Yoga With a Capital Y

Clever Manka, · Categories: Manka's Posts · Tags: , ,

I thought I would let people know that in my search for images to use for the top of this article I came across this pic which is borderline NSFW (barely-not-naked man doing lotus pose) but you totally need to see because wow that’s fucking impressive.

Gopi was my first and best yoga teacher. It was an unlikely thing, when I was first looking at yoga, to choose her out of all the teachers in the Lawrence area. For one, her studio was in a different town, about half an hour south of Lawrence (that’s a long drive when there’s probably two yoga teachers for every square mile of this burg). I could probably have found a class close enough to walk to, but I picked the one whose route included not only a two-lane, unlit country highway but a quarter mile of gravel road and, finally, a one-lane dirt driveway that curved and turned around several buildings (as well as cows, cats, and peacocks). In addition to the drive, there was serious dedication to chanting at the open and close each class—not just your basic “om.” While we were in a pose, Gopi often read scripture, passages from Light On Yoga, or stories about the divine creatures, sages, and objects that gave their names to poses. This was Yoga with a capital-fucking-Y.

Krishna consciousness preaches love above all and I know their religion has its problems like everyone else, but Gopi walks her talk. She made me feel happy, safe, and loved in her class. In addition to being skilled at postural cues and instruction, she is the most compassionate, honest, and kind person I have ever known. I’ve attended classes with several other teachers, but Gopi is the only one who has evoked a sensation of home during class. When I decided to enroll in teacher training, I didn’t bother looking for other, more secular-based classes. If I was going to teach yoga, I wanted my students to feel the way Gopi made me feel.

When I signed up, I knew there would be a strong Spiritual component. We would have scriptural study of the Bhagavad Gita and The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali as part of the training, but not all-one-all-one ecumenical hippie happiness spirituality. I’m not saying that sort of thing isn’t great or doesn’t have a place, just that I knew this wasn’t that type of class.

After finishing the first weekend of the class, I can say I was right. I’m pretty sure the eleven remaining weekends will lighten up on the intensive study of the Bhagavad Gita and Sutras and begin focusing more on how those philosophies are incorporated into the poses, mudras, and practices. But even if they don’t, even if (oh please don’t) the classes continue to be hours of focused study on the meaning of the scriptures and sutras and discussions of beliefs and tenets (many of which I not only disbelieve but actively disagree with), I wouldn’t choose to be certified from any other teacher.

I believe we do a disservice to the culture that created yoga when we exclude it from its origins. Using it strictly as a means of exercise, or putting it in an environment that cultivates competition or envy is troublesome and appropriative (I can make a comparison to bellydance and the ways even good dancers can be appropriative if anyone wants to discuss that in the comments). It was important for me to learn yoga’s spiritual history and beliefs—to know and understand the concepts even if (when) they didn’t mesh with my views of the world.

Spirituality is not my jam. I was raised a Very Observant Christian but shed that pretty easily after a few months outside of Small Town Kansas. As a cultural background, I don’t mind it so much and it gave me a leg up in Art History classes for sure. After a fling with witchery in my late teens and early 20s, I declared myself an atheist (no agnosticism for me!) and earned a degree in Religious Studies to seal the deal. Never say never, of course, but the chances of finding My Path in the pages of Bhagavad Gita are pretty fucking slim. I rankle at the lack of women’s representation (and when they appear, they are usually wives, mothers, daughters, etc.), I am absolutely not on board with the notion of karma, and the heavy emphasis on a gender binary in the more esoteric areas (the right and left sides of the body, etc.) are bothersome to say the least. But there is an emotional-psychological component that I believe is intrinsic to yoga practice and if one wants to call that spiritual, I’m fine with that. Whatever it’s called, it’s important to include it in one’s own practice and crucial to include it in the teaching of others.

For twelve weekends (distributed somewhat haphazardly through the year), I’ll be attending a class that includes at least a few hours of scriptural study as well as an evening session with a community of Krishna Consciousness people, chanting, listening to a visiting swami-in-residence at Gopi’s farm, and working to find ways to interpret and apply the concepts to my own life (without fooling myself or anyone else that I am anything more than a respectful student). Am I going to convert? Good odds say no. But do I want to understand and respect the cultural aspects that developed the art and science of yoga? Absolutely yes.

The food barriers in my own life are why, before the classes even began, I found myself in the position of having to ask Gopi if I could (in good faith) deny her request to follow what she calls a yogi diet (no meat, fish, poultry, eggs, onions, garlic, or mushrooms) at least on the days we are having class, and for the lunch potlucks to bring only foods that adhered to it. Gopi is Gopi so of course she was concerned and compassionate to my dilemma. As the first class weekend neared, though, I decided I would at least try to honor the yogi diet rules. During Saturday’s lunchtime potluck I even had some of her mung dal soup. That turned out to be a very informative choice and I won’t be repeating it (Gopi was alarmed when she saw how much my abdomen had swollen by Sunday morning), but I feel better having made the choice to try.

