is there an "American spiritualism" like "American yoga"?


Yes I know I promised to write a review of the talk I attended about whether American yoga is in crisis, but I think that topic is a very small part of a much bigger picture. So I will throw the question out there: what are we lacking that make people do this:

James Arthur Ray’s Spiritual Warrior Event Kills 2

I’ve never seen the movie The Secret so I have no opinion about Ray and what he puts out, but know many people who have and who have thought it the greatest thing since sliced bread (I’m dating myself with that phrase.) I’ve also heard many New Agey people talk about the Law of Attraction (and who hopelessly confuse it with karma) and just have to wonder: why do you feel you are so utterly lacking in anything? It is almost a luxury in this country — one of the richest countries in the world with so much material and yes, non-material, things available to us — to feel that we lack anything! I have met people in India who have nothing compared to westerners yet are content. But I digress.

The psychology of people who will blindly follow a “guru” (whether American, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.) has always fascinated me so when I read Brenda’s post about American false idols I had to ask, what are we looking for when we follow a “brand name” in yoga and spirituality?

Speaking of false idols, read these posts:

The Unquestioned Gurus of the Religion of the Self (that contains the great subheading “Psychopaths as Teachers of Right Living.”)

The Cultivation of Inflation and The Culture of Narcissism in Personal Development

One of the comments to the first link was this:

“…that you can’t just take the most sacred ceremonies from another culture that you do not belong and have not paid any dues too (sic), mix it with whatever you feel like and sell it off as a business venture. for decades actual native americans have tried to warn the white culture about fraud ripping off and bastardizing their culture and ceremonies. no one listened opting instead for the glittery promises of the new age gurus and plastic shamans.”

I found that one comment (especially about paying your dues and mixing things up and selling it as a business venture) on point with the recent discussions about western yoga. Just sayin’.

Roseanne’s excellent posts on the branding of yoga caused spirited discussions as do my posts on Americanized yoga v. what I practice in India. So why isn’t practicing plain old yoga good enough for us? Has yoga in its partnering with companies like Adidas and fila merely become part of this culture of narcissism? Has yoga in this country become a new religion of the self?

To those who stand around a yoga “master” who performs “advanced” asanas at a yoga conference and applaud and film it to put it on YouTube, are we not celebrating the cult of narcissism in a vacuous yoga celebrity culture that we at the same time scoff at?

Amanda wrote one of her always brilliant comments to this post:

“- I suspect the ‘faddish’ and ‘hypercommercialised’ nature of American yoga is what many people object to beneath this critique of contemporary yoga, but don’t verbalise it as such.

– the question of authenticity also jumps out as an issue: does Anusara, Jivamutki, Forrest or whatever style of yoga represent an immature innovation based on shallow Western values such as commercialism and body image or true cultural change within yoga? (Only TIME will tell on this one!)

– babies teaching babies yoga. I agree but our western culture tells us we can do anything if we have the money. Thus, we see 23 year olds running yoga schools. (see my earlier point about paying your dues.)

– an unhealthy obsession with Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra as ‘the last word’ on yoga at the expense of other texts. Hasn’t anyone read Georg Feuerstein or Mircea Eliade?

– an obsession with difficult and physiologically/psychologically harmful or futile asana which ‘apparently’ grant one the body of a hyperflexible, twenty-something. Again, this is the current Western trope of youth/perfection/image that pervades every facet of our lives.”

“If we wish only to teach poses or postures, it would be better to call what we do by a name other than Yoga.” Donna Farhi in Yoga Beyond Fitness, page 125

I’ll ask again as I did in this post, is Americanized yoga a mile wide and an inch deep? And if it is, I will ask again as I did at the beginning of this post, what are we searching for that so many of us unquestioningly put our bodies and minds and psyches into the hands of false idols, whether it’s in the yoga world or elsewhere?

What say you, yoga teachers? Are you a fitness teacher or a yoga teacher? As a commenter said in Brenda’s post, “We are (essentially) fitness instructors. We need to be happier with that role I think.”

