Yoga Teachers— Time to Take off Your Mask by Patty Townsend

A response to the New York Times article of January 5, 2012 – “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” by William J. Broad

What a wonderful opportunity this discussion has been for yoga in the west!  

  For the most part I agree with this article.  It’s unfortunate that part of its aim seems to be sensationalism and the statistics quoted are incomplete at best. But, let’s face it– those of us in charge, yoga teachers, have been perpetuating a false notion of yoga ever since this wave began in the early eighties. The simple fact that one can get hurt doing yoga doesn’t even get to the source of the problem. The deeper problem is that yoga teachers have been purposely obfuscating the truth about yoga in order to serve their own personal ego needs.

 Unfortunately, most yoga teachers have bought into a hierarchical way of looking at yoga study and teaching that puts a person on top – the guru – and everyone else below. This is a dangerous structure and it requires a lot of people to buy into it in order for it to work. In order for it to work there has to be an agreement that someone essentially holds the power. In the yoga world this is really insidious because the person holding the power is supposedly the most “spiritual”, as well. That is an extremely seductive proposition for someone considering becoming a yoga teacher! By becoming a yoga teacher we can take care of our own insecurities by rising to the top dog position – not just top dog, but top spiritual dog! Part of maintaining this hierarchical structure that keeps the teacher on top is making sure that the students don’t start to think they are as good as the teacher! 

Once you have a position of power it is very difficult to give it up. If you want someone to think of you as in some way better than they are, you will have to lie to them – simple as that. And the secret of many yoga teachers is that they feel this need. They feel the need to pretend to be “better” then they think they actually are. It is not that they are really not good enough. I will argue that they are good enough. The problem is that they don’t believe it, and they feel a need to present themselves dishonestly. 

 Back in the eighties when yoga was just getting big in Los Angeles I noticed a very insidious trend developing. Yoga, because it is an amazing practice, was taking off with the elite population of the film business and the rich-and-famous. Fine. But what wasn’t fine was that the film business attitudes and values were becoming the benchmarks of success in yoga, as well. The exact same concerns permeated the yoga culture: who’s on top, who’s the biggest star, who’s classes are the fullest. It didn’t take much time for the competition to be about who is the most spiritual. Sadly, I realized that this was to be expected. We were doing what people do. We were bringing yoga into our culture, and our culture was beginning to shape yoga, rather than the other way around. OK. Fine. But is it really fine when the teachers – the supposed leaders of the yoga world – bring the cultural values that they so often speak against – into their yoga and their own scramble to be at the top of the heap? Really, that is not yoga. It is however, human.

 As we know yoga has become quite big in this country. And it has developed along with the cultural values that we hold so dear: success, individuality, achievement, and competition, to name a few. And that is not to mention the underlying ego needs that shape us, like wanting to be special, wanting to look good, and wanting to be held in the highest regard by our peers. We, as yoga teachers, are not immune to the culture and certainly not to our own ego needs. We tell people who come into our classes, in all their expensive yoga gear, often full of craving to improve and refine their own ego mask, that yoga is noncompetitive. Right. Who can believe that from a teacher who is still trying so hard to top his or her colleagues in class size, has not accepted his or her own ordinariness, and would give anything to be on the cover of Yoga Journal.

 There were a few early whistle blowers about the dangers of this problematic structure way back in the eighties, most notably (in my experience) Ganga White, Joel Kramer, and Ana Forrest. But as the movement grew, the ego masks of so many rising yoga teachers in the west hardened and everyone seemed to be silently agreeing to not tell the truth. It has been like the emperor who has no clothes. I cannot help but think that many of the intelligent yoga teachers in this country have been aware of this and willing to stay silent because it protects them from being seen to be simply ordinary. Ordinary is what we all are, and what no one seems to want to be. It’s all about our own personal vulnerabilities and the things that we still do not want to accept about ourselves – our  humanity. Something that if you go deeply into yoga you must eventually accept.

Isn’t it our responsibility as yoga teachers to go deeper into ourselves and come out telling the truth? Finally, some people who have been practicing and teaching as long as I have may be publicly telling the truth. I applaud Glenn Black! He is not unique in finding that the very postures and techniques we have been so actively presenting for years may not be helpful. In fact, I will bet that all of us have known this. Why is this hidden? Who gains from keeping this hidden?

