The greater Sacramento yoga community has lost a dear teacher. She took her life on Easter, after teaching 2 classes that morning. She went home and shot herself. We'll never know what happened or why. None of us saw it coming --it blindsided all of us.
She was attending one of my teacher trainings, and interestingly, at the beginning of the training, she pulled me aside and said that she was glad this wasn't a training where everyone would have to share their "shit" so-to-speak. She said that she didn't have any issues and wasn't really interested in hearing other people's. I explained to her that in a year-long training, it comes up, but not usually until month 5 or 6 --which seems when everyone really starts to look inside and hold up the mirror. We're at month 6. I think maybe she might have had something to share.
As I said, no one saw it coming. We'll never know the depth of her suffering, as she never shared it. I think that we all failed. We failed as a community. We failed to create a place for her where she could be real. She was a bright light; always bubbly, and her classes were fun and inspiring to her students. No one saw her shadow side.
Here's the thing: yoga doesn't cure anything. It's a tool in a toolbox, but if you were to listen to some people, it will make you beautiful, healthy, and happy. It's all about bliss and peace and love. Well --it's not. Or at least not only about that. The lotus flower grows in the muck and mud, through the water, reaching for the sun. In the larger yoga world of the West, we've created what Patty Townsend calls "spiritual mood-making". We're exhorted to drop our fear, step into our power, let our lights shine, step into grace.... From a popular yoga book's introduction: "sculpt your ideal body.. .free your true self... transform your life... your body will transform, you will change your destructive patterns permanently at a cellular level, your life will be infused with life and equanimity, and your relationships will be truer, deeper, and more fulfilling." The author argues that in his two-week trainings he's witnessed people's transformations --"by the time they leave, they're no longer carrying their emotional baggage"... and while this may be true for some people, it's certainly not true for everyone.
The problem lies here: Yoga is not something that gives quick results. It's a lifelong STUDY. Sure --you may feel better after your first yoga class; and you may in fact get stronger and healthier; however, I believe that the real work of yoga comes much later. After the honeymoon, when the stuck patterns that have haunted us for our entire lives reassert themselves, we're left with either "I've failed" or "yoga has failed". More likely, we'll see it as something we're doing wrong.
The larger yoga community has created the 'seat of the teacher'. We've got rock-star yoga teachers wearing microphones who teach to crowds of hundreds of people. We have people who after 5 months of practice attend an intensive 2-week training, and presto --they come out a yoga teacher. All of a sudden, they're thrust onto a stage where they're to guide people through a practice, bringing all of the gifts yoga has to offer. Really? I'm not saying they have nothing to offer --far from it --they have fresh eyes and lots of enthusiasm. But again, what happens when they butt up against a toxic old pattern? Self-blame usually. And guilt and shame. "Why isn't it working? What's wrong with me? " What once brought nothing but bliss now fails. Here's the thing: Yoga doesn't cure anything. Yup. Nothing. Yes, if you practice, chances are you'll see some very positive changes in your life. But it's just a tool in a toolbox. The person who you were up until this point is still there. There is no magical transformation for anyone. It's about hard work and looking in the mirror --over, and over, and over. It's about using the tools we learn on the mat (placing ourselves in somewhat uncomfortable positions and holding them --sitting with discomfort) and learning to apply them to our lives. While I'm sure that some people never look back --they drop their old patterns and move on; I don't believe that's most people's experience. For most of us, the practice is about showing up.
Regardless of whether we come to yoga to cure some spiritual malaise or with stiff hamstrings (or both!), when we hold up the mirror, we may not like what we see. Our job is not to make those things go away. Our job is to sit with them and not react. So, the rock-star yogis who claim to have the answers to life's problems, and who claim that yoga will cure you of all of your ills, have helped to reinforce a culture of shame, guilt, and lies. We have a culture of competition (yoga in the Olympics? Who "wins" --the person who sits on his cushion and meditates for hours or the person who can stand up with their leg behind their head?) that is being reinforced in our yoga studios and trainings, regardless of the lip service paid to "being real". When was the last time you walked into your yoga studio and asked your teacher how he/she was, and they responded with, "pretty shitty"? Actually --some teachers do cop to it, but more likely we answer, "great" or "fine". I've done it. Repeatedly. What we do when we do that, is put out an image. We have created a place where yoga teachers are put on a pedestal, revered for their beautiful asana practices, and expected to be "on" 24/7. I had one student who saw me outside of class at a restaurant having a glass of wine, exclaim, "wow, I didn't figure you'd drink wine! I didn't think yoga teachers did that kind of thing". We're supposed to be vegetarian, have clear skin because our diets are so clean; and never get depressed --basically, be more than human. And I think that it's our fault. We've cultivated it and embraced it --we want to be that teacher that has 50+ people in their classes. We like the pedestal. We like the status that comes with the job. It's time to let it go. It's no longer serving us, if it ever did. We need to create a space where yoga teachers can be real, without shame or guilt that they're not enough. We need to do it for ourselves, and most certainly for our students. We need to teach them that yoga is not about exercise, or becoming perfect --or even becoming the best we can be. It's about looking in the mirror and seeing what you see, and if it's something you can change easily --great. If not --well, we sit with it and try not to react.
