Unbranding the teachings…the new politics of yoga

Letter to a friend: During my last trip to Asia, I taught a yoga class, at the end of which a woman came to thank me for the experience she had had in class. She then told me that she was a visiting  journalist who covers yoga and personal growth and spa topics for a major publication. Could she interview me over lunch?

I accepted. The lunch was savory, yet we stumbled around, not quite knowing what to say. What had happened in class for her was magical. She had had a very personal experience of reconnecting with herself and her practice.  Hours later, however,  seated over lunch, the mat long since rolled up,  everytime she tried to interview “ME”, it felt , well, wrong.

Eventually, the conversation settled on the topic of leaving the mat. Of being an exile on the spiritual path that once called you to transformation. For the greater part of my professional life spent as a yoga teacher and personal growth counselor, an intuitive healer, if you will, I have lived on a tiny little island in the Caribbean. Hardly the fast track.

Far away from the communities that fostered so much growth in me, farther still from my beloved teachers, to survive I understood that I must concentrate on the teachings.  Sometimes, it felt like crossing the Gobi desert. But I did. The teachings sustained me on good days and bad days. They sustained me  through motherhood  and marriage and exile and pilgrimage and the experience of being a pioneer.

I have great respect for the teachings. Enough to question them, enough to put them to the test. Ultimately, that test always comes down to the day-to-day application and the eventual efficacity of the  tools they provide.

I went back to my room and wrote this down at the end of the day. It’s about getting back on your mat.

Walking pensively toward my room, it came to me that perhaps what
struck you, indeed what stopped you in your tracks and prompted you to
ask me for an interview is not my story, but yours.

In the same way that you noticed your imbalance during my class while
I picked up more on your strength, perhaps I am meant to point you, in life,  to
your own strengths.

When you speak about the politics of yoga and how it forced you into exile all the way to the gym, you speak through the forceful and authentic prism of personal experience. It is funny, warm, full of imagery, truth and the myriad of emotions that mark any exile. I have known that same exile, though it was for different reasons. I have lived on a tiny rock in the middle of an ocean for the past 2o years. There’s a self-reliance, a thirst for community, knowledge and connection I have felt over those past decades that  is shared by exiles everywhere.

Listening to you, I heard the modern day adaptation of all great teachings, and how, when the environment that once fostered and nourished them becomes polluted, hostile or disconnected from its true North, its core, then the teachings go underground. (We could speak for days about how ambition, rivalry, and the negative emotions that have plagued man from our historical start continue to do so today). The teachings go into exile. They simply pick up and leave the coffee
shops and the bickering and the posturing and the “my guru is better than your guru”  pingpong. They leave the showmanship and the upsmanship and the brinksmanship, with the saddened eyes of a crestfallen child.

Deep in the heart of yoga, we know it is  not about building up the ego, but about learning how to dismantle the  tight grip we have on the notion of Me and My and Mine, and on our  constant need for approval, that can only be achieved by feeling good  enough only when we are better than everybody else. It’s a a stripping  process, and it’s why you left the mat. You saw how impoverished that  dynamic made you feel, made all the worse when you tried to play along.

Your journey as an exile, what you have observed and noticed along the  way, speaks to many who have been disillusioned. They left religion in  favor of a more inclusive, more comprehensive approach to spiritual  development, only to find that the people had twisted the teachings  for self-aggrandizement. They took the teachings that helped them to live, and they went all Hollywood.  They branded.
Despite the marketing ploys and power plays, yoga, its power, its spirit and its heart continues to be transmitted.  I am honored that you found that spirit in my class. That means I have done service to the teachings. But, there are many teachers the world over who make a point of UNbranding the teachings.

Can you imagine Ganesha, or Patanjali, the Buddha, or Christ, Mohammed or any one of  the spiritually enlightened beings refusing to let you in on the teachings because you weren’t brand-savvy or because you were sitting in the wrong coffee shop?

In essence what I heard when you were speaking yesterday is that you’ve come out of exile.  And the message you come back with is strong. For all the people who went to yoga for the spiritual realisation it helps us to see, for the small self it helps us to move beyond,  for all those people like you,  who left  because of the
politics, you can tell them it is safe to go back to their mats, that they can come home. Let the politickers politick. You have a practice to get back to.
This is your story, and by sharing it, you encourage a whole generation of people who have matured with yoga and a new generation who will know it’s not about who has the best handstand, or the tightest ass, as new friend and fellow exile Michelle wryly added. It’s about something so, so much more.

Wishing you happy trails and enlightenment,


Diana Bourel

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