy? There are so many different kinds of houses – they can’t all be real homes!”
We can immediately see two things that can help us think about yoga and my friend’s question.
1 It’s not just a question of authentic and fake. There’s a reason for variety.
Houses come in a lot of shapes and sizes for a reason. In terms of having somewhere to sleep and keep things we need, all sorts of structures from tents and lean-to’s to gated communities and penthouses have qualifications.
Even at this basic level, we still need to to be the one who understands our own motivation before we can choose the kind of building we want to live in.
It’s not because some houses are real and others are not real. It’s because people are different in many ways, from preferences to needs, from habits to culture. To meet the needs of the people who want them, houses legitimately and thankfully come in a wide variety.
2 Yoga classes are not a yoga practice.
A house is not a home. What makes it home is what you bring to it. A tree house can be your home as easily as split level in the suburbs.
Besides knowing what you need, it will serve your best interests to understand what you want from a house and a home – to know what’s meaningful to you.
And that may change over time.
There are legitimate and useful differences among practices.
What is appropriate ultimately depends on the individual. What’s authentic as a practice will depend at least as much on what you bring to the mat as what is offered to you there.
At the heart of an evolving, authentic, effective personal practice is being willing to know what we want and need, exploring who we really are.
That’s something nobody else can tell us.
Next week: How to experiment with yoga and get what you want from your practice – and your life.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.