An act of rebellion. Not what springs to mind when you think of yoga, right? The polished world of zenned-out studios populated by glowy, lululemon clad yummy-mummies on 3 day juice fasts is probably closer to the mark. We don’t often think of yoga as something radical, something ground-breaking or controversial. It appears to be a soft and quiet thing in a hard, loud world. But I believe that the yogic tradition was – and continues to be – a quite indignant act of personal and cultural rebellion. I’ll come onto why this rings true of my own rocky journey to the mat, but It’s also my view that yoga has always been an act of rebellion, deep down at its ancient root.
Contemporary scholars, such as Carlos Pomeda, argue yoga arose out of the Śramaṇic tradition, an austere, ascetic tradition tracing back as far as the 7th century BCE. It was a tradition of severe self-discipline and renunciation. These early versions of yogis turned their backs on the world; they left their homes, their possessions, their familial ties, and with it standard social conventions. They often disappeared into the mountains, into forests and caves to meditate, to disengage with the world and to escape the cycle of karma. In this early view, karma is what kept the soul trapped in endless cycles of birth, death, and rebirth, and to achieve true liberation, true freedom, one had to break out of this cycle somehow. Yoga arose as the answer to this ‘somehow’.
For me, my own search for that ‘somehow’ began early on in my London-life. I’d only been living in the big smoke a couple of years, but I already came to yoga a broken man. Burned out, frustrated, sick and tired of being -well- sick and tired. I went to my first yoga class eight years ago. It was brutal, it was hard. My sleep deprived, caffeine wired and substance-muddled car-crash of a body didn’t know how to handle it. I was partying – a lot. Yoga wasn’t familiar, the shapes and forms were new, the movements were unknown and I resisted the required interrogation into what I was feeling physically. The teacher requested mental awareness, I was mentally absent, and I’d spent a lot of money and sleepless weekends ensuring I stayed that way so I didn’t have to think. The class felt awful. I sweated and shook and slipped and got angry. I wasn’t good at this. I felt emasculated and ashamed by my inability to perform – it didn’t really take much in those days. A lifetime of shame and guilt around never being good enough, never being ‘man’ enough bubbled to the surface. But days later some deeper, wiser part of me rose up and spoke out. It was a weak voice, but one that whispered me back into the studio nonetheless.
Those early days were fraught with ecstasies and frustrations in equal measure, slowly my body and my mind started to open up more, crankily, often unwilling, but steadily a deeper sense of escape and release unfurled. I lost track of the number of classes spent quietly sobbing in pigeon pose. As my body opened though, so too did new ideas and new options about what my body was actually for, how it should be respected, treated, with kindness, with love. But my inner-dialogue continued, ‘You should be muscled, you should only lift weights, you need to drink protein shakes, you need to take steroids, you need to be relentlessly sexual, hard, honed, pneumatic, cover model perfect, you should force and push and fight and claw your way through to this ideal, and maybe –just maybe- if you’re lucky, someday you’ll feel like a real man. Except this was a lie.
Men’s body issues aren’t spoken about enough. The intense pressure on men to be physically and emotionally dominant, masculine, alpha; yet at the same time soft, sensitive, protective, has fractured our sense of collective identity. The same pressures, which for years have stacked up and crushed millions of women through unattainable body- ideals in the media, have now too been slowly poisoning our sense of self-worth as men. Many people view this as a recent development for men, but it’s a pressure I feel I’ve lived with my entire life. In the UK male suicide rates are three times that of women, and as a man aged 20 – 49 you’re more likely to die by taking your own life than you are of cancer, road accidents, or heart disease.
It was against this backdrop that yoga appeared for me, and provided a way out of an un-winnable battle. It started to chisel away at the ‘importance’ of many of these tired, worn-out archetypes. What my body should look like as a man, how it should perform, how it should feel, had started to change. As time has passed and as my practice has deepened I’ve became further aware that yoga provides me a way out from an oppressive paradigm I no longer want to live under. Yoga came and said to me; ‘you no longer have to be trapped by your body, by your self-limiting beliefs, or by the echoed voices of those who put you down in the past. You are not shameful. You are not a failure’. It told me that all those judgements are just illusion, pure construct, and that it was high time to start the long process of letting go.
