My first yoga teacher, after three years of practicing with her in college, told me she was going to slap me if I didn't straighten my knee more in a certain standing posture. Before thinking, I blurted out,” You can't slap me!” She did not like this, grew cold towards me, and eventually took it back to her teacher, the infamous Bikram, asking him what she should do about me. I actually don't recall what he said, because by then I had dismissed her as an appropriate teacher for me any longer . I wasn't sure why, I just felt wronged. I also knew that my knee was as straight as it gets, with maybe a bit of pudge right above the kneecap: no amount of slapping would change that!
Looking back, I see that at 21 years old I was starting to push against my own and others ideas of “doing things right”. I was starting to feel tired of the pressure that I put on myself all the time, the drive to be perfect at everything I did. It was exhausting. Yoga was supposed to relieve my exhaustion, energize and leave me feeling good. After three years of following a teacher who believed so strongly that there was a “right way” to do yoga, I was fed-up.
Nowadays, yoga, for me, is not at all about achieving the perfect posture. I feel sad when I hear people say, “I'm not flexible enough to do yoga”, or “ I'm not young enough” or any other “not enough”. As a yoga teacher I 'm not interested in how you look when you do a posture (as long as if you are being safe), or how much of the full expression of it you can master. I'm not interested in you being “good” at it in any way, as long as you are showing up for yourself. That means coming to class, or getting on your own mat at home, and attempting to be present with whatever experience you are having, be that ease or struggle.
Easier said than done! Like anything we attempt to do in this culture, we tend to measure ourselves against some arbitrary standard, in this case, perhaps the yoga models in tight pants doing hand-stand splits. Or we might compare ourself to the teacher, or to the other people in the room (“Oh look at her, she is touching her toes. I'm so bad at this!I just need to try harder!”). We look at them and judge ourselves as not good enough. And then we feel cruddy.
Yoga should not be fancy. Yoga should not be about achieving a crazy perfected acrobatic pose. Or even touching your toes! There is nothing wrong with fancy postures if you enjoy doing them. But when we use them as standards to measure ourselves by and then criticize ourselves, we create more of the separation and isolation that is the root of suffering. In this way, instead of infusing our life with a sense of union or connection, which is the true purpose of yoga, fancy perfection-striving yoga perpetuates the culture of self-loathing. It fosters the drive to prove ourselves and to do more and be “better”. This striving de-values who we actually are and deadens the spirit. This is exactly the opposite of what yoga is supposed to do. It's supposed to be life-giving, not life squelching!
No pose should appear perfect when looking at it from the outside. A pose is about what it does for you on the inside, what it calls you to attend to in yourself. Call me radical, but for me, only imperfect yoga is true yoga. Yoga is about overcoming perfectionism. When we are worried about not being as good as someone else or even our future potential yoga-star self, we are not in the present reality of this moment. We are somewhere else. When we are somewhere else we are separating ourselves from what is. We are split. Yoga is returning to what is real now: the tension in your hamstrings and brow, the weight of your hands, the breath ebbing and flowing, the crazy thoughts running through your mind or the song you can't get out of your head in the background of your awareness, the sadness, grouchiness, giddiness or numbness you feel, the sounds inside and around you. Returning attention to all of it. THAT is union. That is Yoga.
I spent some time in India. I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon at the studio of BKS Iyengar, one of the fathers of modern yoga. His daughter was teaching a class, which I was able to observe. I was shocked to watch how she targeted one woman, yelling at her and probing her with a stick as she criticized her forward bend. She was driving her to be better, express the pose more perfectly. Now, there may be a place for some of us for this more drill sergeant approach, but in the west, we have delicate egos, flimsy senses of self. We need yoga to nourish and build our stability and sense of who we are. We need to NOT have our teacher beat us up. We do way too much of that to ourselves as it is. What we in the west need is compassion and self-compassion.
In terms of yoga, then, what we need is an approach that is curious, gentle and kind. That is a far cry from the kind of teaching Gita was offering. So I will leave Gita and her stick to India, and Bikram to his collection of luxury cars; I will teach and practice yoga so as to build love and the experience of connection into my life and yours. And I will tell you over and over that you are perfect whether you can touch your toes or not; that you are perfect in your imperfection on the mat and in the moment, just as you are.