Practicing yoga feels like this: my body is on an operating table. My consciousness is the surgeon. I open up my chest, and there’s my heart. I have full permission to look at every corner of it, learn about how it works, see its insides. There is a bright light above my body that I can shine wherever I’d like.
I know what’s missing from Western yoga and spirituality practice. It provides us with the operating room, a pair of scrubs, and a scalpel. And then, with a pat on the butt and a “go get em Tiger,” we are expected to know how to operate. We are on our own.
So, we go into these spiritual quests without a clue about how to navigate something as tender and complex as a human heart. We can feel that, so we glance back at our teachers and guides with a look of fear, but somehow if we don’t keep going it is because we are not brave enough, not loving enough. So our hands shake as we take the scalpel, make an incision that we’re a little weary might hurt us because we don’t know what we’re doing, but no, don’t go back, keep being brave, and then we feel brave for a moment so we keep going and eventually rip our chests open wide.
And there is it. Your heart. You poke and prod at it, having no idea if what you’re doing is safe or helpful. You take it in your hands, examine all parts of it, and things are getting a little too scary so you call it a day. You put your heart back in your chest, but aren’t sure which way it goes. You attempt to sew yourself up, but you’ve never been taught how to do that. So you wing it. You winged the whole thing.
And then for days afterwards you feel different, worse. It’s just part of the process, you tell yourself. You’re told to always keep going towards your heart, to keep looking at it even if it’s hard. So, day after day, you repeat the process of tearing yourself open, taking a look around without a map, and then attempting to put yourself back together again.
I haven’t gone to a yoga class in a very long time, but a few weeks back I went to a three-hour long workshop on a Sunday. It was held in a basement of a very nice woman’s house in San Francisco. I’m not sure what made me go, but I did. It has been a challenge for me to write about what happened that day in a way that makes a lot of sense. But I’ll try.
It was the first time in a very long time that I was not encouraged by the teacher to just rip myself open. Instead, I was being taught how to go about opening myself in a way that is safe and loving. I was being taught how to look at something as delicate as my heart, and how to navigate its dark, turbulent waters. Instead of being disoriented, I finally felt like I had my bearings. I was given a map and step-by-step directions, without the pressure of using any of that information immediately or even any time soon. But, sure enough, in those three hours I had cut myself open, looked around, and sewed myself back up again. It was different from usual though. The cuts were clean and precise, I hadn’t knocked a bunch of things over when I was looking around, and I closed the incision in a way that could heal properly. There was such a gentleness to the whole thing.
This is what scares me about pop-culture yoga, about spiritualism being the next cool thing, about how easy it is to obtain a certificate that qualifies you to teach yoga, or meditation, or energy/bodywork. This is serious stuff we’ve made into an industry that breathes off money. We are dealing with matters of the heart.
This is why I haven’t taught yoga in so long. I wonder if I am qualified and have enough knowledge to teach people how to do this stuff. After hundreds of hours of training, all I’ve been taught are things like how to pronounce paschimottanasana and what poses you shouldn’t do if you’re pregnant. I have no idea how to guide someone through the light and dark areas of their being. I am still learning how to do that myself.
There is this thing that happens when you start doing yoga or any kind of spiritual practice–you start judging the hell out of yourself. You take a good hard look at yourself, see all of this darkness, and then tell yourself how ugly is it, how inconvenient it is, how those seven years of yoga haven’t done any good at all if you’re still dealing with this kind of stuff. Really? We say to ourselves. Anger? Jealousy? Insecurity? Are you seriously still dealing with that? Have you really not forgiven that person yet? Really?
The whole practice becomes abusive, the opposite of what it should be.
I remember the early, early days of my yoga practice. I would hold on to the darkness I found within myself so tightly, I would play with it like Kitty used to play with the mice he killed. I would bite down on it, fling it across the yard, run after it and pin it down with a paw, shake it as if to simulate life. I didn’t know what else to do with it. I didn’t know I could place it in the palm of my hand, speak to myself about it like a mother would a child: “Oh George, you did your best, you’re so good,” and then give it a kiss goodbye.
The majority of my teachers never told me that. And that worries me, because I think that should be the first thing we’re taught.
As we reach the winter solstice and a new moon, (this might sound all astrological and bullshitty but I think a lot of people can feel it) the season calls for us to go deep within ourselves, to walk towards our darkness. Recently I have forgotten to do this in a way that isn’t mean. It is so easy to be mean to ourselves during this time of year. We must do this with love and so much gentleness because we are so precious. We can’t just rip ourselves open, we have to go slowly, with a little bit of a smile, and a voice that is like how we would talk to a child or our lover: “Oh babe, you’re alright. I’ve got you.”
I’m not a religious girl and I don’t really know the whole story behind Christmas but what I’ve taken away from the holiday is that something really beautiful was birthed in a time of darkness. This didn’t happen on accident. It happened as a way to give us hope, joy, and most importantly, we were offered a map, a guide, someone to light the way as we walk through the depths.