Yoga Chic and the First Noble Truth

Yoga and meditation are ultimately about turning our eyes away from the airbrushed images of the outside world and looking deep within our own hearts.

Anne Cushman
1 July 2003

Yoga and meditation, says Anne Cushman, are ultimately about turning our eyes away from the airbrushed images of the outside world and looking deep within our own hearts.

My husband recently returned from a business trip with a souvenir for me: a recent issue of Australian Vogue that he had picked up in an airport. On the cover, a model in a satin jumpsuit is lying on her belly, her hands reaching back to clasp her ankles, her spine arched into the classic yoga asana known as Bow Pose. Jeweled earrings dangle to her shoulders; a silver necklace drapes almost to the floor. Her face bears the vacant, haughty, bored expression endemic to fashion magazines, as if she’d been twisted into this posture without noticing, just after sauntering down a runway in Milan.

It’s this sort of image that’s been making it somewhat embarrassing lately to proclaim my twenty-year passion for hatha yoga-especially in front of a group of Buddhists. Yoga has gotten so impossibly chic, so insanely popular, that it sometimes feels like I’m standing up in the middle of a meditation retreat and insisting that an essential part of my spiritual practice is watching “Joe Millionaire.”

There are yoga dance clubs, yoga cruises, yoga singles parties; there’s disco yoga, aqua yoga, yoga kick boxing. Yoga teachers are the toast of Hollywood parties. Images of sultry young yogis and yoginis sell everything from lingerie to SUVs to luxury apartments in the Trump towers. “It’s a day to clear your mind. A day to free your soul,” proclaims one advertisement, as an exquisite black woman folds into a seated, cross-legged forward bend, cupping her beatific face in her hands. “And a day for Hormel ALWAYS TENDER honey mustard pork loin filet.”

Like many of my yogi friends, I respond to yoga’s new, cool incarnation with a schizophrenic blend of horror and envy. Part of me is saddened that the ancient Indian practice I love so much seems to have been co-opted as yet another ego-prop for image-obsessed Americans. Another part of me wishes that I too were sexy enough to sell pig meat in full lotus.

It’s not surprising that yoga’s a big seller in 21st-century America. There’s never been a contemplative practice that’s so photogenic, so sensual. There’s no other formal spiritual path that’s routinely practiced with so few clothes on (short of a few tantric rites whose images deck the friezes of ruined Indian temples). So it’s understandable that physical prowess sometimes gets confused with enlightenment. The cult of personality, of course, is rampant throughout most spiritual traditions, and Buddhism is no exception. But masters of other spiritual paths rarely pose for calendars in their undershorts.

Of course, as any yoga teacher worth his or her pork loins will remind you, true yoga has nothing to do with looking good in a Lycra bodysuit. It’s an ancient body/mind technology aimed at the transformation of consciousness. The physical postures are just one small part of a system that includes meditation, devotion, self-study, social service and adherence to rigorous moral standards.

Hatha yoga and Buddhist meditation are different branches of the same contemplative tree, whose roots reach back thousands of years to the mystics of the Indus River civilization. Yoga poses open and energize the body and mind in preparation for meditation. They also serve as an object of meditation in their own right, a magnet to draw the attention inward and focus it with exquisite precision. Through hatha yoga, the body becomes the meditation hall where we can practice the classic contemplative arts of concentration, insight, compassion and loving-kindness.

In turn, formal training in Buddhist philosophy and meditation practice can both deepen and build on the sensitivity, concentration, discipline and energy cultivated during asana practice. Having forged and honed our body/mind into a powerful and subtle tool, we can then use this instrument to probe deep into the mysteries of our true nature.

But all that can be hard to remember when I’m flipping through a yoga magazine where all the models seem thinner, younger, fitter, better looking and better dressed than I am. Judging by these images, hatha yoga is only practiced by healthy, muscular, happy people with straight white teeth and unblemished skin. I don’t know about you, but I can easily begin to feel vaguely inadequate, the way I do when I leaf through Glamour while I’m waiting at the hairdresser’s-as if a subliminal voice is whispering in my ear: yoga is hot, and you are not.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with these yoga pin ups, in and of themselves. On the contrary, they can be an inspirational reminder, in physical form, of the beauty, grace and equanimity that yoga practice seeks to develop. The images depict, for the most part, dedicated yogis and yoginis who have devoted their lives to using the body as a vehicle for personal transformation. Yoga does tend to increase our vitality and health-that’s one reason why we practice it. The state of the body profoundly affects the heart and mind, as yogis have known for thousands of years. There’s nothing wrong with tending to the temple of our body with the same care with which we sweep a zendo and set fresh flowers on the altar.

The problem comes when we start to compare ourselves with these glossy images and imagine how utterly happy and fulfilled we would be if we looked like that. “When you start to envy the hamstrings of the person next to you, remember this,” I once heard Iyengar yoga teacher Tony Briggs admonish a class. “You can’t just have somebody’s hamstrings. You have to have their whole life.” Their whole life, which-believe it or not-is probably a lot like yours and mine: an endlessly repeating samsaric cycle of pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, anger and love, insights and delusions, triumphs and embarrassments, moments of self-loathing and moments of grandiosity: all of it, like ours, leading straight to the grave. As any good yogi will tell you, suffering, old age and death don’t automatically vanish when you finally can arch back and touch your head to the soles of your feet, any more than loneliness vanishes when you’ve finally made the cover of People magazine.