Let’s get one thing clear though; I still wrestle with these issues on a daily basis. A lifetime of conditioning doesn’t simply evaporate because you find a practice or system which teaches you a new way of being. Those old voices, saying I’m not good enough, not ‘man’ enough are still there, but they fade further and further into the background. They are less important. Yoga has taken the power out of those words. Some days I’m still affected by it, yes, but directionally yoga helps us move into deepening levels of self-acceptance and self-love. We’re never going to be happy if we treat the symptoms not the cause. We’re never going to be happy with our bodies if we focus solely on changing the surface – that’s a losing game. Real transformation has to begin from within, which is where yoga comes in. Yoga speaks to me of release, breaking free from the bondage of societal conventions of what it ‘means’ to be a man. It offers union and connection in exchange for letting go of the very idea of separation. These days I don’t show up on the mat to get bendy. I don’t even show up on my mat to get strong. I show up on the mat to keep breaking down all the walls I have built around myself in my life, and to learn where the self-imposed limits lie.
On ‘Being a Man’
I was asked to write this piece in relation to being a man, a man who practices yoga and what that means in this day and age. But this becomes an increasingly difficult question to answer. What does it mean to be a man? That statement itself feels limiting to write, artificial, using terms we have become socially conditioned to use. Through the practice I feel more and more comfortable in my own skin, I feel more self-acceptance in my version of masculinity or ‘maleness’ and whatever that highly subjective, flawed concept is supposed to mean. Which is ironic, because the more comfortable I become ‘as a man’ the more I realise how unimportant and unhelpful this false gender demarcation has been in my life. For the large part society still lives under the illusion of gender binaries. But gender is fluid, like the practice, it cannot be fixed. It is a spectrum, a movement that ebbs and flows in different swells for each of us. We need to learn to accept that; and this is not a new idea, within the Hindu tradition itself there are diverse approaches to conceptualising god and gender, and ultimately the highest aspect of god, the Absolute (Brahman) is genderless.
Today, when I stand at the front of my mat, and take my first few deep ujjayi breaths I feel like I am home. The feeling is intense, it is vast, and it is kind of hard to communicate to another person what it means for me. I’m sure many other yogis feel the same. At its core it is a sense that everything is going to be ok and really always has been, it’s a sense of familiarity, of being caressed and loved by the breath from the inside out. Everything I have ever searched for and wanted to feel -safe, loved, complete, held- I experience in those first few breaths of my practice. The more we self-practice the more it becomes familiar and the more it becomes familiar the more we develop an understanding of what is transitory and what is our true self. It sounds like esoteric bullshit, and believe me I consider myself an atheist and a sceptic. But this stuff can and will happen in your practice if you stick with it. My favourite Richard Freeman quote feels ever more true: ‘Yoga ruins your life’, at least as your life as you once knew it.
By a deepening enquiry into the body and our connection to it, we unearth a lot of our attitudes towards ourselves and other people. We grow our awareness, we learn to stay with the tension, the discomfort and breathe into it, to question it, to explore and challenge it. Through this process yoga starts to disrupt the old maps we have in our minds of how the world is, who we are, and who we ought to be. Challenging the status quo, challenging our deep held personal beliefs, letting go of the fight and struggle and stress and just learning to breathe: tell me, is that not a radical act? Is that not an act of deep rebellion, rising like flames from the burning pyre of our old behaviours and limiting world views?
To me, the practice of yoga is rebellious on multiple levels. Superficially at the outer layers it is rebellion against our increasingly compromised physical health. It takes an active stand against stress, an act of revolution against our inwardly compressed, phone-hunched, shallow breathed bodies. Deeper underneath those surface layers it soon begins to challenge our views, opinions, perspectives. It asks us to bring awareness to what we feel and think in a world which tries everything it can to anaesthetise us further. TV, social media, painkillers, anti-depressants, alcohol, coffee, drugs. Listening to our bodies, feeling into our lived experience goes against the grain. Lastly, right down at its beating core, yoga slowly cleans the dirt off the mirror of our perception; it removes the illusion that we are separate at all. It reveals that deep down, when everything is taken away from us and there is nothing left -no name, no nationality, no physical body, no gender- there is a still small light that shines, a light of which we are all one and the same.
It is this essence that the yoga practice puts us in touch with, this sense of what is lasting, true and brilliant in each one of us, deep down below all the surface fluctuations. Far deeper and more permanent than our physicality, than our appearance, deeper than our identities as men or women or mothers or fathers or children, it reveals our true self. A self that is connected, one and the same with every other living being on this planet, and in a world which relentlessly encourages us to forget this fundamental truth, yoga flies a rebel flag, and takes a revolutionary stance to engage with what really matters and with who we truly are.
James Rafael, 2017