I don’t know about anyone else but I have not spent $10,000+ to be a fitness instructor. I was a certified fitness instructor for a short time and I can tell you that as a yoga teacher what I do now is light years away from what I did before, which is why I think the “become a yoga teacher in a weekend” programs are a great disservice. BECAUSE I deal with peoples’ emotions and psyches when I take on private clients, that’s the main reason I’m applying for a certificate course in Jungian psychology, to learn even more on top of what yoga and Buddhism has already taught me about human psychology. Speaking of dealing with the mind, if I conducted my own yoga teaching training program each student would be required to sit for a 10 day silent vipassana retreat in the strict Goenka tradition. Talk about a brain enema. Teachers, know thyselves.

Krishnamurti said, “it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”: “…as Krishnamurti suggests, it’s possible to think that we’re spiritually and mentally healthy because we share our mistaken values and understandings with those around us. Collectively, our ill minds create a society that is itself ill, and we consider ourselves healthy because we see our values reflected in our fellow worldlings.”

I think I’ve brought up some more questions, so talk amongst yourselves.

addthis_pub = ‘yogagal60510’;

25 thoughts on “is there an "American spiritualism" like "American yoga"?

  1. Excellent post Linda. Lots to chew on. I particularly liked “…epresent an immature innovation based on shallow Western values such as commercialism and body image or true cultural change within yoga?”

    I don't get the obession with the Yoga Sutras either. how many times have I listened to a yoga teacher try to explain yoga to people who've ask what is yoga and is it a religion. They make it so complicated! I watch as the other person's eyes glaze over.

    meh, no wonder I'm taking a break from yoga. (I've been joking that I need to take a “breather” from yoga.

    I'm interested to learn more about this Jungian psychology certificate course you are thinking about. I find this subject fascinating.

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  2. I'm fairly new to yoga. I practiced just once a week for about a year and a half until I discovered the right style, and all I knew was that it ignited something in me that was similar to how I felt when I was seriously studying martial arts. From there, I started a daily practice and have been reading everything I can get my hands on.

    So, being new to yoga and only 28 (not a baby but now old enough to know that I know nothing–ha ha), I can only speak from the position of someone with a limited view.

    I've avoided “gurus” and bastardized forms of yoga like the plague. New agey people with the vacant eyes of cult members freak me out. I went into Lululemon once to see those ass-enhancing pants for myself and had to get out of there ASAP. None of it spoke to me…none of it felt real.

    RE: “Current Western trope of youth/perfection/image” I hate that our society is that way. I always say I want to age in Europe, where society appreciates women of all ages. As for yoga, I love to see older people in my class because it's just a different vibe with people of all ages in the room. One of my favorite teachers is in her 60s and is very traditional in her teachings. I remember being stunned when I learned that her husband died in a car crash years ago. It's one of my greatest fears, and here is someone who had to face that and came out on the other side. I can't begin to imagine all I can learn from her.

    Maybe people take from yoga what they need, but to call that yoga doesn't jive. I feel so lucky that I started with a studio that I feel gets it right. I've been so fortunate to have the teachers I've had.

    I love this post, Linda. Can't wait to see what others think about the questions you've posed.

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  3. thank you so much for loving this post, grrl….

    I must say that over the last month or so I have really begun to question whether this yogaland is for me anymore and I have not even been teaching for 10 years. seriously. when “old” yogis and yoginis wind up on the last page in Yoga Journal….the corporatization of yoga in America with Adidas and others of their ilk….when the only “good” yogi is young-white-and-skinny….

    I need to find my own yoga tribe.

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  4. This post, the stoush over Addidas Yoga (and let's face it, that's a marketing ploy, we all know that!) and the Spiritual Warrior stuff is doing my head in. I kinda get the feeling people are over-reacting. All this talk of a “threat” to yoga, I mean really! Yoga has been around this long and there will always be people interested in the actual practice and no the hype, the celebrities, the clothes or the brands.

    Far as I'm concerned, none of that has anything to do with what I practice. My yoga practice is not about famous people, what I wear and who made it. I used to think it wasn't about any “special” kind of yoga either.