I also do not believe that there is a system that is inherently safer than the others. The Iyengar system is just as likely to injure people as vinyasa. Even the gentle viniyoga approach is bad for some lower back issues. People will want to hold on to the validity of their own system. However, if you are honest, and you are not living with difficult injuries, you will admit that you have had to modify your practice a lot in order to stay healthy.

 What I believe is at the bottom of this basic dishonesty in the yoga world at large is a lack of deep practice. Asana is a small part of this! When people tell me that they “get on their mat” to practice I wonder what they are doing with the rest of their time and how they expect yoga to bear significant fruit from a practice that is primarily on the mat, i.e. asana.The key is for yoga teachers to practice yoga – and go deeper. Try self-acceptance. Pair self-acceptance with a keenly discriminative mind and begin to inquire into the nature of life and yoga.  Don’t be a spiritual mood-maker. Stop pretending. Get ordinary. This would be the best gift you could offer to your students.

35 thoughts on “Yoga Teachers— Time to Take off Your Mask by Patty Townsend

  1. Beautifully written Patty, I think anyone will receive your message,and it speaks to my personal struggle/path of late. Getting ordinary hurts…I guess til it doesn’t anymore… Thank you, sending Love,Lani

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  2. Hi PattyVery well written article.. Makes a lots of sense..I have come across myself as a yoga teacher in the past.. and ofcourse starting it again of late.. Many people have expectation that yoga teacher should be slender and flexible and what not.. But the truth is they should be more knowledgeable, aware of small things and problems and ofcourse deep practice..I really dont consider whether she is fat or thin what makes you a good teacher is acceptance of yourself and others as they are.. and do what you preach..thanks for this article

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  3. If there was an article i needed to read today this was it. The issues you’ve described are exactly why I move further and further away from western yoga so it was a blessed relief to discover I’m not alone in my conclusions. Thank you, beautifully articulated.

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  4. I’ve been struggling with this issue forever! Thank you so much for putting it out in the open, now I can laugh even more about being a self-centered show-off half of the time in class. And about being very human and about being very ordinary.

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  5. Patty,I couldn’t agree with you more. Thank goodness in the midst of all the reactionary defense that has been going on within the yoga world in response to what was perceived as an attack, you have had the courage to stand and speak truth and shed light on the bigger picture and core problem that faces today’s yogi in embracing a system/method of practice. This being said it troubles me that those teachers that you have pointed out including yourself have Trademarked yoga. One, in essence, how is this possible??? And two, how can you justify the need for this in light of what you have just so intelligently put forth. This is not an attack. This is my sincere question to you.

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  6. My only experience of this unfortunately was the ‘teacher’ that put me through my yoga teacher training, total egomaniac. Yet all of us recognized this, and we all have gone out of our way to avoid this type of hierarchy ever since. As a teacher I am aware of my shortcomings as a human being, and I avoid teaching in any studio systems preferring to find classes elsewhere, it makes it harder going, but a lot more authentic and worthwhile. My own teacher, while firm, is totally humble and considers herself a student of her students. I think the point is, you have to choose to stay away from that kind of pecking order with the lack of authenticity. I agree that the NYT article was a great way to open up dialogue, but was too sensational. I have seen comments of ‘oh I did that pose and totally wrecked my knees’. really? Your body didnt give you any clues that you had pushed into the pose? the total antithesis of an asana practice? It puts me in mind of that old saying, guns dont kill people, people kill people. In the same manner, asana doesnt injure people, people injure themselves. Sure some teachers are negligent but its MY responsibility to listen to my body, be guided by my breath ans say NO this pose aint workin for me.

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  7. Great post. I only came to realize the extent to which many yoga teachers put on these masks to secure their position of "spiritual top dog" very recently. It was incredibly empowering because I realized that I was truly responsible for what I gained from my practice, not them. To me, these psychological dynamics are an even bigger issue than the physical injury story (not that that’s not very important too). But they are harder to describe. And way harder for people to recognize. Thanks for a very insightful post.

