Is Yoga Just Another Distraction?
In my newsfeed over the past few months, I’ve seen the following: yoga for runners, broga, yoga in a bar with drinks afterwards, yoga at the top of a skyscraper, Voga, plus all the usual ‘core vinyasa’ and hot yoga classes.Yoga in the west has become very outward focused: what you look like doing it (£80 leggings), what you’re doing that makes it different (with men only or with 80s tunes), how your body will look if you do enough of it (white, skinny, female, toned arms), and how many likes you get on social media when you’ve been to a class. For a tradition that was designed to take us out of our heads, away from the outside, to look inside, to the inner body, I wonder if we’ve gone wrong somewhere.What is Distraction?Distraction is where we deliberately remove ourselves from ourselves; from our bodies, from our feelings, from our intuition, from certain situations. Brene Brown calls it numbing – I don’t want to feel that. The methods are wide and varied: booze, food, shopping, work, being busy, exercise, TV, internet, yoga. Anything we do mindlessly and without awareness is a distraction. We lead very distracted lives and are often disengaged and disconnected from ourselves, what is going on around us, and those we live and work with.Modern technology makes distraction really easy. For example, could you stand outside a bar or sit inside a coffee shop waiting for a friend without taking out your phone? Just be there, listening to the sounds, watching the people? I know I find it hard too! Then there is the idea that we need time ‘out’ from our lives. How about creating a life that you don’t need a break from? It’s a false illusion anyway: when the yoga class ends, or the drink wears off, your life is still there for you to deal with.Moreover, we confuse relaxation with distraction. Lying on the sofa mindlessly scrolling through your newsfeed is not relaxation, it is distraction. True relaxation can often make us feel very uncomfortable; it is often when we are really relaxed, when our guard is down, that awareness comes. And it is not always welcome. And as a yoga teacher I see many of my students fidgeting, opening their eyes, unable to tolerate lying still for 5 minutes of savasana at the end of a class.More worryingly, we use distraction to escape from feelings we don’t want. The thing is, when we don’t acknowledge and express our feelings, they like to morph into things that are more difficult to shift: anxiety, depression, stress, physical pain and disease. We don’t even need to distract from feelings; they tend to pass on their own if we treat them with kindliness and awareness.What’s happening with yoga?As yoga grows in popularity so do the number of teachers. For those teachers wanting to carve out a business niche for themselves, the temptation is often to look for gimmicks as a way to distinguish themselves in the market, rather than let their teaching do the talking. It is much easier to come up with a marketing gimmick than it is to teach heart centred classes with good alignment that is suitable for all students who attend. I have been to several gimmick classes and have come away disappointed because the teaching was not that great.In addition to these gimmicks, the most popular types of yoga are increasingly those which are more physically challenging: vinyasa, hot yoga, ashtanga. None of these practised with right intention, as I’ll explain below, are a bad thing at all. The issue is that students are using the ‘toughness’ and the physicality to distract themselves from what is really going on for them. There is also a belief that the harder the class the ‘better’ it is for you. Ask many of these students to take a restorative class or to sit in meditation and they would run a mile.So what’s so wrong about that?Yoga is a 5000 year old tradition of spiritual enquiry. It is designed to increase our awareness, to let go of conditioning, to encourage right living, and to build our equanimity so we can meet life head on. Yoga has a system of different layered bodies, or koshas, that move from the physical through the mental and energetic to the true self; it is a process of moving inwards, towards ourselves. But today, however, it’s almost as if we’re doing everything to avoid following the path that yoga sets out for us. As yoga is designed to take us inwards, so we now use it to move away from ourselves and what really is going on for us.This might sound like spiritual mumbo jumbo, but it has practical ramifications. Using yoga as another distraction just reinforces the situation we’re already in: avoiding feelings, running away from difficult situations, and not dealing with the root cause of our problems. We’ve been given a wonderful tool to help us but we’re not really scratching the surface of what it has to offer.So how do I not use yoga as a distraction?The first step is intention. If you make it your intention to use your practice as a way inwards then it doesn’t matter what your practice is. The most vigorous hot yoga class can be used very mindfully if we are truly present. Likewise, a Mysore style ashtanga class is a wonderful moving meditation, if you remain in the body throughout. In fact, noticing and managing the energy in these more challenging classes is a wonderful exercise in self-awareness. Likewise, don’t see restorative classes or savasana as a chance to take a nap. Practice mindfulness, listen to the breath, notice the sensations in your body, and be aware of the wrists against the mat. Stay present.Secondly, when you go to yoga class, you can make your practice about so much more than the poses. You can choose to practice being curious and kind to yourself. Kind to yourself does not always mean taking the less strong option during a vinyasa sequence; perhaps you need something stronger today. Not because the people around you are doing so, but because that is what your body and energy are asking for. You can also practice being able to allow unpleasant sensations and experiences to exist without moving away from them, or wanting them to be different. You can explore what emotions come up and are released before, during and after a class. You can make it as much your practice to come inwards, towards your true self, as it is to get into handstand.Finally, as much as it is up to you, it is also helpful to find teachers who support you in this kind of practice. These individuals are not limited to one style of yoga or certain schools and some teachers will be really obvious about it (like me!) and others may not. In gyms and sports centres, teachers may be more reticent about this than in a studio. Ask questions, notice what kind of cues the teacher gives, do they provide themes to classes or any background information about yoga? Are there any teachers that you feel particularly drawn to without knowing why? Go and explore.As much as I don’t like gimmicks in yoga, we live in a gimmicky world where people are so over stimulated with “content” that the need to make something stand out can trump any other motive. We may have a desire to teach a ‘pure’ form of yoga (whatever that is), but our job is to serve our students, and we cannot serve them if we can’t get them on the mat. I see it almost as guerrilla warfare, sending the message of yoga out to the world without people even noticing. If “stress relief”, “relaxation” or “broga” are what’s needed to get someone on the mat, then that’s OK with me. And if just one of those people then starts a regular class, becomes more aware and shows more compassion towards themselves and others as a result, then I have no complaints.