House gurus

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When I read Eat, Pray, Love, I was struck by Elizabeth Gilbert’s decision to find a guru and go seek out her ashram in India.

Though I’d done yoga moderately throughout my life, I never quite understood the commitment that goes with true practice. When my uncle was learning yoga he travelled to India to study with an acclaimed guru–a prerequisite at the time for becoming a teacher yourself. I didn’t think I wanted to be a yoga teacher though, so it never occurred to me to book a ticket to India.

A yoga ashram in upstate, NY

It is easy in the United States these days to find teacher trainings in any major city, just as it is easy to find a yoga retreat center in a beautiful location. Yoga Journal, that behemoth of all things yoga, lists six destinations that “offer visitors accessible, affordable, and rewarding retreats–not just for serious seekers anymore.”

The search for a guru–an earthbound individual who can provide spiritual guidance from a higher plane–seems to defy the mass-marketed appeal of what yoga has come to mean in the United States. Certainly anyone can make that search, just as anyone can achieve the status of guru (I, in fact, won the title of House Guru at my sorority, for which my job duties included sharing pieces of wisdom and making sisters laugh at our meetings). Of course, the attainment of guru status requires a specific lifestyle, discipline, philosophy, and attitude, yet it is not so rarefied as being a religious savior. Perhaps that is why some of us seek out gurus, in different shapes and guises–they are people who may be closer to enlightenment, yet they are still human. As much as we might long for the mystical, it is through the teachings of other humans that we know what we are capable of.

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Yoga is for posers

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When I was a kid I had a book of yoga postures for children and loved to page through it, trying out my favorites: archer pose (in which your foot touches your ear as if you were drawing an arrow), eagle pose, and the one where you got to walk around on your knees. The only thing I didn’t like about the book was that it disabused me of the idea that I’d created my own pose–I was sorely disappointed when I came across the shoulder stand pose, photographed and documented.

Following are some of my favorite poses, done by people in beautiful locations. Let’s start with Eagle:

yoga eagle poseTree Pose:

yoga tree poseWarrior Pose:

yoga warrior poseSide Angle Pose:

Dancer Pose:

yoga dancer poseKing Pigeon Pose:

yoga pigeon poseAnnnnd, Shoulder Stand, the pose I once invented:

yoga shoulder stand pose

Partner yoga dance fusion

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I recently heard a complaint that in America every yoga class now has to be some sort of “fusion”–though yoga on its own seemed to work fine for a few thousand years, now students are looking for something new every other month. Aerial yoga, yogilates, booty ballet, tribal fusion–now yoga will never get boring! (Unlike that totally dull meditation stuff).

But every once in a while, fusion can lead to an incredible new form. My yoga teacher from Spain, a Facebook friend, recently posted this video. UH-mazing:

How to be a yogi

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What you’ll need: yoga mat, bendy limbs

Songlist: Faith Hill’s BreatheTwist and Shout by the Beatles

Further reading: The Yamas and Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice by Deborah Adele, or, ya know, Eat, Pray, Love

I was always “different” as a kid. My parents stopped eating meat while living in Morocco for the Peace Corps and raised my brother and me as vegetarians. My friends would give up meat for Lent to see what it was like, and complain after a few days, wondering how I didn’t have constant cravings for burgers (hint: it’s easy if you’ve never had one). Furthermore, one of my hobbies was doing yoga, a strange-sounding practice that no one had heard of in 1993 in my elementary school (“But I thought you were Christian?” they’d say in confusion).

My uncle spent several years living at Kripalu, a yoga center in Massachusetts, learning and then teaching yoga. We visited him often, and sometimes took classes there as well. In a photo album from 1990, my uncle is in a picture-perfect downward dog, while I, all of four years old, am doing my best to imitate the pose next to him.

By the time I got to college, yoga was no longer a foreign concept, but I had become a stranger to it: I hadn’t practiced in a decade. Luckily, my college had a PE requirement, which could be fulfilled in numerous exciting ways: white-water kayaking, snowboarding, and yoga. I chose all of the above.

I became so enamored of it that the summer after I graduated I got an unlimited pass to a nearby chain-yoga-studio, CorePower. True to its mass-produced nature, every class I took had the exact same sequence of poses. From June to August I appreciated this fact, always knowing what was coming next, and realizing when I could go deeper in a pose than I’d been able to before. By September I was bored. And then I moved to Spain.

The author, at far right, doing yoga in the mountains

Somehow I got lucky enough not only to be placed in a town with a yoga instructor, but also to move in to an apartment directly across the street from where that yoga instructor taught her classes. Every Wednesday afternoon my roommate and I would stroll across to the centuries-old monastery and do an hour or so of yoga, led both in English and Spanish (I learned the words for body parts in Spanish really quickly). In the springtime our teacher–who had become one of our closest friends–drove us out to the Spanish countryside and we would do yoga in the mountains or facing up at our gorgeous white town.

Now back in the United States, I haven’t yet found an analogous class. In Spain there were rarely more than about five or six students, so our teacher shaped the class to our capabilities. She knew what we struggled with, and what we were getting better at. I certainly never got bored.

I’ve gone to CorePower a few times since returning, but sometimes I notice myself getting competitive, glancing around to assure myself that my leg is higher or my back straighter than my neighbors’. But, of course, yoga is not about competition, and it’s not only about the body. The original intent of yogic practices was to attain spiritual insight and inner balance. And while balance is difficult to find in the midst of a packed schedule and an even more crowded yoga studio, it is certainly attainable in the mountains of Spain. Yoga retreat, anyone?