In all this world, there is nothing more important than appreciating the preciousness of our human embodiment and doing all we can to increase health and happiness for ourselves and others - Tarthang Tulku

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Takin' It To The Street

Y'all ready for this. So, I've somehow found myself living in a predominately Irish, Polish, Catholic blue collar neighborhood in North Philadelphia called Port Richmond. There are no yoga studios here for miles. There is, however an Arby's, Applebees, and Dunkin Donuts in walking distance. Yoga is not a household word around here.

And because there are no accidents in life, I do feel I was put here for a reason. While I was wandering around the West Coast on my soul journey, as yogis so often do, a friend and former yoga student Jeff (a.k.a. Yoga Pimp of a few posts ago) and I had been keeping in touch. I didn't know where I was going to land next, where God wanted me. My prayer is always, "Where do you want me God? How can I serve?" Within a day, Jeff sent me an e-mail that said "Philly needs you back!" Jeff was headed to Thailand and then to a Yoga Teacher Training at Kirpalu and offered me the blessing of staying in his house while he was away. God plucked me out of my wandering and placed me here, on Aramingo Avenue. That's the good thing about teaching yoga-- you can do it anywhere. For me, my ideal work setting is to teach on the street, for free. But that's just me.

A few days ago, my friend Becky, who I met at Yoga Teacher Training in Bali came for a visit. Becky and I met the first night of yoga camp and discovered we both lived in Philly. After our training, when we both got back to the states, Becky became a teacher at the studio I opened in the ghetto. She has since moved to Portland where she is a Biology Professor and tri-athlete, all around wonder woman, one of those people who has an encyclopedic science brain and the most creative spirit-- serious yogi material. I went to visit her in Portland, a city I love but had way too many vegan hipster poets for my taste. I like a gritty city with a lotta soul. I guess that's also how I like my yoga. It was a divine appointment to have Becky here snapping photos to chronicle my spur-of-the-moment street yoga class.

So, Becky was sleeping in late after getting into Philly at 1 am. Around 6 am, a construction crew started drilling the sidewalk, shaking the whole damn houseBecause I am obsessed with bringing yoga to the people, I got the crazy idea to wait for these dudes to take their first morning break, when I would then attack them with the yoga. I was under no illusions that this guerrilla yoga tactic would actually work, but I am passionate about this practice, slightly crazy, and always up for an adventure in yoga research.

I am also on a mission to demystify yoga and to do this well, I need some information about what people think yoga really is in order to accomplish this goal. And the only way I can think to do this is to bring it out of yoga studios and onto the streets. I think I'm becoming some kind of roving investigative yoga reporter.
I want to know what people think about yoga, people who yoga has not yet reached, people who would not read Yoga Journal if you held a gun to their head, men who say that yoga is "gay." I don't know why I feel called to repackage yoga for these people, but I do. I am probably not the best person for the job, actually. Jeff, Yoga Pimp, from my earlier post is much better suited for this job and I'm working on pimping him out to the Philly yoga world, so stay tuned for that dog n' pony show. I just might be too soft to reach Philly tough guys. But I'm sure I at least got them talking. My mission was to simply get yoga on their radars. I didn't get much out of them in the way of feedback. "That's some gay shit but I'll try it," said the guy I roped into trying tree pose. These guys have hard jobs, jobs that require them to wear hard hats, jobs that beat up their bodies and sometimes crush their spirits. Most of them drink soda and smoke and eat big greasy sandwiches and are not particularly happy about life. I introduced them to ujayii breath, breath of victory, which they seemed to sort of dig. I'm not sure if they took me seriously though. Maybe that wasn't even the point. All I know is the spirit moved me to do it, so I did.

Obviously, yoga was tough sell for these guys. But at the very least, I got them to lighten up on the job. That's the yoga too, I think. I'm sure they thought I was insane. Mission accomplished, I say. But you know they're not gonna forget it. Slowly but surely, I hope to debunk myths about yoga, one city block at a time. I could see myself takin' this yoga show on the road. Whose comin' with me?

I do feel there is a serious disconnect between the people who are teaching yoga and the people who could benefit from it most. There are corners of our own cities where yoga has not dared to travel. I encourage you, if you're a teacher, to take yoga out of the box, get out of your own yoga teacher comfort zone. Yoga is meant to be shared. That's kinda the whole point, isn't it? Unfortunately, in many parts of the world it has become an elitist endeavor alongside a path of spiritual materialism.

I just have no interest in the studio setting any more. At least not in Philadelphia. As yoga teachers, I think we have more work to do educating people about what yoga is and is not. We need more faces of yoga in the community who can relate to a wider audience.

