Some of you may have heard recently about the passing of Michael Stone.
I did not know Michael Stone. I had not been to any of his workshops, I had not read any of his books, and I had never even heard of him before his death.
But when I read about his passing, I felt incredibly sad. On his Facebook page is a beautiful, official statement about Michael and his life and his death. You can read it here, and I recommend you do. It is the story of a soul who gave so much in his life - not only as a teacher but as a husband and father - and yet battled silently with mental health illness.
The grief I feel is not only for the loss of a life which obviously meant so much to so many, but a grief for the fact that a well loved yoga teacher got to this point. A person who had gained wisdom and love through his practice, was generously sharing these through his teachings, and yet was a person who still couldn't share his whole self because of the stigma attached to mental health, and, in my opinion, the stigma attached to yoga teachers.
I do not wish to comment on Michael's death, beyond to share my grief. But I would like to share my thoughts and feelings that have arisen in the days since his death. In my opinion, the pressure and expectation put upon yoga teachers (often by other teachers) is dangerous. Yoga teachers are expected to be 'full of light'. To be better than others, to be more disciplined, to be happier, to understand life and to be full of wisdom. If yoga teachers begin to believe their own hype (and they do), this does not bode well for how their students perceive them and what we begin to believe yoga is. It's easy to see why yoga teachers get lost in their own ego whilst ironically thinking they are transforming that same ego, and why students put up with the careless chatter, the dangerous adjustments, and the violation of personal boundaries during lessons.
Yoga has the potential to bring us all together. Yoga is a tool of connection. It can help us to remember we are not alone in this world, that we can make beautiful relationships with our spiritual essence but also with the other souls around us. Yoga brings us to our wholeness, which reminds us of how reliant we truly are on all life on this planet, be it in human, animal, or earth form.
Yoga is a not a magic wand. It doesn't fix us. Yoga is not here to give us the perfect body, to escape into eternal light, to make us immune to the suffering around us. Rather yoga builds our sensitivity AND our resilience. We will suffer, be it physically, mentally, emotionally. We will - if we are lucky - get old. We will see pain, grief, loss, and hurt, and we will probably experience it ourselves.
Yoga is not about jet-setting around the world, posting on Instagram, buying designer leggings and becoming considerably more flexible/moral than you. Yoga is about love. And true love is acceptance. Acceptance of who we are, our faults and weaknesses, our ugly bits, our darkness. Yoga is about recognising that whilst we may have symptoms to heal (the symptoms of mental illness, for example) we are fundamentally already whole.
But to get to that realisation of wholeness, we have to be able to accept ourselves as we are right now. Not who we may be in 5 years if we keep doing yoga, but who we are in this moment. And to accept ourselves fully means showing up fully and it is not pretty, or easy, and so how many of us are really doing the work, and how of us are just striving for the next posture? On the official statement for Michael Stone, it reads:
"As versed as Michael was with the silence around mental health issues in our culture, he feared the stigma of his diagnosis . . . In the silencing he hid desires he had for relief."
If Michael Stone, described as an "eminent Buddhist and yoga teacher, author, uncommon activist and human being" felt that he had to silence his struggles for mental health, how many of us are silencing our struggles? How many of us feel under pressure to be somehow a superior human being because we practice or teach yoga? How many people really show up in their vulnerability, and how many of us are using yoga asana to distract ourselves and avoid our reality, all in the name of 'spirituality'?
In a culture where weakness is frowned upon, vulnerability is weakness, and there is no time for grief, no space for sadness, no acknowledgement of deep pain, yoga could be offering us salvation. Yoga could be building a community where we create space for weakness, for vulnerability, for grief, sadness and pain. But it isn't. Yoga (or the industry around it) is exactly the same as the other corporate bullshit we are fed #everydamnday.
We all have a responsibility, to ourselves and to others. To get real. To stop sticking our heads in the sand and to stand up, face up, and allow others to do the same. To wake up to what yoga has to offer, and the real reason yoga is so popular right now: because we are waking up and a shift in consciousness is happening.
If one more person dies because they couldn't find the support they needed in the yoga community, it is a sad, needless death, and it is something that needs airing. How do we live with truth? What does it mean to live with compassion? And how do we discriminate whilst acting in love?
It starts with self-love. Of self-acceptance, and compassion for all other beings. Forget about envying the person next to you, their body, their clothes, their forward bend, and see them as a soul, just like you, with their own hidden struggles. You don't need to help or save anyone, you simply need to work on yourself, on bringing yourself into your wholeness and learning to love yourself just as you are.
This is the real work of yoga, and it is the hardest work of all. I work with people 1-2-1 on finding wholeness through deep relaxation (yoga nidra), and overcoming trauma, negative self beliefs, and fatigue. You can find out more here. and feel free to contact me directly to discuss your situation. For me, yoga has been a journey of breaking down all the protective barriers I layered myself with and removing all the armour I thought I needed to survive in this world. I have worked hard to shift my own beliefs, behaviours and thought patterns, and this is work I will do daily, for the rest of my life. This is what yoga can offer us - the true joy that comes from knowing we are enough, as we are.
Let us send a prayer of love to Michael's soul, his family, his children, and all the people he surely inspired along the way. Sit, for a moment, close your eyes, place both hands on your heart, and breath. Remember a time you felt broken (we've all had them), and remember what brought your relief, and let gratitude flood your heart. Feel it - laugh, cry, smile softly, but feel it. And let's use that gratitude to find our compassion for others, today, and every day.
Thank you for reading.