herald

Wednesday 7 December 2016

What Katie Did Next: In which I snap and growl after down dog

Katie Byrne
Katie Byrne

I was 17 when I attended my first yoga class. It was held in a church hall on Foster's Avenue. You probably know it from the creative pun-laden placards they position outside. "God is my rock and I'm ready to roll" was a personal favourite.

The teacher, Emma, was terribly exotic, especially to a teenager who still fashioned entire outfits around a pair of baggy tracksuit bottoms. She wore kaleidoscopic wraps and jingly-jangly earrings. She played electro music during the warm-up and made her way around the class during the concluding Shavasana posture to give everyone a head massage. Her dog generally slept by her side during the class.

We arrived at the church on September 11 2001 to discover a note affixed to a locked door. It explained that she wasn't able to take that evening's class as she was so upset by what had happened in New York.

Yes, her heart was bigger than her wallet and her economic model was based on contributions rather than fixed rates. She insisted that people only paid what they could afford and she was determined that straightened circumstances would never derail her students from attending a class when they needed it most.

Emma led by example and was an ambassador for the principles of yoga - service to others, compassion and kindness. I eventually moved on to different teachers and styles of yoga, although I've yet to find another class where head massages are administered.

session

My mother reminded me of Emma last week, when my down dog became more of a snap and growl. It was following a session we attended together just outside Marrakech for which we had block-paid for four classes, costing the guts of €50 each.

Our good intentions were better than our attendance rate: partly because my mother saw the teacher sending emails during one of the earliest classes; partly because we were doing suntan-asana beside the pool.

As our holiday neared its end we realised that we'd each have one class left over. Meanwhile, a waiter at the hotel we were staying in told me that he'd like to try yoga. Well, I thought, I'll just pass the classes on to him. I pitched my idea to this teacher following our last class and was met with a flat no. He scrambled for the contract I had signed, mumbled something about his A-list clients and told me to "forget about the waiter". My post-class serenity quickly gave way to blind rage.

"Have you heard of Karma yoga?" I asked him. "I've done all that," he answered, in a tone that suggested Karma yoga was a passing fad akin to Zumba or Tae Bo. "So it's all about the money now?" I pressed. My mother said he looked like he wanted to punch me.

I would never have asked him to let me pass my classes on to the waiter had I not met so many kind-hearted teachers over the years, people for whom the principles of yoga continue to inform their teachings; people who want to bring the practice to schools and prisons and hospitals and, crucially, the less fortunate in society.

However my experience in Morocco was an example of something that's seeping into the practice. Some yoga teachers are putting the pursuit of money ahead of their passion for teaching. Arch capitalism is all well and good if you're flogging ice cream, or toilet paper or television sets, but it jars with spiritual pursuits and fundamentally undermines the essence and integrity of the practice.

In one sense it's wonderful that yoga is now accessible to the masses. In another sense, it's a shame that the people it's been made most available to are privileged enough to be able to pay €10-€20 for a drop-in class. The new wave of yoga entrepreneurs aren't content to teach in their community hall. They want to run franchises and international retreats. Bikram Choudary, creator of the eponymous style of yoga, collects Bentleys and Rolls Royces, while business magazines suggest how yoga can help boost your bottom line.

The money-led ethos creates a divide between teacher and student which is at odds with what is a deeply intimate, sacred practice. Likewise, when you're teaching a practice that channels something bigger than yourself, there should be a focus on sharing it with people less well off than yourself.

Principles

Students need to feel that they are in a space that expounds the principles of yoga. No change to rent a mat? No worries. Broke until payday? Sure you can get me next week.

The teacher in Marrakech produced the contract I had signed. A Dublin-based studio recently refused to let me off paying my monthly fee even though I was going to be out of the country for the month and unable to attend any classes.

Studios and franchises have adopted the gym model which relies on people not turning up. In other words, it exploits everyone's weak spot which is to watch House of Cards rather than roll out their yoga mat. The yoga principle of asteya means non-stealing, but I can't help but feel that I'm being robbed when one of these contracts is produced.

I think I'm going to go back to the lovely Emma.

She's still in business almost 15 years later, which just goes to show that if you follow your passion, the money will come.

My post-class serenity gave way to blind rage

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