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The Enlightened Path, With a Rubber Duck

By Abby Ellin
January 1, 2009
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MUST the road to enlightenment be paved in sincerity? Can only the super-earnest attain spiritual salvation?

Some yoga teachers have been pondering these mysteries with the gravity of an economic summit. And they are chanting in unison, “Nooohhhhm.”

“I do think there’s a trend toward lightening up in the yoga community,” said Kelly McGonigal, 31, the editor in chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy (found at iayt.org). “Mostly around the rigidity and humorlessness of doing things ‘the one right way’ — always having to get better, feeling like every yoga practice has to be one big self-improvement project.”

One stereotype of yoga is of a reed-thin, baggy-panted guru gravely pontificating on the meaning of life while a sitar strains in the background. But now some teachers are poking holes in this austere image, infusing levity into classes in an effort to appeal to more students. They are cracking jokes, chanting to pop lyrics, posting humorous videos online and putting a uniquely Western stamp on asanas, or poses.

The yoga community appears ready for it. A spoof of a student who comes to class to pick up women, “The Inappropriate Yoga Guy” — which, at the same time, mocks the holier-than-thou attitude of some yoga followers — has been viewed more than two million times on YouTube, according to the Web site’s counter. Amanda Wegner, 28, a yoga teacher in Madison, Wis., often demonstrates a variation of standing-knee-to-chest that she calls “Captain Morgan pose,” like the rum. “Not exactly yogic, but it keeps it interesting, and most often, the students know exactly what I mean,” she said.

Sadie Nardini, the director of yoga at East West Yoga in Manhattan, calls herself “reverently irreverent,” and said she runs a kind of “punk rock” practice (never mind the inherent sanctimony in the word “practice”). “People are moving away from what I call the Madame Tussauds yogi, frozen in a super-serious face, and instead want to rediscover the joy of living, even on the mat,” said Ms. Nardini, 37, who has been teaching for 10 years and practicing for 15.

Her cheekiness is on display on her YouTube video, “The Bon Jovi Chant” which features a close-up of Ms. Nardini, fingers clasped, leading a hearty rendition of the noted sage Jon Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer.” (It’s hard to feel self-important when the mantra is “Whooooa! We’re halfway there! Whooooa! Livin’ on a prayer!”)

“People laugh at first and then get teary chanting Bon Jovi,” she said. There are yogic benefits, too: “When you laugh, you open your heart to reality,” she said. “Truth is there, deep in that laughing place.”

Finding truth was one of the original goals of yoga, which dates to the Upanishads (Hindu scriptures) between 5000 to 1000 B.C., scholars estimate, with the first yoga-specific Upanishads closer to 500 B.C.

Back then, yoga was a spiritual practice intended to lead practitioners to a form of insight. Today, many Western devotees cite the tranquillity they have found after twisting their bodies into pretzel-like contortions (not to mention excuses to visit India, yoga’s birthplace). But others say it is simply a form of exercise, a gateway to physical relaxation.

With that in mind, many teachers introduce their own spiritual teaching, some less solemn than others.

Erin Motzenbecker, 21, has been teaching a combination of yoga, Pilates and tai chi for about three years. Her policy is to “not say anything in my classes that doesn’t sound like me in real life,” she said, recalling an instructor who talked about “allowing your heart to open like a lotus flower and find your quiet place of enlightenment.”

Instead of tiptoeing into the studio and silently waiting for her students to set up their mats, Ms. Motzenbecker prefers to share incidents from her own life: how her sister thought Tina Fey was actually John McCain’s running mate; how she dressed her dog as Shrek for Halloween.

“I teach a class of suburban housewives who want to do something good for themselves without being knocked over the head with a bunch of spiritual hokey-pokey,” she said. “This is not to say that I am against the spiritual side of it, because personally I enjoy those types of classes, too. But you have to cater to the people you’re teaching.”

Luann Udell, 56, an artist in Keene, N.H., refuses to take classes that are too “authoritarian” or “martial.”

“Some teachers treat yoga like a church service — solemn, unworldly, mystical,” she said. “I know it can be those things, but yoga also can teach us to simply enjoy being in this moment, in this body. It can open our hearts to the gifts right in front of us that we take for granted. And being in this moment, in this body, means being in a body that burps, creaks, aches and laughs.”

Havi Brooks, 31, a yoga teacher in Portland, Ore., tries to lighten the mood by using a rubber duck named Selma that she refers to as her co-teacher.

If students seem to be a too uptight during, say, breathing exercises, Ms. Brooks might have them balance Selma on their heads. “I wanted to make yoga accessible for people who think chakras are a bunch of bull and that yoga people are hippie-dippie gullible fools,” Ms. Brooks said.

“As soon as you bring out a duck and say this is my co-teacher, people know this is a different kind of yoga.”

Sarah Court’s way of poking fun at overly earnest practitioners was to create satirical videos called Yoga Thugs, which she posted on YouTube. The videos address everything from Yoga-induced body odor to students texting during downward-facing dog (inspired by her own experiences).

“I don’t want people to think I don’t take yoga seriously, because I absolutely do, but I just think there’s room for humor as well,” said Ms. Court, 34, a yoga instructor in New York. “Does it make me better at yoga if I take myself really seriously? No.”

Some attempts at taking yoga lightly might still come across as being heavy.

Karen B. Cohen, 46, of Lexington, Va., said she is a “master” yoga instructor, and holds the “highest designation” in the national Yoga Teachers’ Registry, maintained by the Yoga Alliance, an industry organization. Her credentials notwithstanding, she said she rejects the “serious” yoga approach.

“The ability to cultivate joy and lightness in our lives is one of the principal aims of true yoga: the bringing of opposing qualities into a productive harmony,” she said. “Our desire to do our best, our concentrated effort — abhyasa — needs to be balanced with the letting go of perfectionism, being happy with what ‘is’: vairagya.” Most classes today, she said, seem to be too heavy on the abhyasa and not focused enough on the vairagya, which leads to self-acceptance, more fun, and peace.

“Laughing is healthy,” she said. “Joy is healthy. A bit of goofy is good. Seeing and experiencing the humor in tough situations — that is yoga. Yoga teaches us to enjoy and embrace paradox.”

Others explain their thinking in less, well, lofty terms.

“What gets the biggest laughs in my classes are when I say out loud some of the stuff that’s going on in people’s heads, but nobody really talks about,” said Ms. McGonigal, who teaches at Avalon Art and Yoga Center in Palo Alto, Calif. “Like in the middle of the usual instruction for a pose, slip in, ‘Please inspect your toenail polish and wonder if class is almost over.’

“Everyone laughs, it gets the point of mindfulness across, but there’s no judgment, and we aren’t taking ourselves too seriously. Ego is the enemy of both humor and yoga.”

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