When I first started Punk Rock Yoga in 2003, I had a very simple goal: to experiment with live music and yoga and teach in a nightclub setting, hoping to create an atmosphere that would attract teenagers. The name was something fun we threw into the class because we saw it as “yoga for punks.” The class attracted crowds of all ages and what started as a small community service project has evolved into a nascent movement with numerous yoga teachers joining the fold. The more I taught and the more I immersed myself in the professional yoga community, the more I carved out a mission for Punk Rock Yoga: I want to scrub the elitism and rigidity out of modern yoga.
Tailoring the threads of wisdom
At its first-known origin–6,000 years ago–yoga was an oral tradition passed from teacher to student, with each student interpreting and developing yoga in his own way. Yoga was a living, evolving, concept. No one codified it into specific rules.
Eventually, one yogi named Patanjali wrote some notes on yoga to preserve some truly great wisdom. This became The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The word sutra means thread, and I believe Patanjali wanted us to take these threads of wisdom and weave them together into the fabric that fits each of us best. Somehow, though, we have lost the idea of personal exploration in yoga and instead we passively rely on the plethora of teachers who insist they know the only “true” interpretation of yoga. These teachers preach that if you do not follow their precise philosophy, you are not really practicing yoga. Instead of such elitist approaches to yoga, we need a more inclusive approach that brings yoga back to Patanjali’s threads of wisdom, which allows each of us to tailor yoga in our own way.
Stretchy bodies, rigid minds
Many yoga teachers insist that unless you are a vegan you are not practicing yoga. They base this dictate on their interpretation of ahimsa (non-violence) from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, believing that any use of an animal product is an act of violence against life. Other interpretations of ahisma, though, require not only non-violence of deed but also non-violence of word and thought, and therefore shaming people who choose not to be vegan is itself a form of violence. So which is more important–nonviolence of deed toward animals, or non-violence of word and thought toward people? I don’t believe it’s the job of the yoga teacher to make that decision; rather, the teacher should provide different interpretations on the subject and allow the students to discover their own answers.
I believe teachers should present several facets of interpretation of The Yoga Sutras and encourage students to take those interpretations and weave them into their own lives. Patanjali told us the self is the ultimate teacher, and we teachers need to respect our students’ self-discovery and creation of personal moral code. As an example, in my classes we practice “mantra anarchy” whereby the students all consider a concept–such as determination–and then we all simultaneously chant our own word that embodies that concept. It makes for a beautiful cacophony. By getting students to define these concepts using their own words, they can further embrace the concepts and study them.
Yoga as more than an alternative to liposuction
Historically yoga was introduced as “just stretching” in the U.S. because of yoga’s frequent association with Hinduism. Marketing yoga as just a form of exercise enabled pioneer teachers to introduce it in a non-threatening way, but some have taken it to the extreme. While I believe yoga poses are a great form of exercise, I cringe when I see yoga presented as merely a vehicle to improve physical appearance. Yoga offers so much more than merely a tight butt and toned body, and I worry that by focusing on the physical message about yoga we are turning away more people than we are gaining.
Yoga has also become a fashion statement and an affectation of the upwardly mobile, leading many people to think that yoga is only for thin, upper-middle class white women; many men in western nations believe that yoga is something only for women. Most yoga magazines, filled with tall, thin, bendy white women, sustain these misperceptions. Many people see these images and think, “I can’t do yoga.” This emphasis on fashion and physical beauty shortchanges the wisdom yoga offers beyond its physical poses. When I teach specialty classes, such as yoga for scuba divers, we not only break down poses and the therapeutic benefit of each, but also discuss the relevance of yoga principles such as asteya (non-stealing) for scuba divers.
I’ve attempted to combat the rigidity and emphasis on physical appearance in my Punk Rock Yoga classes by dimming the lights so people aren’t self-conscious about their attire and appearance. I try to make students comfortable with their bodies by offering modifications and alternatives to poses in an inclusive and supportive manner. In our classes, by having the students settle into a circle rather than rows, we don’t enable students to separate themselves into the “good students” at the front of class and the “beginning students” stuck in the back. I also include a segment of yoga philosophy as the foundation for the class to keep the class focused not only on their physical alignment, but also on their mental or spiritual goal.
Let’s be real
Doing yoga poses is only one eighth of the whole yoga equation according to Patanjali. The lifestyle philosophies are in many ways more important than the poses. In The Yoga Sutras, Patanjali described the physical aspects of yoga with the following: “You should take a comfortable seat.” That’s it. However, some teachers treat poses like commandments and insist that students hold poses in a specific manner for a set amount of time. Along with rigid pose requirements, some yoga teachers state claims unproven by science, such as certain poses definitely preventing cancer. When we have research to support those claims, I will shout them out loud; but until then, we need to present poses for what we empirically know they can do: strengthen our bodies and, along with rhythmic breathing, facilitate a meditative state of mind.
Some religious groups have strong biases against yoga, believing that meditation “opens your mind to the devil.” However, it’s time for us to fearlessly admit to all of what yoga is and can be: a way to better your body, your mind, and your behavior. We need to clearly articulate that yoga helps us deepen our connection to our spirituality without prescribing to any one religion, enabling us to honor the wisdom behind any individual’s religion.
