“Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; seek what they sought.”
~ Zen Master Basho
If you want your car fixed you need to take it to a mechanic. That mechanic needs specialized skills and abilities in order to get the job done. Would-be mechanics can’t simply imitate other mechanics.
I suppose that you could fake it though. You could just hang around people who fix cars. Pay attention what they say and how they say it. Then you imitate it. Wear what they wear. Speak how they speak. Pay attention to their mannerisms and cultural references until you look and act just like a mechanic.
And that will totally work… until it comes time to actually fix a car.
If you want to actually fix cars then their mannerisms, culture and clothes are of little use. You have to study and practice. You have to watch what they do, much more say than what they say.
The most important question you need to ask them is this: What did you do when you wanted to become a mechanic? THAT is what you need to know. Not what they are doing now, but what they did years ago. How does one become an authentic mechanic?
If you are new to yoga and want to find a authentic teacher, imitation is your main obstacle. As with mechanics, it is the skills and abilities of yoga teachers that set them apart and make them great. The mannerisms, clothing and culture of yoga are only convincing for novices. But somebody who has adopted the clothing and language of a yogi can easily pass for an authentic teacher if we are not paying attention.
Inexperienced yoga teachers will often mimic the sequencing, pace, tone, and body language of more experienced teachers in order to convey some sense of mastery over their craft. If you take some time to scroll through YouTube videos of famous yoga teachers you might even recognize some of the instructions and mannerisms from classes you have taken at gyms and yoga studios.
It is not just famous yoga teachers that suggest authenticity. There are a number of words that bright young yoga teachers quickly figure out have some magic power. I’ll write you a poem made only of a selection of these magic yoga words:
vinyasa core power flow
embodied prana chakra mindful
awakened heart highest self
yummy grace delicious at your own pace
intention purpose alignment
grounding great vibes
inspiration roll to your right sides
It is not just the words, but also the dress and the mannerisms of yogis that are appropriated and mimicked in order to give the appearance of accomplishment. The obvious examples are the top-knots, long beards, mala beads, half-closed eyes, and rhythmic swaying to unheard music. Movie directors and sketch comics that want to spoof yoga and yoga teachers have figured out that caricature of a yogi.
It only takes a couple of generations of imitation and mimicry before a gradual dilution of authenticity can make yoga practice a hollow shell of what it could be.
The product is tragi-comic yoga classes featuring earnest young teachers who have appropriated language and mannerisms from the last generation of yogis without any of the cultural context or realization that produced the language and mannerisms in the first place. And it is the student who ultimately gets the short end of the stick in this deal. That is why I am writing this piece.
Perhaps one of the clearest examples of the influence of mimicry in contemporary yoga is the stereo-typically strict and demanding “yoga nazi.” You know the one. That intimidating and apparently angry yoga teacher who is super hardcore. That too, is caricature. The primary source of the caricature is BKS Iyengar.
Iyengar is famously severe in his approach to teaching. One of my favorite Iyengar quotes: “I hint, nothing happens. I hit and it happens.” Study his biography and his temper should not surprise you. Iyengar was malnourished and dealt with malaria, typhoid fever and tuberculosis all before the age of nine when his father died. His guru and brother-in-law, Krishnamarcharya, neglected him and out right refused to teach him yoga. When he did teach him it was harsh and unrelenting, sometimes resulting in more injuries. Of course he is a little surly.
Now, the intense and demanding demeanor of the “yoga nazi” archetype is not without value. Iyengar insists on total awareness from his students. You must pay attention. You must follow instructions closely. These things are not options. Clear, focused awareness is the bare minimum requirement. But taken out of its historical and pedagogical context, it is just bad acting masquerading as experience and authority.
Teachers who admire BKS Iyengar and aspire to be like him would do well to study his story and see how he came to teach the way he teaches rather than simply imitating his teaching style. His precision and attention to detail arose out of necessity. His body did not take easily to the postures. It was a struggle. Learning those postures required a great deal attention. Iyengar did not simply imitate the style of his teacher. He adapted yoga to meet his own, and later his students, unique life conditions.
The genius of Iyengar yoga lies in its ability to refine awareness through the refinement of the postures. The mood and demeanor of the teacher is a secondary trait. It is something that may enhance or detract from a student’s enjoyment of the class, but it is not a defining characteristic of the style.
There are a number of traits and characteristics associated with having a yoga experience. Deep relaxation does tend to make eyelids rest somewhat lower on the eye. Sharp, penetrating awareness does lend itself to a certain brightness and intensity of the eye. Awareness of and absorption in the rhythms of the body and breath will occasionally produce and a bit of a swaying or rocking while sitting around.
The meditative perspective typically enables one to witness the moments of their life theatrically. Rather than having things happen to you, you experience the happening of things. As a result, the mundane may appear as absurd or entertaining. People with meditative insight tend to giggle and not get caught up in drama.
So many yoga teachers have adopted a public persona based on the “fake it until you make it” mantra. They dress how they think a yogi should dress, use words they think yogis use, and pretend that they love everything and everybody even though they may be quietly struggling with neurosis, depression, and anxiety. Frankly, it is a recipe for disaster for both teacher and student.
The “fake it until you make it” approach works well in a number of venues. Want to feel more confident? Sit and stand in a way that appears more confident. It works. But that approach is limited. The cultivation of yogic attributes requires practice. Not just practicing asana, but practicing our ability to retain a relaxed awareness in the midst of our daily dramas. It takes time. It requires patience. This is true of practitioners of yoga and so much more so for teachers.
You do not want a mechanic who is faking it. Do not trust your vehicle in the hands of somebody whose primary yoga practice is one of mimicry.
This is not about shallow, superficial “western” yogis who are destroying the beautiful and authentic core of an idealized “eastern” yoga. People from many countries have been mimicking their teachers for generations. This is nothing new. It is the reason why in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (a 14th Century hatha yoga manual) says
The practitioner will succeed; the non-practitioner will not. Success in Yoga…is achieved neither by wearing the right clothes nor by talking about it. Practice alone brings success. This is the truth, without a doubt.
Yoga comes to us as a result of being conveyed from teacher to student over the course of many generations. This is not something that happened in the past. It is happening now. We are yoga.
Authenticity in yoga emerges from the authenticity of the yogi. We implement the technologies of yoga on our minds and bodies – which both exist within shifting social and environmental contexts – and the transformations that take place become the teachings (and teachers) of the future.
Yoga teachers should not be stars. Yoga students should not be fans. We don’t need any more idols. Authentic yoga practice is radically subjective. We need to apply yoga to our own life conditions rather than attempting to reproduce the life conditions of the yogis of past centuries. Authentic yoga does not mean ancient yoga. It means your yoga. Your insights, your struggles, and your transformation form the cornerstone of authentic yoga.