Written early July, but the internet felt demented this month. So this is set to publish on the 31st.
1. Relationship’s not easy. Celebrity is the empty status of being above relationship.
It’s a weird time to be in a dunbar-number of committed relationships. Among those I love, there have been major life changes, new stresses, shocking news that takes weeks to integrate, challenges in the body, plus occasional mind-tornadoes. Not for everyone, but enough for to bring uncanny shudders to the stop-motion reality circus that is July 2018.
Twitter thinks July represents a new episteme, a down-leveling into the increasingly demented nature of our times. I’m going with the idea that it’s just a blip. If this idea of our zeitgeist doesn’t resonate with you, talk to a health care or emergency services worker, or some grandparents: they may say that these are the looniest times any of us has lived through.
The cosmic play is just as epic. True metaphor: the planet of war is moving very close to the earth, backtracking and circling us with nostrils flared and heaving. This stalking goes down in the light of an equally constipated Neptune, old mythic marker of delusion and confusion. And the longest eclipse of the century is on Guru Purnima. Hey by the way, yoga’s cosmic; ashtanga particularly so. The lore and location of the planets is background for teaching this yoga.
Anyway, a few dust devils are touching down on reality around me. In these times the most meaningful thing in my experience is showing up for the long-term relationships. Many of them. It’s not been an easy time. There has been far more anger, irrationality and body pain than usual.
This is not a problem; if anything, the steadiness of practice this month makes me think the yoga is working. If a practice can be steady under great weight, in the presence of great distraction, or when there is pain, then it can be steady for anything. When stuff comes up and we stay the course, I take it to mean yoga is working.
When I started meditating, I contracted this particular fantasy. I say contracted because spiritual bypassing is a communicative disease, passing from person to person in the form of ideas, clichéd motivational sayings, and coping mechanisms. Bypassing got in to me in the form of the following lie: I can meditate my way out of relationship pain. So, when there was any sort of difficulty in relationship, it upped the urgency to get my fantasy-idea of enlightened. Poof. Human suffering got you down? Too much uncanny self-awareness? Not a problem if you don’t have a self! Get enlightened today!
Meta-delusions here: Relationship wouldn’t be hard if I just didn’t care. Relationship wouldn’t be hard if I just didn’t have a self. It took a long time to see the way this lie operated inside of me, and then slowly to see through it and the fear that drove it.
This idea that not having a self makes relationship easy isn’t just avoidant and delusional. It’s the cover for the self-rejection that shows up in a lot of spiritual communities. If I could just not be a person, nothing would hurt.
But there’s a snag. Any true practice clarifies the personality. Leaves you less in the dark about the subconscious. Therefore MORE yourself. Just with increasing timespace between the stories.
Yoga mostly does this through relationship. In person, long term, real relationship. Breathing together, being together in space, over time. Learning to just be present. Yoga transforms through relationship.
This is a real principle in yoga. Did you know?
Relationship is your actual food. If you have a practice that happens on the subtle level.
For the meat-body practice, meals are the food. For the mind, sensory experience is the food. And again, relationship is nourishment. The spirit starves without it.
Relationship what we mean when we say transmission, if we don’t mean brand. Being together in present time, over a long time. Yoga, Eliade claimed, is the art of making peace with the fact that we live in time.
There is this fantasy now that you can substitute online for relationship. This is a two-dimensional version of the meditator’s stop-having-a-self fantasy. The idea here is that if you just keep things from being present and real by inhabiting internet personae, you won’t have to experience pain. In both the meditator escape and the social media escape, you don’t have to offer another person your three-dimensional presence. No breathing together. And no shared bodily experience in present time.
The alienation that I am describing lays the groundwork for fake relationship to colonize our minds. Because we get lonely.
By fake relationship, I mean celebrity. We settle for celebrity. We numb our critical minds and our senses to celebrity. We give our power to celebrity.
And then, maybe, some of us start to hope that we too could erase our small-selves so completely that we could become celebrity. The fantasy is that celebrity is the ultimate empty self, who has no relationship pain. Because celebrity is the status of being above relationship.