Patanjali argues in Sutra 2.17: " the cause of suffering is the mis-identification of the Seer with the seen." or, in other words, our suffering is caused by our confusing what the ego-mind perceives as all there is. The job of the ego is to assert its individuality. There's nothing wrong with that, but we need to put it in perspective --we don't want the ego-mind driving the car all the time. So ---we practice. He also argues that further suffering can be avoided (2.16). This suffering due to the misidentification of consciousness (purusha) with (prakriti) material existence, is necessary! ( 2.23) In order to realize the true nature of the self (which for him is consciousness) we have to go through the process. We have to experience the suffering to realize the true nature of the Self. We use abyasa (practice) and viveka (discriminative mind) to cut through the illusion of separation from Self that the ego-mind creates.
What this means for us, is that in our rush to enlightenment, or peace, or whatever it is that we think yoga will give us, we're bypassing the experience. We're actually short-changing ourselves and our students. By not copping to our own struggles, we're telling our students that they should aspire to not be human. The work is not to shed the old self --it's to integrate it. And to integrate it means that you can't just get rid of it. Again, the lotus flower doesn't try to get rid of the mud from which it came --it simply reaches for the sun. If its roots were pulled out of the mud, it would die. I'm not saying that we need to unload all our troubles onto our students. Not at all --save that for your therapist. But we do need to let them know that this practice is not all about puppies and rainbows and peace signs and feeling good. We need them to know that feeling bad is part of the process --an important part actually --and it's part of being human. Our yoga practice may give us some tools to help navigate the muddy water, but, ultimately, we need to be able to see ourselves clearly and accept what we see without trying to run away from it, or distract ourselves with something else that makes us feel better. I'm not saying don't get on your mat or your cushion when you're feeling low --DO --it usually helps! But if it doesn't, well, then it doesn't, and then there you are. And we need to be okay with where we are. We may not like it, but we want to be able to see that and not react to it.
I have experienced the shame and guilt that comes up when the practice doesn't work the way I want it to. I've suffered with depression most of my life. It's part of what brought me to yoga, and certainly why I stayed. I've desperately tried every alternative treatment --and they all help some, but on occasion, I've found myself at the end of a rope where I feel alone and desperate, and I've hurt myself on numerous occasions. I've sliced my wrists in a rage, I've beat myself up with my asana practice, or running, or whatever, I've overdosed and ended up in the ER. All while being a yoga teacher. I shared it with no one, until I finally told my teacher, when I thought I really had no business getting up in front of a room and teaching this stuff, given that I so do not have a handle on my shit. What she told me made me pause. She told me it makes me real, and a better teacher for it. For years I resisted taking medication for depression, because I was so locked into the idea that I should be able to get past it myself. Yoga should work. Diet should work. Exercise should work. But sometimes, despite all my heroic efforts, they don't. And I lose it. I dissociate and watch myself like I'm someone else, doing some pretty outrageous shit. After my last episode, where I ended up in the ER (on my son's birthday no less), I started to take this disease seriously, and I take the meds --and I do all the rest of it too. The meds don't work alone. I go to therapy, I do my practices, I take care of myself. The meds allow the other things that I do to work. They give me space to negotiate the old patterns. I'll say that once I'm hip to a pattern, I'm usually able to step back the next time and not react. But I can always find a new way to go sideways... and I'm done fucking around. I'm accepting my reality. And if I hear one more yoga teacher say we need less medication and more meditation, I might explode. Or cry.
I don't know whether our friend and colleague suffered from depression or not. I have to think that maybe she did. She didn't let on. She didn't tell her best friend. She didn't tell her teacher training community. She didn't tell anyone. I have to think that we didn't create a safe place for her to be real; to cop to "un-yogic" thoughts or actions. In the competition to be the best teacher, have the most fun classes, offer the most awesome sequences, we've boxed ourselves into a lie. We put our best faces forward --and not just in the classroom, but on facebook and other social media outlets. We are bombarded by people with exciting lives, doing fun things, with amazing families who love them. No one posts anything when they're not on the top of their game --well, maybe a couple of people do, but largely, it's a world where we're never enough. We're bombarded with posts to think positively, create our own happiness and reality. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but if you're low, and maybe have been for a while, you tend to think that you're doing something wrong, because everyone else seems to have it all wrapped up. We're constantly comparing ourselves to others --on the mat and off the mat. We do it --we're human. And we usually find that we come up short. We need to let our students know that we're just like them. We're not super-human. We struggle, we suffer --it's probably partly why we teach! And sometimes yoga doesn't work. Or at least we think it's not working, because we're not seeing the results we want to see. I'd argue that it is working, and has been all along. The fullness of the practice includes the darkness. We are darkness and light in equal measure. Sometimes the light wins, and sometimes the dark. It's part of being human. We need to know --really know --that it's okay. It's okay to have bad days, it's okay to feel like a failure. We don't need to feel ashamed about it, and we really don't need to run away from it. We can sit in that place of discomfort with what is without reacting to it. But if all we focus on is the light, we do a disservice to ourselves and our students. We have to allow ourselves the space to experience our shadow sides, so that they don't get bigger than they really are.
I know what I've said is going to piss some people off. Oh well --it certainly won't be the first time! But I feel strongly that this stuff needs to be talked about and dealt with. Yoga is bigger than we're allowing it to be. It's a system of self-study that never ends. It's a vehicle for the work --it's not the work itself. And sometimes what we see is pretty, but sometimes it's not. And actually --that is okay.
So, my friend and colleague ---I hope you find your peace. We'll miss you and your smile, and I for one wish I had known the full you. We'll go on --we have to. You will be missed. I hope we as a community can take something away from this tragic event. I hope we can embrace being real.