Bringing the joy back into yoga
Did you ever wonder how yogis came up with these crazy pretzel poses? My theory is that thousands of years ago yogis frolicked in open sand and grass with abandon. I imagine them with the same fearlessness and limitlessness of children, pushing the envelope of their bodies. I can sense their joy in some of those whacky poses when I finally break through the physical challenges they impose. So, why does yoga seem so dour, so rigid, and so joyless at times? I believe it’s because we take ourselves far too seriously.
One way I’ve attempted to infuse playfulness into my classes is to integrate some creative freeform movement. According to the Kundalini yoga tradition, the ultimate expression of yoga is dance–and not dance as a rigidly choreographed ballet, but as a wild, intuitive, freeform movement. While I see power and beauty in a group of people moving en masse, untamed creative movement catapults me to that split-second glimpse of liberation. Choreography is externally imposed–it represents someone else’s expression. Liberated movement comes from within.
I have explored this playfulness with my yoga dance fusion classes that I created. And while not all Punk Rock Yoga classes involve dance, all our teachers infuse this sense of joy and lightness of being and sense of humor into our classes. In my Punk Rock Yoga classes, I often experiment with poses and sometimes carve out time for students to create their own poses and flow sequences. Rather than allowing a fear of lawsuits paralyze my teaching by making me afraid to let students do anything on their own, I find that by having the students establish ownership of their bodies I can move away from the role of a paternal teacher and create an environment of self-discovery for my students.
Balancing community and self
For several months while taking both yoga and belly dance classes, I noticed that I would leave the belly dance classes feeling joyful and connected with the other participants, while I would leave the yoga classes feeling cold and isolated. I sensed this was due to the complete detachment from everyone else in the room that occurs in most yoga classes. What I needed was a more balanced approach, whereby at least a portion of the class was dedicated to connecting with others. Humans are biologically social animals, with an innate requirement to join with others and participate in a social group. We also have an innate need for solitary reflection, which traditional yoga classes definitely fill. In my opinion, yoga classes should feed both needs. These observations drove me to incorporate community-building aspects into Punk Rock Yoga classes, such as adding partner poses into each class and incorporating more group activities into our classes.
I believe that partner poses help students become better participants in society; if they can establish trust with someone they’ve never met before in their yoga class, and can work with that person towards a common goal, they can build better trust with other people they meet each day. Because connections made in partner poses end when the partner poses are completed and the class moves on to the next individual pose, students learn to connect to others without expectations or attachments. Partner poses also remind students of our similarities and our unity, rather than our differences. Because partner poses can present unusual challenges, they also help students lighten up in our classes. If students stumble as a partner team, they usually respond with laughter and immediately try again. In fact, I am such a fan of partner yoga that I wrote a book about it.
I also build community by drawing upon the wisdom of our students. For example, in my annual Winter Solstice celebratory class, I ask the students to share their philosophies and favorite poses with the whole group, allowing each student to play the role of teacher for a few moments. This enables the students to actively contribute to the class and to our yoga community.
In Punk Rock Yoga, we emphasize that we are all learning. My fellow teachers and I don’t pretend to be gurus. While in some yoga classes the students might consider the teacher a contortionist there to inspire awe, in our classes students consider the teachers coaches, there to help and motivate.
Doing it ourselves
I see Punk Rock Yoga teachers as rebelling against a broken yoga establishment. A need to create an alternative path to the mainstream compels them to teach in the Punk Rock Yoga community. The merchandising of yoga has led people to believe that if they can just study for a week with a celebrity teacher, or decorate their home yoga room according to their chakra deficiencies, they will be liberated from everything negative in their lives. But such liberation can’t be bought in a week nor obtained through a coat of paint. Punk Rock Yoga teachers present liberation as a life-long path, not a commodity.
Personally, I go against the mainstream yoga philosophy in that I consider liberation to come in doses and not exist as a permanent state. I have met people I consider very liberated and free, but I’ve seen these very people have bad moments as well. Liberation, to me, is like a butterfly: it might land on us for a few seconds, and if we’re patient we can extend its visits for longer periods of time.
Check your stereotypes
What I learned to love about the name Punk Rock Yoga is that it challenges stereotypes. It confronts the notion that punks are angry miscreants and that yogis are contortionistic hippies. These stereotypes occur when people react to superficial details and believe they can identify punks merely by their shocking hair and a yogi solely by his ability to put his leg behind his head. People are multifaceted and someone can be a punk and a yogi at the same time. My feelings about punk rock and yoga is that both are raw, honest, accessible, empowering, resourceful, independent, provocative and energetic. These concepts drive Punk Rock Yoga.
One of my students said he viewed me as “pushing the boundaries of yoga.” At first, I took that as a compliment, but then I delved further into his statement and realized that’s not what I want to do. Instead of expanding the boundaries of yoga, we should look at how to tear them down completely. Yoga teachers talk all about liberation and boundlessness; so if we practice yoga to enter a state of no limits, why do we draw tight boundaries around yoga itself? Why do we say that some things have nothing to do with yoga when in fact yoga should have no limits–its threads of wisdom touch everywhere in our lives.
I, and the amazing teachers who have descended upon Punk Rock Yoga, all share these basic ideas, interpreting them in our own ways. We seek to liberate yoga from the establishment, while seeking our own personal liberation and hopefully guiding our students towards theirs as well. I hope that this discussion helped you delve deeper into your own personal philosophies about yoga.
For a deeper look at the philosophy behind Punk Rock Yoga, please check out the Punk Rock Yoga Manifesto, released July 2010.
Thank you for reading my interpretation of Punk Rock Yoga’s mission. Namaste,
Kimberlee Jensen Stedl