2. I love my friends who teach. Their show-up is strong.
Celebrity might destroy most of yoga. Is it time for such yoga to die anyway? I don’t know, but before it does, my teacher-friends and I have questions for the machine.
I’ll teach yoga in five countries this year, learning from devoted teacher-colleagues in different contexts. They are helping me articulate new questions, about how we as teachers use our personae, and how to resist the temptation to run away from relationship. I have learned a lot on the ground about what’s broken in yoga. That’s another post.
But first, what’s not broken is hundreds of my beloved friends-colleagues around the world, the ones showing me every day how yoga teaching is done. These people just show up, when the earthly weather, and space weather, and emotional weather, are all on fire. When relationship is really hard. When students are not kind. I learn from my friends how yoga teaching is done, because I watch them showing up for their many relationships anyway.
Celebrites may tell you that their specialness is a form of relationship. They love you sooooo much. You in particular. Like a god loves you.
It’s not true. It’s that normals feed celebrity. Adulation is a strange sort of denial. Worship turns humans into gods. But respect is copresent. Respect : relationship :: worship : celebrity. Both are glue.
I spent the first 9 years of my yoga practice among the elites of Santa Monica. I learned a lot among the ‘lebrities, primarily compassion. Never glittering praise, never the pedestal, never the many varieties of worshipful anti-relationship. Objectification is not nice, even if it’s what a person learns to crave when co-presence and accountability drop away.
Why compassion for the ‘lebrity? Because the hardest world to learn human lessons in is the one where everyone tells you that you’re special.
You know this if you’ve been close with someone who crossed over to the godrealm. If (big if) the dopamine-narcissism wears off, there is a special poverty of spirit one has to fight in order to stay a whole person in the face of a world that sees celebrity. Celebrity isn’t a person; it’s the way a group defines its objects.
Weekday afternoons, the yoga industry barfs in my in-box. Has this happened to you? It’s an experience common to my friends who teach. One has to laugh. The barf is beautifully designed.
And the barf is funny, because of the context in which it lands. I’ll explain. What follows is the work day of me, to suggest what it’s like for hundreds of fellow teachers around the world. If your teacher is primary caregiver to children or elders, or if they live in a place with rent so high that they have to touch people for more than three hours per day OR have a second job, their work is incalculably harder than mine. I cannot imagine. For these people, it is such a kindness to recognize what they are doing to create healing spaces and pass on real knowledge in the face of absurdity.
Please, be good to these ones who work the hardest. Recognize how much value they are creating for students when they could so easily sell out as I describe below.
Me, having fewer outside responsibilities than my friends, I get up between 3 – 3:30. Roll in to shala around 4. Clean. Practice yoga for about 2 hours. The energy economy of my breath, concentration and movement is always determined by the imperative to create a huge amount of energy to offer later when I’m working with others. If my students need more – like they did today, because it was a rare day to give new postures – I cultivate my awareness and reserves accordingly. My daily practice is there to sharpen my perception and stabilize my mind, to build up the subtle energy within the space, to demonstrate communicate that the job of teaching begins with meditation and self-care.
The most excited students start rolling around 5, so the last hour of my practice is in their company. Then from 6:15 – 8:30 or 9:30 I interact via touch and breath with people in deep states of concentration and very tender learning experiences. That’s prime time. Everything about my life is set up to sharpen my intuition and love and care for those 2-3 hours on the dance floor.
The shala is a cell phone free space except for emergencies and such. I mean come on. Would you meditate in a place with cell phones? There are no phones at yoga. We are just learning presence.
Holding a Mysore room is heaven if you ask me. So much happens. My mind perceives and generates so much. The heart is soft, mind is sharp, body in between. Imagine what that would be, beginning every day with a 5 hour semi-autonomous silent rave, for years, and years, and years? Yet for its wonders, this is an extremely hard undertaking mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. 4-9 is a hard five-hour work day, something which required prior training of more than a decade of strengthening my nervous system and stabilizing my mind. No way could I have taught Mysore in a consistent way during the first ten years of my practice. In the old days, yes, I could practice advanced series and then run around the room a few days a week assisting a senior teacher. But that’s just a taste of teaching actual Mysore, with the same people, in the same place, for years.
