Different logic • 11 September 2009

The next street over is called Hiscock. Nobody blinks.

They call our neighborhood the Upper West Side: the upper west side. Amused by the contrast, I’ll mention to the natives that other neighborhood of the same name. They shrug.

The central feature of the next town over, Ypsilanti, is a Shivalinga water tower, sitting on the banks of the Huron pumped full of water. It’s enormous, and more literal even than Lincoln, Nebraska’s, infamous capital building when it comes to representation. Every weekend of summer, they hold an auto show for vintage and muscle cars in the shadow of the tower. Nobody seems to question it.

Is it that people around here are more naïve than the rest of us, or more mature?

With respect to the yoga, to my surprise it’s the latter. Michigan makes Cali look so, so bad. Coastal chauvinist that I am, I’d expected things around here to be derivative. They’re not.

Here is what I’ve come to see as normal in yogaland: facebook friends who send me requests to become their “fans” and who share with me every one of their latest magazine photoshoots and extremely vapid guest columns in exercise magazines; female self-promoters who have airbrushed naked images—“art portraits”—of themselves to share with prospective male students; an instructor whose client gave her a new pair of extremely visible D-cups as a present; teachers who list their dance performance background as part of their credentials; outright divas who present themselves as experts of sequencing; men who envision themselves as producers, sending out each class’s audio playlist a day in advance; people who have changed their own names to words in some language they don’t even speak; people who give gibberish philosophy lectures because they have lost the real world working person’s ability to identify practical knowledge; people who have a .com after their names. Basically: people on the make. Either as wise men or as window meat for the Yoga Journal.

Among students in Cali, there is understandably a full disconnect between practice and life. A belief that work and family are outside of practice, inimical to it.

Details like these are so cringeworthy that I feel petty writing them down. But there they are. I think I wrote this blog for the first year or two just to try to make sense of how this stuff could grow like a fungus on a tradition so simple, humble, and intensively inward-looking.

What I didn’t realize is that, in this business, So Cal may not be all that much of a cultural center.

Last week I got a little lonely in my practice, even though the space here is such a vortex of good things; and even though once I enter that room each morning it is difficult to ask myself to leave. So I went to the funny Acropolis of Yoga—A2 Yoga—a renovated auto shop on a hill west of town. The small building stands alone overlooking several empty lots, a long hill, and the ring road that leads to the Big House (the University stadium). It is still very much an auto shop—one of the rooms still has a giant garage door for a wall, but it’s been sealed shut and painted white on the inside. But now it has columns, bold taupe plaster ones the length of the building, and a sign that makes “A2” look, adorably, more like “A squared.” The floors are the finest I’ve found: springy underneath, and made of some smooth, dark-stained hardwood.

The two teachers I met there were some of the easiest flow yoga company I’ve had the luck to find. One is a dissertator in mechanical engineering whose faux-hawk would not fly west of the Mississippi but whose alignment instruction is actually more intelligent than most I’ve heard (this town’s deep Iyengar influences seem to come in at the margins here in good ways). The second, someone with the skill, beauty, sophistication and charisma to “make it” if she thought yoga were about that, brought a battered copy of the Yoga Sutra to class, arriving tired since her day job as a fundraiser for cancer research had taken her to New York for the weekend. Every posture she taught had three versions to accommodate everyone in her large class; and the instruction drew on a thorough knowledge of Ashtanga, Iyengar and Anusara styles without any need to demonstrate fealty to any of them for the sake of solidifying her teacherly identity. She began and ended with pranayama and everyone loved it because she was sure of its value. Afterward we talked a bit, me just wondering if this creature—the cancer research champion with the night job as the town healer—was for real. She was mostly interested in jet lag, GTD, and the box of old funk records someone just gave her. But then she looked at me and noted casually that she understood: It’s exciting to have you join us… I know how it is. Sometimes I just need to practice with people.

How much easier it is to do that with a teacher who’s not trying to make you promote her, or turn you in to her devotee, and who isn’t packaging up your experience up to separate it off from the rest of your life and sell it back to you with a soundtrack.

So Cal is a wonderful life and I look forward to returning to it, but it's a pretty corny amusement park with respect to the yoga. Living there, watching the yoga industry happen, I’d always imagined the world beyond was watching us decide what western yoga was going to be. From this vantage in the middle of America, it looks more like we Californians have been the naïve ones, taking ourselves very seriously without realizing the rest of the subculture is much more mature.