Sacred Authentically Empowered Alignment Vinyasa Flow
Updated: Sep 15, 2017
In an effort to attract more and more potential students from the expanding market segment of mind/body fitness, the modern yoga movement has generated a broad-reaching constellation of class titles, teaching styles and vague-but-hopeful-sounding descriptions: Align and Burn, Mindful Flow, Yogalates, Flowing with Grace, Happy Hour Yoga and my recent favorite, Pints & Planks (yep). This mishmash of labels is confusing to new students and mind-bending for studio staff, who are usually charged with ensuring that first-timers have a blissful inaugural experience -- one they will be eager to repeat. I'm fine with creating an uplifting, even alluring environment of welcome . . . but in the interest of full disclosure, shouldn't we name classes to reflect what's actually happening in our minds? How about Self-Obsessive Flow, Lack of Focus Vinyasa, or Breath, Insecurity and A Moment of Fleeting Insight? Anyone?
As off-putting as this blatant pleading for dollars may seem, it is neither sacrilegious nor dishonest. It is simply a reflection of the physically-obsessed, spiritually-depleted, profit-driven society we have become, and it takes advantage of our base instinct not to experience discomfort. Obviously, it is more appealing to envision a fun, uplifting community experience than it is to deal with physical limitations and psychological demons. We can't advertise the tedious, confrontational aspects of yoga because no one would buy it. So instead, we manufacture a perception of yoga as something you can do while staying exactly the same as you are. It's happening in the world of yoga because it is happening inside all of us, all the time, even though we purport to be deeply embedded on a path of transformation. Inertia is like that -- a psychological black hole that manipulates and justifies perception to sustain itself. Patanjali calls it ego and says its influence simmers just below the surface of our awareness, quietly influencing everything we think, say and do.
It is easy to see how our natural bias toward comfort inhibits spiritual growth. Let's say, for example, that I've planned to go to bed by 9:30 pm because I'm committed to an early morning meditation session. But when the designated time rolls around, I'm already 45 minutes into The Bachelorette and there's no way I'm going to bed before I find out who gets the last rose. In deflecting the discomfort of the moment (turning off the TV and getting my ass to bed), the mind has set me up for future pain which will come in one of two ways: a) facing the day with a caustic attitude brought on by lack of sleep, or b) breaking a promise to myself. That's how the comfortable, habituated inaction of the moment sends its henchmen on ahead to undermine my future.
The principle behind this pattern is what Patanjali calls heyam dukham anagatam, roughly translated as "doing something different today can result in less pain tomorrow" (Yoga Sutras 2.16). Makes good sense, right? Everyone would choose to have less discomfort rather than more. The problem is that for those who see life as a journey of transcendence, trading comfort for insight is part of the contract. We knowingly enter into an agreement with ourselves where complacency gives way to growth. That means facing aversion in the moment (turning off the TV) in exchange for a new habit (meditation) that will have a profound, positive influence in the long run. Choosing what is best over defaulting to what is comfortable is a muscle that needs strengthening, especially in a culture where instant gratification wreaks havoc on the cultivation of discernment. Saving money, giving up coffee or being the first one to say I'm sorry are all actions which contain the seeds of freedom; but we have to travel through aversion first.
The commercialization of yoga hasn't done us any favors in the campaign against the ego. We intuitively crave the quiet mind that comes from meditation, but how many meditation sessions do you see on a class schedule? The media-battered mind tells us that losing weight and having fun are where it's at, so sweaty workouts and uplifting playlists proliferate. Or we take steps to eat a clean, high-quality diet, but then someone called a teacher tells us we can drink beer and purify our energetic channels at the same time, and we're ecstatic. Who wouldn't want that? It boils down to manipulating yoga to reinforce existing habits, rather than trusting it to reveal what needs to change. Yoga teaches us something because it brings the unknown into the known, and develops the staying power to observe. Instead of pushing away pain, boredom or anger, we face these feelings squarely until their power begins to weaken. That's when we have the opportunity to examine underlying beliefs, where we can see the tiny buds of karma waiting to unfurl. It's a job, all this self-reflection and discernment, but the alternative is no picnic either. Avoiding the process doesn't mean that conditioned patterns don't exist, it just means that we aren't aware of them. It's the existential equivalent of object permanence for grown-ups.
These insights come with time, dedication and meaningful practice, and with guidance from someone's who's been there. Many would argue that whatever gets people in the door is good enough (more people doing yoga is better, they would say) and it may be true to a point. However, the time will come when that new student will be challenged in one way or another, and I would hate for them to turn away thinking they had failed at yoga because of a bad experience. In truth, making space for discomfort, self-reflection and humility are the essential aspects of practice that cannot be circumvented (Yoga Sutras 2.1). It turns out we move forward because of discomfort, not in spite of it.