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  8. I am bothered by yur use of the word "most" yoga teachers have bought into..By using most instead of many, you make a sweeping statement which projects your judgment against many teachers you do not know, To me, once sweeping statements have been made in essence branding people, validity and credibility of further words is questionable.You have made several points with anger and negativity.Yoga fills purpose for many.. not all the same purpose, Some yoga teachers teach for free, some are power hungry. This elitism and materialism and success-hunger are no different than in other arenas of life.. some MDs work in expensive hospitals and have private clients, some work in free clinics. Some teachers work in high income districts; some work for free in Peace Corps.Be mad, fine, but really figure whom you are angry at, Maybe you are angry at inequities. Maybe because you are not on YJ cover.

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  9. I haven’t lived in the USA for a long, long time. And I am not claiming the UK or Europe is some kind of haven for ‘good’ yoga vs all the ‘bad’ yoga I keep reading about from US journalists and bloggers. But is this really happening on such a large scale? Does every yoga teacher in the USA really think s/he is a "guru" simply by virtue of passing a 200 hour course and paying rent on studio space? Or is the truth more like what I see around me — the vast majority of classes are led by nice gals & guys who learned to teach what they love and make a bit of money part time sharing their passion? I just keep getting confused by the instant conflation that the US yoga community makes between "yoga teacher" and "guru". As if simply by teaching a class one is setting onself up as a spiritual master over others, rather than just a teacher of yoga asana and related practices. This is a genuine question: is that really what is happening all over the USA? or is it the case with the famous teachers? and the occassional ego case?

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  10. T A H.. you are right.The author is angry about some things and people and used her angry to brand everyone.I wrote just a little because lif eis too precious to counter every one o fher exaggerations.It is up to each of us to be thoughtful with our yoga.. be safe, support yoga teachers who help us become better physically and spiritually, if we choose spiritual .

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  11. Patty! Great post, and such a relief to read some sensible, grounded, and ordinary insights into yoga today. I have been saying the very same things for some time now. This post shall be shared among my friends and the discussion will continue to deepen and enrich our practice. Thank you!

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  12. So right on. I have experience so much of what you are talking about first hand. I have finally met some good teachers but for years struggled with feeling guilty about noticing the yucky feeling the ego brings about. Being from Los Angeles, I stayed away from yoga, now that I need it, I found people teaching at the gym can be over themselves a bit more and I am finally enjoying it.I couldn’t believe how defensive the yoga community was over the article. I have thrown my back out sneezing so why is it so hard to accept that if you are coming from a place of ego, you could not be really helping people but only promoting and selling your "style" of yoga for fame and fortune? Bravo to you for your honesty and bravery!

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  13. Thanks for this! As a new teacher and one of the ordinary, I appreciate your comments and insights into this debate. Always hard to remember self-acceptance and truth of my own practice when it’s not what’s always modelled around us as the ideal.

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  14. I find it fascinating that some perceived you wrote this in anger. I did not sense any such emotion. However, since I am not a yoga instructor, I feel no need to be defensive. Thank you for writing this. Given that American culture is so strong in its message that status equals happiness, I doubt that this phenomenon will end. Yet, if even a few people can be awakened by your words they may allow themselves to enjoy yoga for what it should be in their lives.

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  15. Hi, I don’t think teachers are knowingly being secret or not telling the truth, I think it’s plan and simple ignorance… sorry.. that sounds terrible. Teacher who teach physical practice based on SOUND A&P and science of movement already would be questioning the so called, elite teacher… and pave a highway of there on.. based on experience and personal values and hopefully have some down to earth teachers who teach physically practice based on sound principles, such as Paul Grilley, PhD, Judith Lasaster PT, and yoga teachers, etc.. neither of those amazing teachers pretend to be a "Guru", those are the people I learn from and the like.. not someone claiming to be "enlightened" …. and if you were so called enlightened, you wouldn’t go around saying "I am enlightened" you would simple be a source of inspiration for all beings… just my opinion

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  16. I so thank you for this article! Those of us with more spiritual background realized the horrible shallow truth about western yoga the moment we went to our first class with a money oriented teacher. Indeed in the same way as we need to listen to our body regarding how far to go and how far NOT to go we need to listen to that small voice telling us to stay away from a certain teacher. We alone are responsible for whatever happens to us. We are our own first and top priority to look after. We must be there for ourselves at all times!

