Yoga is not just for flexible people and vegans. Here's why I’m so excited to open Avani Studio.
In a few weeks time, I’ll be taking a big, scary step and opening the doors to a yoga studio. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how I will find my place in Belgrade’s burgeoning yoga scene, and what I want Avani Yoga to stand for. I found an answer in what motivated me to pursue my Teacher Training certificate in the first place: a commitment to making yoga accessible to those who want to try this powerful and deeply beneficial practice, but find themselves hesitant.
I was born in Belgrade, but I grew up in the yoga Mecca of Vancouver, Canada, where I spent a decade as a student and a waitress before returning to Serbia to open Avani Yoga. Living in Vancouver, I was spoiled for choice when it came to yoga studios. There’s one on every corner! Still, I noticed that when I spoke with friends, coworkers and fellow students about yoga, I would often hear the same refrain: 'I want to do it, but I’m not flexible enough. I don’t have the right clothes. There’s no way my mind could never be calm enough. I can’t afford the classes.'
Working as a waitress takes a toll on your body. The job requires long hours spent on your feet, and I found it put a lot of strain on my wrists and lower back. What’s more, the constant struggle to not kill anyone in a fast-paced, stressful, and chaotic environment in which guests would sometimes treat you like human garbage -- well, you can imagine how that might sometimes be emotionally exhausting. I found yoga super helpful in addressing these issues - both physical and mental. So I was always surprised to find that many of my colleagues, with whom I shared a lifestyle, right down to the crazy hours and the crazy boss, felt that yoga was not for them.
Not for you? I beg to differ! If you feel over-worked and under-appreciated; if you’re run-down, achy and fatigued; if you feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day; or if your job or your class load or your situation is so stressful that easy moments of bliss feel hard to come by, then I reckon you need yoga more than anyone!
I noticed that the people I thought would be most likely to benefit from yoga -- comrades who worked in retail and spent most of the day leaning on sore legs; stressed-out students whose mental health was beginning to suffer from an onslaught of deadlines and group projects; “grown-up” friends who felt stuck in their offices, stiff from sitting for long hours; sore-bodied builders whose backs were perpetually achy from the labour demanded by Vancouver’s voracious real-estate boom -- these people were the least likely to seek it out. Men in particular would lament that they thought yoga might ease some of the physical discomforts associated with their lifestyles, but, alas, they could never do it.
The people that stand to gain the most from a yoga practice are often the ones that feel yoga is not ‘for’ them. I can’t help but attribute this rift at least in part to the commercial culture that surrounds yoga in the West. We are inundated with images of expensively-clad, thin, young, white women pulling contortionistic stunts-- it’s no wonder many people feel that they “can’t do yoga.” *
In Vancouver’s hyper-competitive yoga scene, there is pressure on teachers to create classes that are novel and interesting, and to keep their personal brand exciting. The bright side of this is that we get to enjoy some incredibly creative and inspired teachers. But on the flip side, that pressure can sometimes result in an overemphasis on ‘advanced’ asana. These complicated postures are beyond the average person’s range of motion, and can be injurious if not approached carefully. In this kind of environment, the basic experience of embodiment gets lost in the fray, and you risk having people leave feeling dejected because they were not able to perform all the stunts the teacher asked for. Rather than being inspiring, this kind of curriculum can send the message that unless we're freakishly strong and flexible, our (already perfect!) bodies are somehow not good enough.
But it’s not just the teachers. The culture flows in both directions. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked into a studio to find some supermodel type casually doing a handstand and wearing an outfit that costs half my rent while waiting for class to start. Part of me says, “You go girl! You do you!” But another, louder, part of me is concerned about how such a greeting sets the tone for a class where the primary purpose is to go inward. How can we help but compare ourselves to THAT?
This year on my birthday, I went to a vinyasa class at a local studio I really like but don’t get to often. If vinyasa is the linking of breath with movement, these folks must have been hyperventilating! Granted, I was a touch hungover, but I just could not keep up -- and I am a certified instructor who has been practicing for 12 years! There I was, huffing and puffing between two nice people who I suspect were performers in Cirque du Soleil enjoying their leave. And they were amazing! What some bodies can do is incredible. But it’s too easy to forget that yoga is about so much more than what our bodies can do.
After a few rounds of this confounding speedyoga, I decided to just take things at my own pace (and boy, did I ever). I am comfortable enough with my own practice that it was not really a big deal -- and one of the upsides of being hung over is that you have so very few fucks to give. Also, I don't embarrass easily (much to the chagrin of my friends and family) and I didn't mind being out of synch. But I couldn’t help thinking that if this was someone’s first or 10th or even 20th exposure to the practice, they might feel put off or inadequate. The entire experience began to verge on the ridiculous toward the end of class, when the teacher began talking about the yogic value of being humble. Um, the dude beside me is literally doing the splits while balancing on one elbow and turning his head around 180 degrees like in The Excorcist. O-kay!
Now, I’m not saying that anyone should dull the brightness of their shine in order to make others feel more comfortable. And I have nothing against 'advanced' poses or the various forms of power yoga out there. They can indeed be very powerful forms of yoga. But I am deeply concerned about how the overrepresentation of a certain kind of yoga practice and practitioner fuels the misconception that that is what all yoga is, and that if we can’t do that, we can’t do yoga.
So what I want to do is create a community where people feel welcomed just for walking through the door -- they don’t need to jump through any hoops, or be able to put their legs behind their heads to be warmly accepted. A place where we can leave the external world, with all its material pressures, behind and go inward, to the places in ourselves to which we don’t pay enough attention in our waking lives. Our culture is already so obsessed with appearances and with being 'good enough.' I want a yoga that is a reversal of that, rather than an extension.
We can still do fun, challenging postures -- arm balances, inversions, all that, but accessible and appropriate versions. I just don’t understand a public, open-level class in a studio that holds 50 people where the teacher offers something like Forearm Wheel or Eka Pada Koundinyasana. If it’s not in the current range of motion of 90% of the class, what is the point? All the benefits a flashy confers those who are able to do it are far outweighed by the feelings of inadequacy that it can inspire in those who are sitting there wondering what the hell is going on. If there is a simpler posture that yields the same benefits, why not offer that, rather than having the majority of practitioners sitting on their asses, staring with a mixture of awe and shame at the five people who are #killingit? I don’t want anyone who comes to Avani Yoga to walk out feeling worse about themselves than they did before coming in. Nope. Not on my watch.
Asana started as just a few simple, seated postures. All this other crazy stuff we see on Instagram now is just window dressing - it’s marketing. Yoga can still have a transformational effect on our bodies, even without so-called advanced poses. For example, tree pose may be useful in preventing osteoporosis because of the weight-bearing demands on the standing leg. Whether the raised foot rests on the calf, or way up on the inner thigh, the benefits in regards to building bone density are exactly the same. With a regular yoga practice, we will become stronger, more flexible, and have better balance and bodily awareness. But if we can let go of the striving to execute a perfect (and perhaps impossible!) external form in order to keep up with the person beside us, and direct our attention to the internal experience of the practice instead, we also stand to gain a whole lot more.
If you’re ready to give this yoga thing a try, check out www.avaniyogabgd.com.
Classes begin October 1.
* There is a deep and problematic relationship between modern yoga and various forms of privilege, which is way beyond the scope of this post. Please check out Yoga and the Roots of Cultural Appropriation, Yoga and the Maintenance of White Womanhood, and Decolonizing Yoga for more discussion.