    That was until I came across Shadow Yoga and I'm just starting to immerse myself in its brilliance – once I'm in a place to comment, I'll write a post about it.

    That aside (because at least for me, there really is something special going on with Shadow Yoga), why does every other person have to “invent” some new form of yoga? Why? Are they really adding anything so ground-breakingly new that they *have* to brand it and turn it into a brand?

    Perhaps I'm just a little cynical, but for mine it just reeks of “how can I carve out a piece of the yoga dollar pie for myself?”

    Because we all know, teaching yoga classes straight up is not a lucrative endevour. But hey, if that's what people want to do, then fine. And maybe there's a handful of other “special” forms of yoga amongst the throng… who knows?

    I tried to watch The Secret and failed. All that Law of Attraction stuff is so self-centered and materialistic and it doesn't gel with me.

    Linda, I'm one of those people with a guru, but I certainly don't run after him mindlessly. The yoga he has taught me is still hands-down, the best yoga I've ever learned. The most profound. And I'm not just talking asana. He doesn't give it any fancy names though. Its Hatha yoga and meditation. Maybe he'll say its traditional Hatha, but that's as far as it goes. And he doesn't give a fig about who can turn themselves into the best preztel.

    Re: fitness instructors = yoga teachers… NOT. Fitness instructors are there to help people lose weight, build muscle and cardio fitness. I'm sure there's more things they do, too. I wouldn't know.

    As some of us here agree, teaching yoga is not just teaching asana. Its a philosophy, even if that philosophy isn't directly shared with one's yoga students. Yoga is an inward seeking spiritual path with a by-product of stronger/more flexible bodies/less aches and pains. But that's not the only by-product, and none of them are the goal, of course.

    I imagine the bulk of what I will teach will be asana. This is what people expect. But that won't be all. And of course, that's certainly not what I've been studying all these years and will continue to study as long as I draw breath, and when I'm not reading schlocky real life stories (teehee!).

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  5. Very interesting and provocative post, Linda.

    It seems to me that any broad-brush stereotyping of Yoga in America is bound to be highly misleading at best. It's not clear to me from your blog which particular types of Yoga you consider to be OK and which you consider to be unworthy.

    You seem to be throwing all or most Yoga in America into one big barrel and declaring it to all be unworthy because it's mixed up with an equally unworthy Western culture.

    I would have a great deal of trouble saying even one single thing that is generally true of “Yoga in America”. It's just too diverse for that kind of stereotyping. To talk about it with any meaning, one has to identify specific types of Yoga and discuss them individually.

    Which types of Yoga in America do you feel are OK, by whatever standard you choose? That would help me a lot in understanding your thinking.

    Thanks.

    Bob Weisenberg
    YogaDemystified.com

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  6. Great post, Linda! This question really stood out for me: “So why isn't practicing plain old yoga good enough for us?” So true! It's almost as though we don't trust something unless it has some kind of name or brand attached to it. My feeling is that the asanas themselves (whether they are <100 years old, or 5000, it doesn't matter) contain so much wisdom and potential for insight, that we don't need to have labels or quirky names applied to them. They already contain everything we need.

    As for the yoga teacher/fitness instructor question (which also stood out for me among the comments on Brenda's post), I see myself as somewhere in between. I like to think that I'm offering more than just a physical experience, but I'm not comfortable with promoting myself as some kind of guru… my only hope is that my students leave the class feeling more relaxed and content with themselves. I don't expect them to “follow me,” but I hope that my actions can set some kind of example.

    I'm also very fascinated by Amanda's previous comment: “does Anusara, Jivamutki, Forrest or whatever style of yoga represent an immature innovation based on shallow Western values such as commercialism and body image or true cultural change within yoga?” I agree, we'll only really know by continuously observing and monitoring the culture within the next 10-20 years. Anusara and Jivamukti feel really old-school compared to the new generation of yoga styles popping up (which don't even pretend to ascribe to any kind of tradition and just make up weird hybrid names for themselves – ie: rya-Yoka or whatevs). But we'll only know what kind of cultural change these older styles promise as time goes on. My sincere hope is that they'll offer something.