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  17. I agree with Cathy up there. You are possibily right in saying that many yoga teachers are control-freak and potentially damaging individuals, but not that MOST of them are. I also do not buy in your top dog ‘more spiritual than thou’ statistics. At least it is not my experience. Perhaps I am lucky? But I do not believe in luck much.Also, the concept of viniyoga is to be tailored to the individual, so people with lower back issues will be given a practice which is suitable for them.Of course you have to find a good teacher, one who continues to be a student.

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  18. Hi Patty, Thank you for your thoughts. They remind me that I can relax & be myself next weekend when I am presenting my workshop, "Bringing Yoga into Psychotherapy," wrinkles, gray hair & all!This workshop is structured around Raja Yoga’s eight limbs, as taught by Swami Satchidananda. I think that it gives participants a deep perspective on yoga–which is necessary when incorporating it into psychotherapy.Looking forward to meeting with you in the spring when I return from my workshop tour.

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  19. To teach yoga one has to be in yoga……..Yoga is a place to be….and the path to that place starts from where one already is…..and to find where somebody already is…one has to be there….

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  20. This is beautifully said. I was conducting a small teacher training session this weekend and we spent a great deal of time discussing the NYTimes article as an example of what we, as teachers, must avoid. That we MUST get our egos out of the way and put our students’ needs first. And that we MUST always keep the Sutras in the forefront of our teaching and our lives. Yoga isn’t asana. It is only a minor tool in the toolbox of our lives. Yoga is much, much more.

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  21. I think Chiara raises a valid point about "MOST yoga teachers".MOST yoga teachers should know better than to articulate a point of view with a more incisive persuasive technique than kicking off with the phrase "Most yoga teachers have bought into a hierarchical way of looking at yoga study and teaching that puts a person on top – the guru – and everyone else below."(he he)"Most yoga teachers" ? How about "many of the yoga teachers I have observed / have heard about" ? Also, how might we actually measure Pattys hypothesis?Do we look at seating positions?(Is the teacher on a higher stage than the rest of the class?)Do we look at who talks the most in the session?Do we take a look at other more subtle techniques and behaviours, if so, which ones?I think Patty is right – there is a rather awkward hierarchy – but Chiara raises an important general point about "ascertainment bias". In other settings it might be that in fact, "most yoga students" are smarter than "most" yoga teachers want them to be perhaps?Ascertainment bias 1. "refers to a systematic distortion in measuring the true frequency of a phenomenon due to the way in which the data are collected" (http://www.mun.ca/biology/scarr/Ascertainment_bias.html)2. "a systematic failure to represent equally all classes of cases or people supposed to be represented in a sample" (http://www.medilexicon.com/medicaldictionary.php?t=10080)

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  22. <table cellspacing="0" cellpadding="0" border="0" ><tr><td valign="top" style="font: inherit;">I have another general comment: I have been concerned for a long time that advanced practices–like breath retention–are now taught in classes of all levels. <br><br>—</td></tr></table>

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  23. I am now logged in. I am the Cathy who protested the use of the MOST word prefacing yoga teachers.In order to post this time I had to log in and lost a rather long post. Here is the short note:Students in my city do nto all wear expensive yoga clothes, they also wear:t-shirts, Goodwill bought clothes, cheap exercise clothes and yes, expensive clothes.I am more worried about safety in classes then ranting against yoga clothes or a teachers ego, especially when I can walk to another class. I am concerned with ‘teachers’ who are certified with only 200 hours and all of a sudden can tell people what to do and ‘diagnose health problems’ teachers who forget to ask if anyone is new or injured; teachers who exhort people beyond their capabilities- Ive seen this happen too often in Bikkram classes.