Namaste, Bitches! could morph into an expose of who is really doing yoga and what it looks like, for real. Most people's lives don't resemble anything in Yoga Journal. And if yoga is going to do its job, "yoga" as it exists in the Western media seriously needs some better PR. The yoga image that the media is churning out turns a lot of people off to the practice.

I want to know who is doing yoga, how they found it, and how it has changed their lives. But I don't want to hear about people for whom the yogic path was made rather accessible in the U.S.-- you know, people with Buddhist Jewish parents, religion majors, musicians, artists, mystics, poets and generally privileged people who are educated and have enjoyed the gifts and freedom of travel, whose minds have been primed to receive yoga, who don't have as many built-in resistances to the emotional, touchy-feely side of yoga, dare I say "spiritual".

Yogis, if you step out of yogaland for a minute, you will find that still so many people think yoga is something it is not. I need to find out what people think yoga is and how we can begin to reframe our messaging as yogis for the rest of the world, because right now, we're all just talking to each other. Just look at who is reading this blog-- mostly yogis or people who are already oriented to yoga in some way. I want the message to reach a wider audience, to bridge to gap between the yoga world and the rest of the world-- especially people who have a shitload of money but whose lives are falling apart. Or anyone, for that matter, who feels spiritually bankrupt and has lost a connection to self and is trying to figure out what this whole experiment called life is all about.

For me, yoga is about finding your purpose here on earth and having the courage to live your best life, the life you were put here to live. For as much as we know and for as much as we have, many of us have not been given the tools to do that kind of soul searching in the West.

Yoga gives you permission to live your best life, guilt-free. For many people, that sounds nice, but impossible. But if you've been practicing, you know that yoga allows you to step away from the stories you have been telling yourself about who you are and how you should be living your life. Newsflash: we're not here for ourselves. We're here to do God's work, to realize we are all one, and to love each other. That's what yoga teaches. But we can't do any of that without loving ourselves first.

Yoga is the first stop on that train of figuring out that you really are a force to be reckoned with and if you quit the job you hate tomorrow, you would be fine, you might even come to experience your own power even more. Yoga helps you embrace the fact that security is the biggest crock of shit known to man, the biggest illusion, one that keeps us enslaved to money, possessions, and jobs and relationships that make us sick and tired of being sick and tired. I've been there. I will never go back. There is another way to live of peace, love, and joy. And it's not new-age hippie shit. It's about reclaiming your sense of purpose and recognizing that there is only one you.


The yoga world is doing a crap job of reaching significant portions of our population: angry wound up white lawyers, gangstas, hipsters, bartenders, strippers, doctors and nurses, policeman, firemen, bus drivers, government workers, politicians. The list goes on. And it's mostly because we have not figured out how to deliver the message of yoga in a way that a wider audience can consume. I'm busy doing my homework and figuring out where we need to go from here.

As one of my favorite teachers, Edward Clark recently wrote to me, " Keep the Yoga Flag flying". Yoga could use a flag, it's true. Let's get on that.

Namaste, Bitches!

17 comments:

  1. Its a noble goal, and one that could, quite possibly, keep you engaged for life. There's no one better for the job, and when I think of all those open souls, ready and waiting for the message of Holly, well, it just makes me smile:) A lot!

    ReplyDelete
  2. If only people could just learn
    a sitting or standing forward bend
    and feel the release in the lower
    back in just a few days.

    You ARE brave. Another person could
    not have approached those fellers;
    they would have just told me to go
    away...or worse.

    Thank you for mentioning God.

    Pete.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I too am somewhat irritated by the whole 'yoga is a foofy activity' meme. If only these guys knew just how challenging and humbling it is to make it through a yoga class. If only...

    ReplyDelete
  4. Well written, Holly. Best wishes to you in getting the message out.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hmmm. What's your plan, exactly?

    I'm a carpenter who does yoga -- although no longer in class (too expensive), home practice only.

    I got into it when I started studying Aikido, because I was afraid -- certain, actually -- that my lack of flexibility was going to get me injured during practice. I kept going with yoga after I stopped Aikido, though, because it did so much to alleviate work-related pain.

    Of course, it also provided an extraordinary path to my inner awareness, particularly during relaxation at the end of the asanas. That combination of stretching followed by stillness gave me an opportunity to contemplate my thoughts and emotions. Stretching unlocks all kinds of emotions that are locked in my muscles. That was and is powerful. Stephen Cope wrote very articulately about this in Yoga and the Quest for the True Self; he also discusses movement in general and yoga in particular as a treatment for depression.

    My classes always had other working-class people, men and women, in them, although they were certainly in the minority.

    You've got a problematic way of talking about this, though. As soon as you say to someone "do less of what you're doing and more of this thing I think is great," you're setting up a kind of dualism that gets you into trouble with ahimsa.