    And my last request is Linda, please don't give up on yoga!! Your voice is so essential, and I love what you have to say about everything. The blogasphere would be less interesting and lively without you. Keep it up!

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  7. BUT! Even if they are doing their asanas in matching groovy outfits and mascara…. They are still doing them. Just doing those poses opens chakras. I first learned yoga as a teen at a “Real” ashram. Destitute people and skinny dogs turning up at the door for food, even though the ashram itself was broke, messy, and had a funny smell somewhere. I loved it, went hungry, and learned so much.

    In recent years, I have gone to a hip, modern yoga centre, and it took me ages to get used to it. Yoga in a steel-and-concrete air-conditioned building in the city?? GAH! Everyone there has designer mats which are exactly spaced on snazzy woven flooring. When I say that I was vegetarian for 14 years but now eat anything… Shock! Horror! We look at one another and feel superior, me and the designer yogis!

    THE POINT of my ramble: The yoga teachers there are really good at getting your asana right. If you have a wobble, they know how to fix it. You can feel your physical and spiritual “body” straightening out and opening up. So, even if the students are a bit into their handbags and often forget to switch off their cell phones, I know that they are benefiting. Their hearts are opening. Not eating meat is good for them. How else could yoga reach those people, if not disguised as something hip and consumerable?

    Yoga that is “better” for me is not necessarily better for everyone. And I think that nearly any yoga is better than none.

    I love your blog, my friend Diana sent me the link… and I LOVE your Kali picture on your sidebar! Linking you.

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  8. My thoughts on the guru issue are summarized by my favourite mantra: sat guru, sat dumbass. Not to denigrate those who teach; not to denigrate those with wisdom to share; just to keep them down on the same plane of existence as the rest of us. We all have our strengths and weaknesses.

    I've been teaching for about a year, and I, too, began wondering whether I was just giving glorified aerobics instruction. So I started a class in which we only work on pranayama and meditation, and we close with some dharma discussion. I'm not a guru. I'm just someone who can give instructions on pranayama and meditation, and lead a discussion.

    Regarding Patanjali's Sutras; no, they're not the end-all, be-all, but I think they're not a bad place to start, either. 1:2 is as good an explanation of what yoga is, broken down to its most basic form, as I can imagine.

    Great post, Linda. As usual, you raise a lot of big questions about vital issues.

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  9. @ALL — thanks for ALL your comments!

    @svasti — I am in NO WAY dissing gurus and the people who have them. on the contrary, I am envious of people who have true gurus, i.e., not the so-called teachers who make people do wacky things for the benefit of their own ego. the “real” gurus are the ones we never hear about but the True Guru is inside each one of us.

    @Bob — I will answer your points:
    “It's not clear to me from your blog which particular types of Yoga you consider to be OK and which you consider to be unworthy.”

    of course it's not clear because I've never said anywhere in this blog for as long as I've been writing it (since 2005) that there are yogas that are “worthy” or “unworthy.” There is a style that resonates with you and one that resonates with me, it has nothing to do worthiness or unworthiness.

    I know many people who just love love love Kundalini yoga and Anusara — they leave me cold. I'm a vinyasa krama girl.

    “You seem to be throwing all or most Yoga in America into one big barrel and declaring it to all be unworthy because it's mixed up with an equally unworthy Western culture.”

    not at all. there are things about all cultures that are “worthy” and “unworthy”, but those are your words, not mine. for instance, I would rather be destitute in this country than anyplace else in the world (unless that country has universal health care!)

    “Which types of Yoga in America do you feel are OK, by whatever standard you choose? That would help me a lot in understanding your thinking.”

    frankly, I don't deal in “types” of yoga. to me, yoga is yoga, and that was a potent ephiphany that I had in India while studying at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram.

    if someone asks me what style I teach I tell them “my style.” I have written more than once in this blog that unless there are elements of pranayama & meditation (or least mindfulness) with the asana practice, then don't call it yoga. if you jump out of bed in the morning and do stretching using yoga poses, to me, that's not yoga, that's stretching. I've said before you can call a dog a cat all you want to, but that does not make it a cat.

