We all know the type. The one who likes to tell you what time they go up to practice, how long they practice for, and how far their practice has 'progressed'. The ones who tell you that yoga has changed their life and it can change your life as well, hell, it probably should change your life, because if you're not doing yoga all the time then surely something is wrong. The ones who challenge what your idea of meditation means, and who see any other way of practicing yoga besides the type they do as 'not real yoga'. Whether you're getting these messages from that ever so loud and proud person in the changing room or from the onslaught of social media challenges and Insta-worthy pics, it's not that difficult to be cornered by a spiritual snob, or - gasp - turn into one.
So how do you avoid turning into a spiritual snob? Are you still allowed to wear colourful leggings? Should you start chanting? Should you stop using social media? Well yeah, of course, do all those things if they make you happy. Just don’t expect whatever makes you happy to make the person next to you happy. If yoga has helped change your life – like it has for me – then that’s really fantastic. If you can’t get your boyfriend to class for love nor money (uh, that will be me as well) then let it go. Spiritual snobbery comes when we think our way is the best way and that ergo we are better than anyone else. (Of course we would never admit that out loud. We’ve obviously transcended the ego – that’s why our type of yoga is better than yours).
Sarcasm aside, the irony is that yoga is meant to be, well, all-accepting. All encompassing. An open door to anyone who needs time and space to reconnect with the most basic aspects of their being; their body, breath and the stillness that lies within.
Spiritual snobbery begins when the ego decides that this is just too simple. What, you mean we just stretch, and breathe and try to start focused, and then do that regularly, and see what happens? asks the ego. Where’s the sweat, where’s the effort, where’s the ‘yoga body’? Come on. You’re just being lazy/worthless/pathetic/not good enough. Starting tomorrow we’re going to get up at 4am and practice for 2 hours every day and do handstands every day without fail.
What happens when we set ourselves tasks that are simply unattainable for us right now is that we set ourselves up for failure, more criticism and more comparison. Or we manage to meet our goals, do what we thought we couldn’t, and start to feel proud and desperate for more. No matter how the practice goes, if we’re leading with the ego then there is no yoga.
Is being with ourselves so crazily impossible and scary that it begins easier to want to bend into more extreme shapes, to practice for longer and harder, to keep pushing and pushing and pushing? Whether your style involves doing four postures in one hour or working your way through the Ashtanga series, the question which begs to be asked is are you pushing closer to the truth or further away? Is your practice bringing you closer to yourself and others, or making you isolated and disconnected?
There is a principle in the yoga philosophy called ahimsa. Ahimsa is considered to mean non-violence, non-harming to ourselves and to others. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a 15th century text on hatha yoga, describes ahimsa as "a process of self-control, self-awareness and awareness of everything that is around you."
Matthew Remski in his translation of the Yoga Sutras says that violence is not the problem - oppression is. How much are you oppressing yourself? To live with judgement starts with yourself. If you can't be kind to yourself, your compassion and kindness for others will run out. What makes you happy? I mean honestly happy. Not the text book answer of "eating only green vegetables and practicing yoga for 12 hours a day" ( yes I'm exaggerating but you get my point) but I mean really happy. Buying pick 'n' mix, getting a facial, wearing pyjamas all day long on a Sunday, going to bed at 9pm, dancing to 80s pop music (OK so that last one is mine) whatever it is that makes you happy when do you really let yourself do it?
I believe that it's only when we allow ourselves to experience when it is like to feel pure joy that we can learn to practice ahimsa, or self-control, fully. Without recognising that all of this is meant to be bringing us joy and happiness and bliss, we too easily turn the concepts of yoga into self-flagellation, another stick to beat ourselves over the head with, another punishing and torturous discipline that we must stick to or be shown up as 'not good enough'.
Try it. 24 hours of complete self-awareness. That means noticing how you are moving, how you are breathing, what you are eating and what you are thinking - without judgement. To be face to face with who you are today, not who you could be if 10 years time if you do yoga #everydamnday. To face all the different corners of your being, to the part of you which ignores the homeless person on the street to the part of you which buys everyone in the office cakes for your birthday and to not try and change anything. Too often we want to change. We want to improve, progress, move forward - nothing wrong with that, and in fact, often essential for many of us in our own personal journeys. But before we can we can move on with awareness, we have to connect to the right here, right now.
Start with the concept that you are already good enough. If this seems hard to swallow, just 'fake it till you make it'. Act as if you are already good enough and don't worry about having to believe it just yet. Keep a journal and notice how easy or hard this was for you, the times when you found yourself judging yourself or others, anything else that comes up. You can't do this wrong, so be open and honest and see what comes up.
To read more of my ponderings on yoga philosophy, check out my articles for Yoga London.