Life is full of contradictions. Some happen to be more glaring than others. In this moment, I am in the midst of one I know too well: leaving my family to cross the world and attend a yoga course. “Going to yoga” is, of course, an oxy-moron. But the idea that yoga can be “learned” better in one place than another is both demonstrably true and a bald-faced lie.
By Julia Napier
Three days ago, we began a serious house renovation and our “kitchen” is currently on the outside patio; dust has overtaken every surface and corner of the downstairs, and the kids are going back to school before I get home. Leaving them in this chaos and disarray, not to mention missing an all-important ritual of childhood, seems so wrong that I consider (several times) turning around and calling a cab as I wheel my luggage through the airport. By the time I clear security, I’m convinced I’m having multiple medical emergencies, that the whole thing is a disaster and that I am the most fraudulent of yogins, seeking knowledge outside the complex, dharmic kingdom of my family.
So, what’s so important that I’m willing to spend thousands of dollars and precious time to change hemispheres, time zones, languages and extremes of temperature?
The answer is not straightforward and remains mysterious to me even after all the trips like this that I have taken. Over the years, I have traveled often to Mexico and California, ridden trains and planes to New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Boulder, all to study with a variety of advanced yoga practitioners and teachers. Every one of these trips has involved considerable expense, maternal and marital gymnastics and a significant portion of guilt. There is always the question voiced by the hard puritan ever present in my mind: this “exploration” of yours is self-indulgent and narcissistic, a privileged woman’s whim.
How can “yoga” be anywhere else than exactly where we are right now? Why go through all the fuss, the expense and self-recrimination?
The answer is deceptively simple: because I love and trust my teachers profoundly, because they know so much more than I do and probably ever will, and because every second I spend in the presence of other sincere yoga students reminds me of inherent human goodness, of the immense value of enthusiasm and shared effort.
It reminds me that discipline comes in all forms and has saved me from anxiety, depression, illness and (worst of all) the stingy heart. The participants on these courses hail from a panoply of countries and represent almost every continent and major language group, yet we all share a core fascination with the confounding and miraculous experience of yoga.
These journeys also help me to show my children (and myself) that I care deeply about something beyond the immediate concerns of work, food and shelter. Even though my kids wish I wouldn’t leave (ever), they have learned that I am willing to go a long way and work hard to follow my dreams. I can only hope that they will do the same in their own lives.
Self Centered or Selfish?
Following a dream is a challenge for us all, but I think it is of particularly vital importance for women: not to hide behind the shield of self-sacrifice, of being “good” and thereby unobjectionable. If we never really “go for it,” (whatever that is: studying yoga or artificial intelligence, climbing the corporate ladder, running a marathon, travelling to a distant country or standing in any kind of spotlight), then we will never get caught infraganti in our own desire. Heaps of research point to the fact that we reward little girls for following the rules, while we give boys our full attention for breaking them.
Recently, I spent a year in an upper-middle class community outside of Boston and the women I met were highly-educated, interesting, kind and curious. Yet many of them shared an alarming tendency towards self-abnegation. Many of the conversations at school pick-up began with the admission: “I was so bad/lazy/lame today…” Their transgressions invariably involved indulging in personal pleasure, as opposed to the litany of “good” deeds they achieved daily: working, cooking, cleaning, parenting, carpooling and ministering to their husbands. This irks me because I have all the same tendencies.
The underlying thought here is: what is good for me is bad for those I love.
My own informal research has revealed the opposite, time and again. If I am well-rested, have done my yoga practice, engage in work that is meaningful to me, have a modicum of time for my own social life, then I am a much (much!) better mother and partner. I am also more kind and generous to the people I encounter on the street, in a doctor’s office or in traffic. Perversely, this no-brainer often seems like an enigma (won’t everyone feel neglected? Taking this meeting means I have to miss the class-breakfast, I should be with the kids all the time when they are home from school, I am selfish, selfish, selfish).
This entire line of thought is a reflection of my privilege. Most mothers in this world are fighting for their and their children’s survival.
Personal fulfillment or self-actualization or organic snacks are nowhere near the table. But for those of us who have the luxury to choose our professions and raise our children with freedom, should we not make the most of these choices?
What Do You Want?
We are primed to ask, “What do you need?” Compassion and empathy are undoubtedly the two emotions that would most profoundly benefit the world. But it’s equally incontrovertible that the world’s male leadership is the least skilled in these qualities.
Natalie Portman made a radical proposal in her speech at the most recent Women’s March. After describing how her debut at 13 in The Professional quickly taught her that the expression of her own desire would endanger her body and mind, she fashioned her public persona into an intellectual, prudish, elegant façade. In order to be safe, she needed to be implacable and aloof. Now, as a grown woman and mother, she boldly suggested to her female audience:
“Let’s create a revolution of desire. Let’s ask, what do we want?”
Desire usually gets a bad rap within the world of yoga. It’s just another word for attachment, which is also just another word for aversion. But maybe, instead of experiencing desire as a bonfire than consumes everything, there’s another way to conduct this unstable emotion into a friendly blaze that keeps us going forward, fuels our creativity and our ability to act. And just think how much we could change, we women-people, if we let our own fire cast its glow?
There will be forty people from all over the world at this course in Boulder, and their considerable effort to make the trip and the time and expense is the product of such a steady heat. This is tapas, the fire that sustains but doesn’t consume. As the Bhagavad Gita says, “yoga is not for one who makes no smoke.”
Yoga (its philosophy, practice and poetry) has been the most transformative experience of my life. Its application knows no bounds, or none that I have found. My ongoing study and daily practice have flowed into every area of my life. By connecting more deeply with myself, I have finally taken real notice of those around me. And by “those” I would include all living things, organic and sentient beings of all kinds. I have lifetimes to go, but yoga has made me less of a narcissist, not more.
My family will probably never understand why I make these trips, nor will the other moms at school. I can only imagine that they envision these experiences as “fun,” as a kind of stretchy vacation. Mostly, they are fun, joyous and exciting, but there is always an element of danger, intense work, and diving headfirst into what we don’t know. That is never comfortable or safe, but it is always the very best thing we can do.
As a human, a mother, a wife and daughter I cannot think of anything better to do in service of the people I love. To turn myself inside out again and see what’s still hidden, waiting to be discovered. To admit how much I have left to explore.
As I write this, my Brazilian friend Andrea is doing her asana practice in the living room. Onanchi, from Guatemala, is studying beside me. These are powerful women, grounded in their bodies and connected to their students, to their families, to the world around them. They do not do as they are told but as they have learned from their own experience.
After a few cups of tea, it’s clear to me that I am here in Boulder to learn from them, just as much as I will in my studies with Richard Freeman and Mary Taylor. They remind me of all the good that comes from women who channel their desire into action, who light steady fires, who stand up for themselves and for those around them.
There is nothing, I believe, more self-indulgent than complacency, the habit of unhappiness, the acceptance that things must remain as they are. In this year’s great chorus of women’s voices, let’s continue to ask “What do you need?” – but let’s never stop asking “What do I desire?”
Julia Napier a writer and editor, currently working on a collection of essays about the intersection of yoga practice, its philosophy and everyday life. Julia first discovered yoga through a sports-related injury and found a home within the Ashtanga Vinyasa tradition. And when she’s not jetsetting across the world to study with her teachers, Richard Freeman and Mary Taylor, you will find Julia happily at home in Buenos Aires with her supportive husband, two amazing children, and a golden retriever. Learn more here.
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