    An excellent example is in physical therapy. To rehab backs, PTs use variations of cat/cow, locust, and cobra. but they don't call it yoga, they call it physical therapy.

    I agree 150% with Donna Farhi's quote in my post. And while Judith Lasater's yoga style leaves me cold (at least in the way I experienced it at my training at Spirit Rock), I also agree 150% with what I quoted in this post:

    http://lindasyoga.blogspot.com/2008/10/mile-wide-and-inch-deep.html

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  10. Hi, Linda.

    Sorry I chose the word “worthy”. What I was looking for was exactly what you just spelled out clearly–that it must have pranayama and meditation in order to be called Yoga. That's very specific and far more inclusive than I would have guessed you would say.

    Sorry if I'm misreading your blog. I'm clearly getting the impression that you're condemning American Yoga in a way that you apparently didn't intend as I read it. I'll go back and read it again with your clarifications in mind. Thanks.

    In the meantime, I have come up with a modest proposal for solving all these problems with what is or isn't Yoga.

    Let's require that any Yoga that doesn't meet whatever standard we set be called “Yobo” instead of “Yoga”.

    All Yobo studios and their corporate sponsors would be required to prominently display the following language on all their marketing material:

    “We practice Yobo here. While Yobo is inspired by certain limited aspects of Yoga, it does not include enough meditation, breathing, spirituality, and study of ancient texts to qualify as Yoga.”

    (There would, of course, have to be a certification committee that would set the rules and determine what is Yobo and what is Yoga.)

    Problem solved! No more inappropriate use of the word “Yoga”.

    I tried to sell this idea to YogaDawg, but he refused to pay my asking price.

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://YogaDemystified.com

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  11. @Bob – you may not be aware of this, but in Australia, “yobbo” is a term for uncooth types of people. Hehe!! 😉

    @Linda – I hear you, no probs 🙂

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  12. Well, svasti, of course I was aware of that. I'm tuned into the subtle of nuances of dialect throughout the world. (NOT).

    Anyway, that fits, although the spelling's all wrong. Really needs to be “Yobo” to reflect “Yoga”, don't you think?

    But who will know when they just hear it? How is it pronounced? We traditionalists can simply dismiss those non-spiritual types with, “You're nothing but a Yobo.”

    This is great. I really think we've got something here. We'll just put this out and it will be a viral sensation. Eventually we have to set up that committee, though.

    Bob Weisenberg
    YogaDemystified.com

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  13. just to clarify for Bob:

    1. I don't care if anyone does yoga. really. I used to care. I don't anymore. really.

    2. for everyone else, do your own yoga, and I'll do mine. I don't care what you call yours, I know what I call mine.

    3. as for pranayama, I am not saying that every class has to include something like kapalabhati or nadi shodana, etc. “conscious breathing” or in the Buddhist tradition anapapanasati (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anapanasati) is pranayama. in fact, in my experience, I think pranayama is taught indiscriminately in group classes because there is no way a teacher can know everyone's dosha. I am old school — I think only experienced and qualified teachers should be teaching pranayama.

    4. while I never teach a class without a sit, I am not saying that you have to sit for 10 or 15 or 30 min. in meditation after a yoga class. I am talking about being aware and present, about practicing mindfulness. in fact, I will repeat what Mark Whitwell says, STOP MEDITATING, because it should be part of your life, not something you turn on and off.

    read my posts about Mark Whitwell because he says it all for me. it's no coincidence that his lineage is also Krishnamacharya's.

    5. I will also repeat what I heard from Desikachar: have 100% attention in both body and breath, otherwise it's not yoga, it's acrobatics. a child can also put a leg behind his neck, that does not make him or her a yogi.