I appreciate Gopi’s interpretation of spirituality. She embraces the efforts of those trying our best to make ourselves better, searching for our best selves, even when it’s just trying to figure out what our best self looks like. She doesn’t expect everyone (or anyone) to be in the same place mentally or physically. She accepts everyone in their current mind and body because who they are right then in her class is exactly who they need to be at that moment—they are home. There is no gym-style yoga certification that could teach me to help myself and others find the home of yoga in ourselves. For the opportunity to develop that skill, I will practice sitting, I will practice listening, and I will practice yoga with the most unlikely-for-me teacher in the most unlikely-for-me style of class. For me, there couldn’t be a better choice.


clevermankaClever Manka is your site host. She is not going to pretend she felt at all guilty buying a rotisserie chicken from the deli on her way home from Sunday’s class.

12 Responses to “Yoga With a Capital Y”

  1. Rillquiet says:

    One of the perks of tenure at the university level was that one of my undergrad profs was able to parlay his hobby into a single-credit course that used Go to teach basics about Buddhism. It was a doddle for him and for the handful of upperclassmen who managed to snag a spot–short readings, write a 250-word reaction piece each week, and then just learn about and spend hours playing the game–but it framed the idea of karma in a way I found useful. In Go, you try to claim territory by setting identical black or white pieces on the board at the intersections of a grid. There are no pawns or queens, so no piece has special abilities, and there is no home row or Triple Word Score, so players can't automatically level up by picking a specific intersection. But each choice closes some doors and opens others, giving or taking away opportunities for your future moves in the game. The sum of a player's choices, then, is karma. (The lack of moral judgment about moves is an issue I find problematic when applied to real-life situations, but that's another story.)

    • CleverManka says:

      …kind of? But that still smacks of victim-blaming and offers no explanation for rich, powerful, evil people (who cry all the way to the bank, I'm so sure). I hate even the hint of telling someone they are responsible for their misfortunes. Nope. Not on board with the idea of karma.

      • Rillquiet says:

        I think the implication was that you could, as a player, be up against someone who was having a better day, but yeah, there are definitely limits to the analogy.

        • Doc_Paradise says:

          I was taught GO by someone who had a vested interest in using games to prop up his self-image and presentation image.

          What I take away from your story and my own experience is that… even in a game which is presented as having inherent equality (ie choice of placement of pieces) still has outcomes based on invisibles not represented in the set frame yet influencing the set frame.

          Your teacher brought the concept of using the game as a tool of understanding and his students learned both the game and the concept being taught. The person who taught me brought the concept of competitive winning as a proof of skill and intelligence to the table… and after I figured out what invisible was sitting with us at the table… I got up and left.

          Your experience of GO sounds like a fun way to use a metaphor set in a context to explore a concept that you can't directly experience.

  2. RoseCamelia says:

    OMG Yes! That man you link to at the top is amazing. Very impressive pose. I think you could have posted his image if his trunks were a more obvious color.

    Also impressive: your reasoning and choices in your yoga practice and teacher training. So many potential barriers, but our Manka sees them as assets, uses them like a staircase as she works her way toward her goals.

  3. Doc_Paradise says:

    I'd probably like her.

  4. meat lord says:

    This is a good post and reminds me strongly of my own experiences with Akido as a kid/teen–the emotional/psychological/spiritual component of movement, the religion/philosophy that you don't believe in but are learning from nonetheless.

    • CleverManka says:

      Thank you for putting it so well! Just because I don't believe in it doesn't mean I can't learn from it. That's…perfect. And very helpful for those days when I feel like the woo-woo is getting a little much. Like last night, when I was reading through the chakra workbook text and just…oof.

  5. Sara Davis says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. I'm trying to get back to yoga and am starting to feel that I might benefit from a class–extra motivation, support, modifications, etc. that I'm not getting from yoga DVDs and memory. But I feel a little fearful about classes; I've been to some that were very competitive and not entirely body-positive, and while this was simply annoying when I was younger and fitter, I worry that it might feel more crushing now.
    But safe and supportive yoga teachers exist, and sometimes it's good to be brave and take risks.

  6. Crivens_the_hag says:

    I miss yoga, but I was not able to chose your balanced approach to the philosophical aspects that conflicted with my values when I studied years ago. Maybe now I could manage, as an old.
    This piece is lovely.

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