An un-yogic yogi paradox

Posing at the magnificent Pirin mountains in Bulgaria

Posing at the magnificent Pirin mountains in Bulgaria

This summer I've taught yoga during yoga and hiking holidays in Bulgaria. I find those trips a perfect blend of work and leisure: I teach classes twice daily but the rest of the time I can enjoy outdoors adventures. I've been doing it for a while now and I must admit that initially it was difficult for me to adapt to the concept. I was used to yoga retreats, where anything apart from yoga was an additional attraction- welcome, but not necessary. Hiking and yoga holidays are exactly the opposite: people treat yoga classes as a chance to loosen up their muscles before and after the hike.

 During my first trip, I was surprised to see everyone drinking well into the night just to wake up early for the yoga class the following day. I grew so much used to it by now that I didn't even raise my eyebrows when I had to teach an evening class just a few hours after a traditional Bulgarian lunch, served with plenty of home-brewed rakija spirits. Yoga Nidra (guided relaxation) seemed the safest option for that day: adaptation is a key to success on such trips. I consider it a useful experience to remind me yoga doesn't usually hold a central position in most of the practitioners' lives.

Teaching yoga after the hike

Teaching yoga after the hike

This trip was an eye- opener for me for a completely different reason, though. One of the conversations I had with the organizer of this trip put me initially in a state of shock and disbelief but after a longer deliberation actually and very sadly rang true. We were talking about different kinds of holidays he was offering: some focusing on hiking only, some combined with yoga. According to my employer, people who liked his company so much that they attended multiple trips each year, tended to avoid yoga holidays. It had nothing to do with aversion to yoga as such. Apparently, the real reason to avoid those holidays was the kind of people that yoga was attracting. So, what was wrong with the yoga enthusiasts? Again and again, the regular hikers reported that they didn't get along very well with the people coming to yoga holidays who tended to be 'fussy, selfish and unwilling to share'.

finding vegan food abroad can be hard

finding vegan food abroad can be hard

I thought: how could that even be possible? Aren't the ideals of yoga exactly the opposite? I could easily explain to myself the argument of fussiness. What is a firm principle for one (eg. being a vegan) could probably sound like fussiness and inflexibility to an average person. And trust me, trying to be a vegan sometimes presents a real challenge. This year, I was served in a 4 star Slovakian hotel boiled broccoli and cauliflower as a vegan breakfast! I took it with a smile, though- as long as I was getting something to eat, I was ready to put up with inconveniences for a couple of days. Keeping the fussiness argument aside it still leaves us with the selfishness accusation. And if it was an argument raised many times, it must have carried a seed of truth.

mala beads - a sign of belongin to the yoga tribe

mala beads - a sign of belongin to the yoga tribe

That made me think of other instances of un-yogic behaviour in the yoga community. A significant number of the 'trendy yogis' seem to relish wearing their expensive Lululemon clothes and glittering mala beads (yogic rosaries used for mantra repetition). Once, out of curiosity I attended a workshop of Dharma Mittra (founder of a major contemporary yoga school) organized by one of the major yoga schools in London. The majority of participants were causally doing various acrobatic poses while waiting for their guru to appear. I suppose just in case others might miss how skilled at advanced asanas they are. My friend, an Astanga yoga teacher, told me she avoids some yoga schools because the atmosphere is too competitive there! 

More surprising still, many dedicated yogis (not only the trendy kind but also ardent followers of a particular guru) tend to look down on others- the 'unhealthy' and 'unspiritual' masses.  All of this is rather disturbing for me and suggests that although mala- wearing modern yogis might have heard of yamas and niyamas (moral guidelines expounded in one of the classic yoga scriptures), they have little desire to actually comply with them.

Most of the contemporary yoga schools making any sort of claims of being linked to the spiritual tradition of yoga often define themselves as belonging to ancient Raja or Astanga Yoga branch. At the base of this 8-step ladder towards the final goal -the enlightenment- are yamas and niyamas, followed by asana, pranayama and mental practices leading to meditation. In other words, in theory, the prerequisite for doing yoga as we understand it (physical postures) is establishing strong moral base and discipline relating to outer and inner world.

The five yamas, self-regulating behaviors relating to interactions with others are:

  • Ahimsa: nonviolence
  • Satya: truthfulness
  • Asteya: non-stealing
  • Brahmacharya: non-excess
  • Aparigraha: non-possessiveness, non-greediness

The five niyamas, personal, inner practices include:

  • Saucha: purity
  • Santosha: contentment
  • Tapas: self-discipline
  • Svadhyaya: self-study
  • Ishvara Pranidhana: surrender (to God or something higher than us)
 JP Sears  uses satire to expose hypocrisy of yoga community

 JP Sears  uses satire to expose hypocrisy of yoga community

Of course I don't expect all the people practicing yoga becoming perfect. As I mentioned before, most of the yoga practitioners treat it as a very peripheral sphere of their lives. However, if a significant number of more dedicated yoga practitioners tend to be more flawed than an average hiker that is in my opinion a reason for concern. And I don't think it's just my imagination or exaggeration. JP Sears, a comedian whose satirical videos draw lots of attention on YouTube mercilessly exposes the hypocrisy of yoga community [check out his 'Ultraspiritual' video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1kDso5ElFRg]

For me yoga has little to do with physical prowess -it's a state of mind, an attitude towards oneself, other people and the world in general. A mindful, content and compassionate person who hasn't attended a single yoga class in his life is in my eyes more of a yogi than an arrogant or exploitative yoga teacher celebrity.