    6. and yes, there IS a difference between “americanized yoga” and what I have experienced in India at the Mandiram. I've blogged about it, you can read it. I have a basis for comparison and I speak from MY experience. feel free to read this post:

    http://lindasyoga.blogspot.com/2008/02/getting-back-to-yoga-part-2-sraddha.html

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  14. Yes, Linda. I like Whitwell. He's a prime example of the “new yoga radicals” you described in a previous blog, whose teachings return directly to the Upanishads and Gita, in which Yoga is primarily about the minute-to-minute joy of realization rather than about technique.

    Plus I know Whitwell is the real deal because he rarely appears on his website without his shirt off. Talk about branding!

    Bob Weisenberg
    YogaDemystified.com

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  15. “in which Yoga is primarily about the minute-to-minute joy of realization rather than about technique.”

    which is what my Buddhism-informed yoga is all about.

    “Plus I know Whitwell is the real deal because he rarely appears on his website without his shirt off. Talk about branding!”

    that gives me an idea. Ana Brett wears her yoga short-shorts….hmmmmmm…….

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  16. maybe this is the last word on the subject…found this comment on my Facebook page…and the comment was actually about something else other than yoga:

    “…as long as there is a way to capitalize on ANYTHING, NOTHING surprises me. It's just the way that Yoga, for instance, has been turned into a yuppy, suburban-middle-class-hippy-sorta trend.”

    talk amongst yourselves.

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  17. Hello again, Linda.

    Later on when I started thinking of what you wrote above about “conscious breathing” it reminded me of this blog I wrote some months back:

    “What If Every Breath You Took Was Like Eating A Bite of Chocolate Cake?”

    http://wp.me/PlUox-fu

    Thanks again for a great blog and discussion.

    Bob Weisenberg
    YogaDemystified.com

    Like

  18. Too many things have already been said about american yoga and spirituality in this blog and in the world of yoga blogs.
    To each its own! worthy or unworthy, pranayam or no pranayam, yoga or yobo…
    Growing up, practicing yoga in India, I never came across such discussions.
    Whatever is good will stand the test of time. That's my 2 cents worth.

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  19. Wow, great post followed by a great discussion. There's a lot going on here, so I'd just like to comment on the yoga v. fitness issue; and am doing so not as a teacher (not a *yoga* teacher, anyway, though I think there's got to be some connection to the teaching of middle school English that I do 😉 but as a student practitioner.

    I have a friend (we're both in our 40's) to whom I introduced yoga several years ago, and she has since surpassed me in terms of dedication (for lack of a better word). She became certified to teach yoga after an intensive training and study period at a Sivananda ashram (and in fact just returned from her advanced training this summer). When I asked her why Sivananda, she said quite definitively that because for her, yoga is more than the physical asanas, that it *is* religious/spiritual, and feels that Sivananda is a more “real” school of yoga in that sense. And in her mind, she cannot separate the branches from one another the way a more fitness-based approach does, and I agree.

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  20. @bob — and as I sometimes tell my students, how would you feel about your breath if you knew it was the last breath you would ever take?

    @RT — you're right. that's because in india, yoga is just yoga. it just IS and there's no need to change it or make it sexy…like here.

    @laluna — thanks for reading!

    Like

  21. Linda, you should teach if it speaks to you, if it continues to bring you joy and fulfillment, as wonky as that sounds.

    One of the wonders of teaching yoga in North America, is that if you choose to you *could* isolate or separate yourself from certain aspects of the “yoga machine”. You could have your own studio (forgive me, I'm completely unaware if you have your own) or choose where you teach carefully.

    Unlike myself, you have some freedom. I adore my job (Paediatric Speech Language Pathologist) but currently the only organization is province wide and terrible to work for. Trends and research influence my clinical life directly.

    In any case, just wanted to say what you already know I'm sure- you will decide the path that is right for you… and all that jazz. 🙂

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  22. I like what you said about teaching mindfulness. Despite all my protestations to the contrary, I actually do think that is something I give to my students. Awareness, looking at intention, turning the focus inward. At least, these are the things that they say keeps them coming back. And frankly, I can't imagine a yoga class with out this…what's the point, then it is just a stretch. Arf, arf.

    It's a nice was to think about it.
    (Thanks for the link luv, too).

    Like

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