If you’re thinking why would a person do something so mundane and hard, ok. True. That’s how celebrity thinks.
I am like my teacher: I love to work alone. The energy is so nice. Quiet and clear. But there is one reason to have assistants: they are future carriers of the method and they can’t learn this method on an essential level – with the soul nourishment included – outside of relationship. An assistant is someone receiving a transmission, not someone there to do mechanical tasks. It’s their relationship, not their labor, that is of interest. Again, when relationship with students is the focus, it is best to teach alone. Yoga is relationship.
Back to my work day, there are two people here who assist me about half the time. We’ve worked together for 5-8 years, and I’d do anything for them because they’re carrying knowledge I personally consider sacred. Sometimes a teacher with their own shala elsewhere visits and observes/assists for a couple of months, to pick up what I’ve picked up from my predecessors. There is a thick seam of non-conceptual knowledge I can only pass on when we are both inside the states of consciousness that produce yoga’s knowledge-rhythm. Yoga is relationship.
It doesn’t matter if everyone gets put in their Marichyasana; in fact it’s important that some days I don’t help. Impressive adjustment is not what ashtanga yoga is. My teacher is emphatic that students don’t need confirmation of how good I am at putting their bodies in shapes – and in fact teaching them to rely on my skills is dangerous.
You might not hear this in internet-yoga land but: as traditional teachers, my colleague-friends and I never, ever want students to look to us to give them special experiences. The way people look to celebrities for special experiences. As a teacher, you never want students to depend on you for the excitement of practice and learning to move their own energy. You don’t want them to get addicted to you, to follow you around for years on end, to practice only when you’re there do to their work for them.
As a teacher, you are not there harvesting the students’ attention. You’re not collecting followers. That would be the logic of celebrity. The technology of freedom is contrary: you teach them to practice as much without you, and beyond you, as with you.
Well experienced teachers are good candidates for celebrity because they can manifest a lot of charisma, flow into and out of different emotional states easily. Nothing special; these stage skills are accidental by-products of understanding how to practice. And unlike whatever is happening in yoga videos, of course someone with a couple decades of daily practice, a highly trained mind, a teacher who has invested in them, and many years of teaching, can move a student’s energy. Energy is not secret, and not more spiritual than anything else. It’s just the kosha nestled between food body and the thinking body. But in relationship, in any true energetic or martial art, a teacher gives students cues for energy awareness and teaches them to move their own energy. So they don’t celebritize the teacher.
Freedom is the project. The student learns independence.
Relationship matters anyway.
So the teacher’s not at the center, the way my dear friend-colleagues do it.
Maybe there will be no more yoga in a hundred years. My teacher said that, equanimously, last year. I could see it. If it’s true, it’ll happen when the society of the spectacle finally takes control. And it will do that by making yoga not just about the body beautiful, but especially about celebrity.
Back to the non-glamorous life of the yoga teacher. Today I got home from the shala early, just after 9. I drank juice and showered, conversed with the cats, started soaking the kitchari for breakfast. Then the basic admin: go down the list of the students in my care, ask in my heart how each one is doing, and wish each one well. Then mentally, meditatively cut the cords of connection with what is going on with them, so their process is theirs.
Ritually cutting off the connection with the students means my own thoughts and energy are free to rest elsewhere for the hours to come. It would be extremely easy to spend the day processing the emotions of the many people one touched in an ecstatic altered state before dawn. That would also kill me. Cutting the cords means I can be really present with the new person they are tomorrow, rather than be present tomorrow to who they were today or yesterday.
Then around 10, I look at email.
I attend first to the matters regarding people immediately in my care. You think yoga teachers don’t have to read email from students? I have heard this from a couple yogalebrities. Exactly: they are above relationship. Being in long-term relationships means walking alongside people while they live. Being the one responsible, and accountable, for taking a person through the paces of an extremely transformative practice means also being receptive when they check in to tell you someone has died or been born, someone’s out of town for two weeks, someone has a financial emergency and needs to use the scholarship fund or the pay-it-forward program.
Teaching is not just being present for people in a silent room. Grounded teaching practice is not alienated from the life. Teaching is being present across time. The room is silent, but peoples’ lives churn on. In the Mysore room, I primarily hold the space. And the rest of the time, I am gently sensing the field in which my students and I live.
