Occasionally, I am asked if it is okay if some of the people attending my workshops come from other styles of yoga. My answer is an unqualified and enthusiastic: "Yes!"
Now, more than ever, I feel that a spirit of inclusion and openness, and a commitment to dialogue is what we, as a people, as a society, and as a global society, need. I know this is a tough and complicated topic. Nothing is purely black and white (or pure, for that matter) and it is the duty of a country to help keep its citizenry as safe as possible. And in the case of a democracy, we balance this desire with values, such as freedom and equality for all.
This is not an essay about national/global politics. It is an essay about yoga politics. I know, it feels a little silly to write about the tiny world of yoga politics, given everything that we as a nation and a global community are facing. Yet, there is a relationship. I have felt a deep and disturbing pain when I read various newspapers and periodicals lately. So much of the rhetoric is truly chilling. And as I frequently travel internationally as a senior teacher of Iyengar yoga, I am frequently asked by students and colleagues from other countries: "How could this have happened? Does America really embrace the values espoused by your President elect?"
Yoga is a place of refuge. Yoga can be a sanctuary for those heartbroken, stressed out, and weary from the barrage of bad news. It can be respite from the steady stream of fear-mongering and isolationist rhetoric. It is a place where, at least for awhile, we can listen to what our body is saying, have a space in which to relax, and even a space in which to entertain another point of view. We create a space in which we can loosen our grip a bit, and learn not to hold on so tightly or cling so fervently to who we think we are. It is a space where we can allow empathy to flow freely with one another and within ourselves. It is a space to explore a deeper connection and even a type of intimacy with our fellow human animals, non-human animals, and the planet as a whole.
I like to imagine our beautiful planet as a big round and gorgeous body. One complex organism made up of an unimaginable amount of cells comprising many organs and systems, and intricate processes. This body/planet is a generous host for the minions and multitudes, just as our own body is a host for multitudes of organisms, both micro and macro. In fact, we are more "other" than us. Think about that for a moment.
I feel a huge paradigm shift inside of myself when I think of myself as a tiny cell, a minuscule, temporary cell on the superficial skin of our big body of a planet. A cell that will be sloughed off and replaced in no time. Yet, a cell that can contribute something to the life and well being of the whole. Even if that contribution is so tiny that it is imperceptible.
Yes, even as tiny and temporary cells on the body/planet we have the capacity to (especially as groups of cells) make a positive and life affirming difference for the health and longevity of this organism called Planet Earth and all its miraculous multitudes.
Now, back to yoga. Yoga is where I feel most intimately the music and mystery of this larger unity. It is hard to name but it is a like a vibration, a deep sense of recognition and resonance called Belonging. And though my body analogy may break down here and there, I feel that "if we do not hang together, we shall surely hang separately" is an apt sentiment. I want to hang not only with my kin and clan, but with the larger kin and clan that inhabit this beautiful planet. I want to share and exchange and learn together, to hang together, not separately.
Is it scary because "otherness" often is. Yet so much of this separateness that we humans inflict upon each other feels like a dream, an illusion. Some made up thing—a concept formation that is just that—a concept formation. Take the idea of race, for example. This is a loaded topic right now. It seems like it always has been, and it is heartbreaking to feel as if the progress that we as a species have made in understanding just how arbitrary these concepts are—that this progress toward a greater understanding of how imposed and arbitrary these concept formations are—is breaking down in some way. It is like we are forgetting what we have learned about ourselves. It feels like what we call in yoga anavasthitatva, which is instability or backsliding.
So...when someone asks me if it is okay if someone from another yoga tradition attends a workshop that I am teaching, I feel that the answer must be yes. It must be yes, if I am to honor what I feel in my heart—which is that we must do everything we can to offer each other a space in which to breath and belong.
I understand that there might be concerns about whether or not we have a shared vocabulary, or a similar way of doing things. Isn't that always the case? When someone comes to a new country, or culture, for example? I get that and I am glad that my hosts are considerate and ask, because some teachers might not share my perspective. Some might not want to have to deal with someone who does not know how to fold a blanket as we might in Iyengar yoga, or who might not straighten their limbs in the way that our yoga aesthetic requires. They might not practice standing poses or inversions regularly and that might affect their experience in the workshop. I get it.
And we might even have different values regarding practice and the point of it all. People do have these differences, both big and small. However, I would venture that as people engaged in the inquiry of yoga, we do share many of the same values. We might have different aesthetic values, we might see the relationship of body and mind in a slightly different light or have different practices or ways of approaching our body, breath, and meditation practices, or even differ as to the larger point of practice. Yet here—in these supposed differences—lies a very special juice. Can we come together with our differences? Can we come together and cultivate respect for each other in our shared love of practice? Can we come together in our humanity and our quest for the unity that is the very definition of yoga? Now I know this sounds corny but here goes: Can we come together with a special form of love? I'm evoking a love as described by Parker Palmer: "the highest form of love is a love that allows for intimacy without the annihilation of difference." I love that sentiment. I know it can be difficult to achieve. Yet it seems so pertinent. It seems so worthwhile.
Why not try? Why not? In my experience it has only been a mind/heart opening endeavor. Yes, these encounters have changed me. They have moved me. It is a risk I have chosen to take. Yes, there is the risk that we might be touched, changed or moved by another being, by another perspective. The practice of yoga is a practice that helps us take this risk. We live and breathe change, as well as the changeless. I think we can risk being moved, or changed, from who we thought we were into who we might really be. We can choose this risk; we can choose this love.
I do—I choose this love. In my classes, in the country of my heart, and life, I choose to be a door opener. And the door is wide open, and all who come in good faith and with a genuine interest in this deeper inquiry are welcome. All are welcome who come with respect, and with a desire to experience a higher form of love, the "love that allows for intimacy without the annihilation of difference."
Images by Agnes Martin.