What is Yoga Good For?
Updated: Mar 2, 2020
Recently, I have started taking yoga classes at a studio downtown. There is Sanskrit painted on the purple walls. I learned the Sanskrit alphabet in school as a kid in Nepal, and the writing appears to be a Hindi prayer of some kind. Of course, there's nothing inherently spiritual about Sanskrit itself. The walls could just as easily read, "Stretch, assholes!" and most people would never know. For westerners, indecipherable lettering with a line across the top is a signifier for sacred. The studio space is filled with other objects meant to connote holiness—little shrines on tables with cheaply framed pictures of various bearded wise men, Buddhist religious paintings called tankas, prayer flags strung across the ceiling, round meditation cushions. No matter that these objects hail from different religious traditions, countries, and cultures. In the lobby, the sacred stuff mingles with hundred dollar yoga mats and t-shirts emblazoned with the name of the yoga studio (in English, but with a line at the top to mimic Sanskrit, of course). By proximity, this merchandise also becomes sacred, the very act of handing over your credit card a sign of your spiritual integrity. I paid twenty bucks on Amazon for my yoga mat, and it seems to be doing the trick, which is mostly absorbing the sweat from my absurdly inflexible body. My ambivalence about the studio comes from the fact that I too love these "sacred" objects. I have a Buddha tanka and a small brass statue in my writing studio; prayer bells too, which have a glorious, resonant gong when you bang them together. The difference is these objects remind me of my childhood in Nepal, and this somehow feels more authentic than just decorating a space with them because they signify oneness with the universe. I also love how yoga makes me feel—calmer, looser, more patient, less likely to strangle my kids—and this only deepens my ambivalence towards the experience of taking classes.
Part of yoga's appeal is that it helps us ask important questions about the fundamental nature of our mind-bodies. I find myself asking other questions, such as: Why must something that is basically stretching be steeped in so much bullshit? Why must so many of the teachers who are clearly American have names like Yooshi and Asoona and Mystery? And why does the practice of yoga lead so many people straight to the tattoo parlor? Or is it the other way around? Yesterday's teacher began class with a few observations about how the last couple days have been tough because of the eclipse. Apparently, the energies when the moon and sun cross paths can stir up a lot of deep-seated emotion. She seemed worn out by it, frankly. In addition to the eclipse, there were some other confluences related to the House of Crab which also seemed to be distressing her. I wanted to raise my hand and suggest she tie those little rubber bands around the claws of the crabs like at the Asian market, but I didn't get a sense that my comment would have been appreciated. Plus, in that moment, my ankle was screaming at me because I was sitting cross-legged on the floor, an advanced yoga position that pushes the very limits of my flexibility. She ended her introduction with a lovely comment about needing to be patient with ourselves, which I took as a sign that I could safely uncross my legs. She then shrugged off her doldrums with a perfectly executed neck roll, had us chant two rounds of "om" to put us in touch with our sacred energies, and off we went into Downward Dog.
Yoga teachers have it great. They can say essentially anything they want. As long it feels loosely enshrined within the confines of the sacred, us students will sit there and nod in agreement. We're not allowed to say anything! If I raised my hand and asked, "Excuse me, Nirvana, but what exactly do you mean by the inner becoming an aural manifestation of the outer, and are you referring to belly buttons?" the rest of the class would shun me. That's why I prefer teaching high school. If I told my students that my chakras were clogged because the planets were out of alignment and it was causing my chi to solidify like cold pea soup in my pineal gland, they would ask me what drugs I was taking, some a little too eagerly. But then again, teenagers have a finely attenuated bullshit meter, mostly because parents and teachers are lying to them all the time.
We are instructed to do deep backbends. The only way I can achieve this pose is to have a stack of blue (recycled, of course) foam blocks at the ready, which I shove underneath my lower back one-by-one, like winching up a broken-down car, until I am in a position which resembles a backbend. The teacher now asks us to reach underneath our back with our arms, hands entwined, and stretch towards our feet. I cannot do this for two reasons: one, it's physically fucking impossible, and two, the array of blocks underneath my back prohibits any such interaction between my right and left side bodies. For two excruciatingly long minutes we are told to "see beyond the physical sensations toward inner stillness." No one groans, laughs, farts, or complains. I can barely hear her instructions because all the blood in my body is pooling in my ears, and why must yoga teachers speak so softly all the time and in such high, irritatingly gentle registers, like they're about to euthanize a brood of puppies? If I started a yoga studio, I would name it "Swear Yoga." How refreshing if full-voiced obscenities were encouraged during class. "Fuck You, Back Body! Bend, damnit, bend!" I would also encourage interaction. "Feel free to chat with your neighbor," I'd say. After all, their splayed-leg-crotch-parts are a mere six inches from your mouth, so why not say hello?
But I do love the yoga. I keep going back. I can't seem to help myself. Can believing in something make it true? Not Santa Claus, not The Flat Earth Society, but more ethereal notions about our interconnectedness to the larger universe? Who am I to say we're not affected by the cycles of the moon? That my chakras aren't sending out invisible beams of light? That my Little Earth Life isn't more cosmically connected than I can possibly imagine? Who doesn't want to believe that we contain multitudes?
After all, something real does happen when we can focus on our breath, quiet the chatter of our mind, and bear witness to our harmonic energies in this temporal field . . . oh, god. The transformation has begun. Namaste.