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  24. Patty,Please post your rebuttal to my question on Trademarking Yoga publicly. This response does not work for me especially in light of your powerful initial response to the NYT article. Many are using this logic and substantiation within the West and unfortunately in India now that I was forced to trademark my style before someone else did first. It doesn’t work for me. I realize for many it does, but quite honestly this only leads to and perpetuates the original problem of "different-ness" and "exclusivity" that you so eloquently wrote about. It poisons what is pure.

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  25. <html><head></head><body style="word-wrap: break-word; -webkit-nbsp-mode: space; -webkit-line-break: after-white-space; "><br><div>I have been trying to post my response to this since you posted it Eric! So sorry for the problem. It has been a problem with my blog that i have not been able to post my comments although others have been able to post. It has been frustrating to me! so this post is probably going to show up with a lot of code above it. My apologies for that!!</div><div> <!–[if gte mso 9]><xml> <o:DocumentProperties> <o:Template>Normal</o:Template> <o:Revision>0</o:Revision> <o:TotalTime>0</o:TotalTime> <o:Pages>1</o:Pages> <o:Words>271</o:Words> <o:Characters>1548</o:Characters> <o:Company>test</o:Company> <o:Lines>12</o:Lines> <o:Paragraphs>3</o:Paragraphs> <o:CharactersWithSpaces>1901</o:CharactersWithSpaces> <o:Version>11.1539</o:Version> </o:DocumentProperties> <o:OfficeDocumentSettings> <o:AllowPNG/> </o:OfficeDocumentSettings> </xml><![endif]–><!–[if gte mso 9]><xml> <w:WordDocument> <w:Zoom>0</w:Zoom> <w:DoNotShowRevisions/> <w:DoNotPrintRevisions/> <w:DisplayHorizontalDrawingGridEvery>0</w:DisplayHorizontalDrawingGridEvery> <w:DisplayVerticalDrawingGridEvery>0</w:DisplayVerticalDrawingGridEvery> <w:UseMarginsForDrawingGridOrigin/> </w:WordDocument> </xml><![endif]–> <!–StartFragment–> <div class="MsoNormal"><br></div><div class="MsoNormal">Thank you all for this vigorous dialogue. I appreciate it!</div> <div class="MsoNormal"><!–[if !supportEmptyParas]–>&nbsp;<!–[endif]–><o:p></o:p></div> <div class="MsoNormal">I have not been able to post due to a problem with the blog.<span style="mso-spacerun: yes">&nbsp; </span>Hopefully it is resolved now.</div> <div class="MsoNormal"><!–[if !supportEmptyParas]–>&nbsp;<!–[endif]–><o:p></o:p></div> <div class="MsoNormal"><b>I would like to respond to Eric’s comment/question about trademarking:</b></div> <div class="MsoNormal">I think this is a really excellent question, Eric, and one I struggled with for years! For a long time I was completely against describing what I had been teaching with any particular label. </div> <div class="MsoNormal"><!–[if !supportEmptyParas]–>&nbsp;<!–[endif]–><o:p></o:p></div> <div class="MsoNormal">Many years ago, those of us who were not thoroughly dedicated to a particular "style" of yoga, used to use the name "eclectic" to describe what we did. Eventually that lost any descriptive power because everyone was using it. </div> <div class="MsoNormal"><!–[if !supportEmptyParas]–>&nbsp;<!–[endif]–><o:p></o:p></div> <div class="MsoNormal">What I found over the years was that people actually wanted to be able to say to other people what kind of yoga they practice or teach. I was told over and over, that there needed to be a name for this. Someone came up with embody-yoga, which I though was great, because all it said was to "embody" your yoga! Okay, great.</div> <div class="MsoNormal"><!–[if !supportEmptyParas]–>&nbsp;<!–[endif]–><o:p></o:p></div> <div class="MsoNormal">Then I started to see that, like "eclectic",<span style="mso-spacerun: yes">&nbsp; </span>“embody” was being used all over the place too! I registered the trademark – embodyoga – so that WHOEVER ELSE uses the term "embody", will have to, by law, allow me to use it too! It seemed probable to me that another teacher might like the name and pick it up to describe what he or she was doing without knowing that I was already describing another approach to yoga practice using that name. So registering the name made sense to me as the easiest way to assure that I could simply <i>use</i><span style="font-style:normal"> that name.</span></div> <div class="MsoNormal"><!–[if !supportEmptyParas]–>&nbsp;<!–[endif]–><o:p></o:p></div> <div class="MsoNormal">Yoga is different in the west and that is not a bad thing. It just is. We live in a digital and fast paced informational world. I have made my peace with trademarking as a way to stay functional within this environment. </div> <div class="MsoNormal"><!–[if !supportEmptyParas]–>&nbsp;<!–[endif]–><o:p></o:p></div> <div class="MsoNormal">I do think this is an important question and really appreciate your posing it! I would be interested in talking about it more.</div> <div class="MsoNormal"><!–[if !supportEmptyParas]–>&nbsp;<!–[endif]–><o:p></o:p></div> <div class="MsoNormal">Thank you.</div> <!–EndFragment–></div><div><br class="Apple-interchange-newline"><div style="width: 600px; font-size: 12px; font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; line-height: 18px;" class="PosterousEmail"></div></div></body></html>