And this confusion of public image with inner experience isn’t confined to the hatha yoga world, although the physical dimension of yoga practice makes it particularly visible. We can experience the same phenomenon when poring over Buddhist books and magazines. We are, of course, inspired by the wisdom they offer. But at the same time, we may feel subtly discouraged by the apparent gulf between this profound clarity and our own flawed and tangled lives. The people who write these books sound so wise, so compassionate! we marvel. Their practice seems so constant and steady! They have studied for years in Indian monasteries. They have traveled the world seeking out spiritual masters. They must live in a state of luminous perfection.

But probe a little deeper, and you’ll find that in fact-as many teachers will be the first to admit-they don’t. One old friend once told me, only half-joking, that the only thing more disillusioning than dating a dharma teacher was becoming one herself.

That’s not to say that spiritual practice doesn’t gradually chip away at our internal obstacles to peace and clarity, dissolve the clouds that obscure our buddhanature. With practice, we do become able to navigate the rough waters of our psyche, and the world, with greater ease and grace. And there are definitely human beings whose radiance and wisdom can lift our spirits and light up our hearts simply by being in their presence.

It’s just to say that, as far as I can tell, the difficulties don’t ever go away. For all of us-from enlightened masters to Vogue cover models-life keeps throwing up challenges: pain, loss, illness, violence. And our job is to meet those challenges with all the dignity, presence, compassion and clarity we can muster.

In the end-when the photo shoots are over, the ads are off the air, the spiritual books are gathering dust on our end tables and last year’s yoga calendar is being cut up for our ten-year-old’s art class collage-it all comes down to doing our practice. Yoga and meditation are ultimately about turning our eyes away from the airbrushed images of the outside world and looking deep within our own hearts. And no matter how hip the image of yoga and meditation practice may have become recently, the actual practice involves a lot of hard work.

Sure, there are moments of ecstasy; peak experiences of clarity and insight and sheer joie de vivre. There’s the blissful buzz of a deep backbend, the profound calm at the end of a good sitting, the way the world looks at the end of a long meditation retreat, when every tin can and daffodil seems to glow of its own inner light.

But eventually, all of us hit the hard stuff. We slam up against limitations and disappointments and fears. We uncover our old injuries-whether they be to our hearts or to our kneecaps. We find that our ability to touch our palms to the floor in a forward bend is useless unless we’ve also begun to dismantle our ingrained habits of fear and selfishness. We find that the peace we experience on meditation retreats is incomplete unless we can use it to heal our rifts with our family and friends. And we find that no matter how much we practice, there are things-in our body and our lives-we just can’t change. Whether we step onto the mat or sit on the cushion, we come face to face with ourselves as we actually are, and that is both our greatest challenge and our greatest joy.

So lately, I’m looking for a different kind of image to inspire my practice. The book I’m shopping for would show pictures of all sorts of people doing yoga and meditating. There would be old people, fat people, scarred people, profusely hairy people, people with bad skin and big noses, people with thighs riddled with cellulite, people with droopy breasts and flabby thighs and faces etched with lines from hard living. There would be people with cerebral palsy, people gone bald from chemotherapy, people paralyzed by drive-by shootings, people who’d lost limbs in wars. Some people would do the poses perfectly. Others would do them clumsily, propped up on sandbags and bolsters, unable even to touch their fingertips to the floor.

All of us would be reflected in this book’s pages. Some of us would be wearing sweatpants we’ve had since high school. Some of us would not have had time to wash our hair. Some of us would be laughing. Some of us would have tears trickling down our cheeks. We would be having hot flashes, blowing our noses, scratching our poison ivy. Our babies would be crawling at our feet. We would be surrounded by unpaid bills. We would be cross-legged on zafus with big thought bubbles hovering over our heads, displaying an ever-changing parade of fantasies: naked women, sushi dinners, clippings of glowing reviews of our new novel.

On the book jacket, our bios would say things like, “Amy P. has been studying yoga and meditation for twenty years. The other day she got so angry at her two-year-old she kicked a wall, which is why she’s having a hard time doing Downward Dog in this picture.” “Swami X. has been sleeping with several of his senior students. But he knows this is destructive and is really, really trying to stop.” “Susie P. has been practicing Tibetan Buddhism for almost half her life. She just declared bankruptcy last week.” “Joe R. spends so much time writing yoga books that he doesn’t have time for a relationship.”

But here’s the thing: we would all be doing our practice. There we’d be, in all our glorious, terrible, maudlin, magnificent humanness, on our mats, on our cushions, showing up and giving it everything we’ve got.

If I saw a book like that, I’d buy it. Heck, I might even buy some honey mustard pork loins to go with it. Wouldn’t you?

Anne Cushman

Anne Cushman

Anne Cushman is the author of the memoir The Mama Sutra: A Story of Love, Loss, and the Path of Motherhood; the novel Enlightenment for Idiots; and other books. She directs the mentoring program for The Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program and is on the teachers council at Spirit Rock Meditation Center.