After I look at student email, I eat breakfast and maybe have a meeting. After, I see who else is trying to communicate with me in professional ways. Not by social media – that’s not even relevant for my week-day work. It’s that just looking at professional emails in the early afternoon is an experience of pure yoga insanity. Luckily I’m tired by this time, and have a happy belly full of sattvic food. So the insanity is cute.
This afternoon was a little extreme though, maybe because it’s the first of the week. I got two requests to contribute to teacher trainings, one of them a repeat-ask. And I ignored one offer to improve our shala’s website, because as the emailer pointed out, it has no social media opt-ins and is not optimized for premium search results. In another state of mind, that message would have gotten some snark in return because I’m tired of capitalism trying to eat the internet.
This is even crazier though: the first TT conversation emphasized how many people I could reach. As if the QUANTITY of people who say they’ve studied with me is a measure of my “impact.” Godhelpus. I said that traditional teachers focus on quality of instruction.
The other request, from out of the blue, suggested that I could teach how to do adjustments and count led class but call this a “clinic,” rather than a teacher training. This was supposed to be plausible deniability cover for the fact that I have promised my teacher not to do paid, group teacher trainings. Why did I promise this? Again because training someone is a personal investment in their transmission and I am committed to teaching the value of yoga as relationship. But you know, one could just change the name of this enterprise from training to clinic. In this case, I stopped short of explaining that teaching adjustments to any stranger who pays money for it is an especially dangerous way to make money, with no accountability for the harm done with the partial knowledge the paying customers receive. I did not say that being able to pay for training is not an indication that one merits this kind of power to potentially harm others and definitely harm the method. I didn’t clarify that Ashtanga yoga is so intense that adjustments make no sense outside a Mysore room. To keep my life simple, today, I just ignored the second round of that conversation. I digested my kitchari instead. They will find someone else to be their headliner.
But maybe first, they ask someone else who sees that celebrity is not yoga. And that person, too, will say no to being their yoga show headliner. This hypothetical person will have even less energy to explain their no. Think of the responsibilities they have already, and how impossible it would be for them to elaborate their devotional lives and values to a salesperson. No time for it. They’ll just keep their eyes on their path.
Listen. There are hundreds of people who work like this, carrying on long-term relationships with students, overseeing low profile yet extremely high energy grassroots organizations, being sought after in this way. Saying no because although the commercial yoga industry has no clue, they still understand.
3. The yoga industry is thirsty. Desperate. For celebrity.
Why is this happening? Why are serious teachers being targeted like this?
The reason is that the yoga industry is thirsty. It has a certain number of empty spaces it has created for celebrity types.
There is not only a constant need for surplus labor at the teaching level; and not only a constant mechanical search for new consumers to buy the teacher trainings that make yoga one of the most high profile industries in world history.
There is also an industrial need for surplus celebrity.
There are holes that can only be filled with people who speak with a certain level of certainty. There needs to be constantly novelty and charisma in those spots to keep the machine running. The workshop circuit never sleeps.
Listen: a celebrity is not a special human. Celebrity is an empty space in the industry that must be filled to keep everyone else in their place.
It’s not just in yoga. This is just the machinery of the society of the spectacle. It gives us celebrity the way industrialism gave its workers religion. To alienate us from each other. To make us weak.
Yoga celebrity is not bad by necessity. It’s just a device that holds a certain system in place, keeps the consumers consuming and the followers following, and doesn’t put the liberation technology in your hands. When I say yoga might disappear, I mean that the liberation technology might be forgotten.
Celebrity and relationship are direct contraries. It is precisely the fact that the celebrity is an object that makes them fun to objectify and follow, and impossible to breathe with.
Even for non-narcissists, it’s tempting to step into that space specifically because that’s where you don’t have to experience the challenges of inter-subjective relationships. Nobody can touch you there. You just get to be the cipher.
And, we resist the machine. Hundreds of my colleague-friends. Passing on the technology for freedom. Choosing relationship with some humility. Quietly, with devotion and clarity and strength. A couple of quiet hundreds out there and me, who is less quiet than the best.