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  26. <html><head></head><body style="word-wrap: break-word; -webkit-nbsp-mode: space; -webkit-line-break: after-white-space; ">Hi Cathy,<div><br></div><div>Thank you for your comment.&nbsp;It has taken me a long time to respond because there were problems with my posting on the blog.&nbsp;</div><div><br></div><div>I do want to address my use of the word "most" in reference to yoga teachers buying into a hierarchical view of yoga. You are right that it would have been a much safer choice for me to use "many" but as I think about it I really think it actually is "most". I feel that hierarchy is built into the structure of Classical Yoga. It is so prevalent that I think it is unrecognized because the structure is simply taken to be the way it is.&nbsp;</div><div><br><div><div style="width: 600px; font-size: 12px; font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; line-height: 18px;" class="PosterousEmail"></div></div></div></body></html>

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  27. <!DOCTYPE HTML PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN"> <HTML><HEAD> <META content="text/html; charset=UTF-8" http-equiv=Content-Type> <META name=GENERATOR content="MSHTML 9.00.8112.16440"></HEAD> <BODY style="FONT-FAMILY: Arial; COLOR: #000000; FONT-SIZE: 10pt" id=role_body bottomMargin=7 leftMargin=7 rightMargin=7 topMargin=7><FONT id=role_document color=#000000 size=2 face=Arial> <DIV>It is not the case with K, R, A, E, S, TW, DJ.. a quick handful from my immediate teachers.</DIV> <DIV>You have valid concerns, but dilute your validity and potneital credibility with discriminating readers.</DIV> <DIV>&nbsp;</DIV> <DIV> <DIV>In a message dated 1/24/2012 11:41:03 A.M. Pacific Standard Time,</DIV></DIV></BODY></HTML>

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  28. Guess what?We live in physical bodies. The potential exists for injury whether we are running, biking, kayaking, practicing yoga. It is part of the human condition. One can also develop and maintain a peaceful meditative experience while involved in those activites.Perhaps, at least in part, it comes down to intention. One can practice most physical activites with a fiery, competitive ego, or with a focused, peaceful heart. The choice is ours.The term "yoga" literally means; "union"; the union of body and spirit. It is not the practice of ego.After close to 40 years of practice, I searched for a Yoga Teacher Training program that resonated with me. I chose Embodyoga. I recall wondering at times why I chose the school since at times the postures did not seem challenging.The lesson came slowly; this is not about showing what I can do, this is about going deep inside and connecting with prana, life-force, God. It is about coming home. With an egoless grace, you are a gifted guide Patty Townsend. Perhaps this is the quality that distinguishes you most.Thank you.

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  29. A simple Buddhist prayer:"Delusions are as various as the reflection of the moon on a rippling seaBeings so easily become caught in a net of confused painMay I develop compassion, boundless as the skySo that ALL may rest in the clear light of their own awareness"We are all on our own path, having the experiences we are supposed to be having at any given moment. We are all teachers, we are all students… awake or asleep.Thank you, Patty for bringing your insights to light – and that goes for all you posters, too. Sharing is where it’s at.Peace.

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  30. Pingback: Who are We in This?—Yoga, Ethics, and Abuse of Power | Embodyoga®

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