Whilst writing my blog last week, I realised that there is a running theme throughout each of them – that Yoga is bitter-sweet.
And as we know, what we learn and discover on our mats is always a metaphor for what we learn and discover in our lives – thus life is also bitter-sweet.
Think about virtually any situation, event or circumstance in your life, and you will probably find that happiness and sadness were intertwined intricately with one-another – they are somewhat inseparable. You are happy when you are eating the cake, but sad once the cake is finished (well, I am anyway – you get my drift!)
Yoga is one of the biggest things that has ever made me doubt myself, knocked my confidence, and thrown everything about myself and my life in to question. At the same time, it has helped me heal, practice self-love, acceptance, gratitude and compassion.
Therefore, our yoga practice is one of the most evident examples of life’s bitter-sweetness. On the one hand it teaches us oneness, completeness, wholeness, whilst on the other it asks us to dig into a deeper place within ourselves – a place we find is full of contradiction and conflict.
Think about the phrase “yoga-industry” for example. This in itself is a contradiction in terms – these two parts of the statement oppose each other and render the statement false. Yoga in all its styles and traditions is a process of detaching from material concerns, but an ‘industry’ is a producer of goods and services within an economy driven by capital. Therefore, yoga, by its very nature is a non-consumerist practice, but the “yoga industry” with all of its advertising, branding and marketing speak, tells us that we need to consume the latest program or funky leggings! Toni Nagy’s article on yoga and consumerism suggests most yoga practitioners are struggling to “find a balance between living a life of non-attachment and finding the perfect outfit for doing Crow Pose”!
We hence find bitter-sweetness within the one thing that that is supposed to help us find harmony and unity!
As a yoga teacher, I am certainly guilty of this – I find myself talking about non-attachment whilst at the same time confessing to being a total shopaholic!!
What about yoga and social media too? There certainly exists a bitter-sweetness between the ethics of yoga and a dominating visual culture here as well.
Social media is a core part of modern day life and is in many ways valuable. Yoga teachers are able to use it as an extension of their teachings in the studio, and can use the technology to positively impact more people than could ever be possible in a single location. But as we know, it can also have a negative affect on the things it is used to promote.
Yoga is a great example of the curse of social media, because it can make yoga appear unattainable and commercialised.
On social media, the driving force for some people is a desire to be the best and look the greatest. Straight off, this goes against the yogic principle of detaching oneself from the “ego”. Ultimately, what this visual culture of images has led to is the development of "master yogis" who dedicate their days to pulling off cool yoga stunts in dramatic places, or seemingly impossible contortionist poses. And while these pictures can be wonderful to behold, there is also a counter to this display of brilliance.
These images often lead to comments such as "Wow, I wish I could do that, but I'm not flexible enough for yoga", which again goes against every principle of yoga, and instead of encouraging us to try it, we are instead seeing it as something that is unattainable. Whilst anyone could learn to improve themselves with yoga through beginners yoga classes, it is instead thought to be too hard and so there is no point even trying.
When we look at yoga on social media, we quickly get the idea that yoga is for bendy, mostly white, slender, occasionally scantily clad, women in their twenties or thirties. Of course, they have every right to post those photos. But where are the pictures of everybody else? What about the image of older people and yoga? Where are the yogis working with physical challenges? Again and again we are served up the perfect yogini who looks like a model and is seemingly brimming with natural health. But yoga is meant to be an accepting practice for people of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds, and ironically, those of us most in need of yoga, especially the therapeutic aspect of it, are nowhere near a yoga class!
Also, the image of yoga that is often presented is one of vegans and hippies! And for many potential yoga practitioners, this can be a put-off because they do not want to be pressured to change their diet or be judged for their wider lifestyle.
…Again, bitter-sweetness rears its head.
So how can we feel balanced, whole and complete by practicing something that seems so contradictory?
Well yes, in a world that likes easy answers, yoga confronts us with nuance, complexity and contradictions, but the practice also grows our ability to be with all of this at once. I always stress in my teachings that our yoga practice is not just doing exercises in the sense of gym or studio class, or posting our “successes” on social media, but the real work is in taking an honest look at ourselves, perceiving all that we are made up of in order to move closer to equanimity and balance.
Yoga, in all its bitter-sweetness, gives us information and experience so that we can better navigate through this bitter-sweet world. We learn that there will always be a bad to every good (a yin and yang), and that something can seem good or bad based on perspective or the context. Bitter exists to make us understand and enjoy sweet. We experience bad things in order to grow and understand what a good thing is – there is always beauty to be found in darkness, and peace to be found in turmoil.
Because life is made up of opposites, it therefore has every possible potential! And most importantly, Yoga teaches us that everything ultimately exists inside of us anyway, so the choice of what we feed within is all our own doing. This is why happiness to one is misery to the other. And it is within this fact that the magic of yoga really exists - we are the masters of our own practice and therefore our lives. We can choose to feed negativity, dislike and bitterness, or we can feed love, move from a place of compassion, and create more sweetness in our lives.
The best I can do as a yoga teacher, feeling conflicted myself, and trying to teach a practice of non-attachment and ego-eradication whilst wearing the latest recycled plastic leggings, and posting photos on Instagram, is to be humble, honest and authentic.
And as the saying goes – when life gives you lemons, make gin!