    The power of your own inner struggle comes out powerfully in the language that you use in your blog posts. There's a battle going on inside you, and your language is that of a soldier in battle. Totally appropriate if your task is to vanquish an enemy. Is that your task?

    ReplyDelete
  6. Really enjoying your blogs. You've certainly got a different and deeply held view of Yoga and you write about it with wonderful energy.

    Bob Weisenberg
    YogaDemystified.com

    ReplyDelete
  7. Even though I've now read your entire backlog of posts, this would be my first comment. I see here other bloggers I know. Word tends to travel although I actually first heard of your blog via a direct message on Twitter from a recruiter I know. She knows I've just finished my yoga teacher training and she also only really knows me in a professional capacity and yet she read your blog and passed it on to me.

    Anyhoo. Loving your refreshing take on the whole scene. And I agree, it's so easy for yoga teachers to only bother with those looking for yoga instead of those who aren't.

    Another teacher here in Melbourne and I are putting our heads together to offer free meditation/yoga classes via Beyond Blue, which is an organisation that focuses on depression and related illnesses.

    This post also reminds me of a guy I met once who flatly refused to even consider going to yoga because in his view of the world, it was a "new age fad". He didn't do fads. *sigh*

    ReplyDelete
  8. interesting post! when i first read it, i was all fired up and inspired. however, after i gave it a little thought, there are some things that i find problematic.

    i agree with what robert the carpenter brought up. i also think that you've kind of constructed these people in the "philly ghetto" as "other," as people who need saving. it seems that you're making assumptions about their health and knowledge, based on their jobs.

    i'm also very wary of "yoga evangelism," the belief that we must "spread the message of yoga." this is something i see a lot in the online yoga community, and it's been appropriated by corporations and advertisers (ie, adidas, offering yoga workshops when really it's about spreading the message of adidas' yoga products).

    however, i also believe in making yoga accessible and available to people who may not be able to go conventional yoga studios because of their income, social economic status or body type. and i'm totally in favour of taking yoga out of these contexts and literally bringing it to the people. i just think it's important to just make it available, in community spaces, for people to discover in their own time. let the yoga do the work.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Wow, so ballsy to head into the So. Philly sun and talk Vrksasana! That was my old neighborhood and I'm sure I would never have had the guts to do that. Right on!

    But I also kind of feel like I just got yelled at. I have had a privileged background. I'm white, upper-middle class. I blog about yoga and read other yoga blogs.

    The vagaries of life led me to southern Wisconsin (where my husband is a professor), a very blue-collar, working class part of the state. And I started teaching yoga at the local Y, not as a political statement, but because I wanted to teach. It's taken 6 years, but now all of my classes are filled--mostly by the demographic you list as "unreached."

    So, yeah, I think the typical skinny-bendy image of yoga and its practitioners is nauseating and I'm all for a new presentation. But, there are a lot of us out here in the trenches doing just as you suggest; this isn't a new idea, just one that doesn't get a lot of attention. No flags.

    Like Roseanne said, it's all about letting the yoga do the work...

    ReplyDelete
  10. Love it! I've been thinking for a while about how to break out of the whole studio "scene" where the people who typically would do yoga- matching the cliche in body, gender, economic standing, etc- continue to do it. I think as teachers we need to work with what we know- not come from a place of "otherness" (as it's all yoga baby pointed out). So the task, I feel, is finding ways to connect with people, and using that as a medium of communication across which whatever wisdom we have to offer can travel, if need be.
    Ouch, the grammar on that last sentence was questionable! But it's a meaty and complex issue, and you're right- those that would most benefit from yoga don't always have access to it. But then, "benefit" from whose perspective?

    ReplyDelete
  11. I grew up in Port Richmond, and practicing yoga on Lehigh Avenue makes you a badass.

    ReplyDelete
  12. all you smart yogis are thinkin' too much! it's ain't that serious. xo

    ReplyDelete
  13. Your words are so you - and me for that matter - given we are indeed sisters of the soul on both sides of the Atlantic. I know your struggle, it's a right piece of work, but I know how much we laughed in Bali and I hear that too. Well done for just getting out there and doing it and speaking it and really not caring if you've got all the answers or not. x

    ReplyDelete
  14. hi there... thanks for making me think about this...
    hope it's ok, wrote a bit... http://graceyoga-live-move-breathe.blogspot.com/2011/04/namaste-bie.html

    also like your other project on faith... can completely relate.

    best,
    Melissa

    ReplyDelete
  15. I've just downloaded iStripper, and now I enjoy having the sexiest virtual strippers on my desktop.

    ReplyDelete