Yoga at Home

Since March, the pandemic has upended the global Yoga industry with thousands of studios filing for bankruptcy and international teacher training events cancelled. In these times of isolation, we can take stock of just how far the glamour and brand of corporate Yoga has departed from the wisdom culture in which Yoga arose. Yoga was never a one-size-fits-all exercise class, but a beautiful practice of reality embrace that you do in the sanctuary of your own home.

Last month I spoke with Özlem Özkan, a yogini from Amsterdam who has been experimenting with an actual home Yoga practice in the midst of the pandemic. We talked about what’s gone wrong with studio Yoga; how to bring your practice into everyday life; and how the pandemic has forced us to return to practicing Yoga as it always was in the traditions: as a personal practice of intimacy with oneself, with one another, and with God. Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation; you can listen to the full version on Özlem’s podcast, ‘Bridging,’ or watch the video version on her Youtube channel.

Embracing Life Through Yoga: Mark Whitwell and Özlem Özkan

Özlem: I have to admit something, Mark. When I first attended a Yoga class in Istanbul, I had never done Yoga before and when I entered the studio I saw all these flexible bodies—very skinny, tiny women—and I thought, “Oh my god, this has nothing for me.” Because I am not flexible. And I don’t really fit in this lifestyle.

Mark: It is a common story for millions of people. They go to one class and they reject it. Most of the world think that Yoga is silly. They say it all the time, “I’m not flexible enough to do Yoga,” so they don’t do it, and then when they do practice, it isn’t doing anything for them. It’s become a vehicle to sell people product. And it’s played right into the body dysmorphic dysfunction which is a psychiatric illness that people are made to suffer where they hate their body, because it doesn’t look like the cover of Yoga Journal, and so they whip themselves along in these systems.

You see, Yoga is not a one-size-fits-all system where you all go into a room with some bossy man who parades up and down like they are a world-famous gymnast—there’s been a lot of them! And then the women become enamoured by this and start duplicating it and tricking people into a struggle towards a future result.

Yoga is direct embrace of life as it is. It is the direct embrace of life: the power of this cosmos that moves your breath and sex, and allows your perceivers to perceive. Yoga is the embrace of all tangible and intangible conditions of our real life, including intimacy with each other. In particular, it’s the intimacy with our breath that’s been left out of the popular commercialization of Yoga. And what we have been left with in the studios is what my teacher called mediocre gymnastics at best.

Özlem: You said initially, Mark, that everyone has a different body type and has different needs; that each person is unique. But there are so many types of Yoga. In Amsterdam there’s Ashtanga, there’s Hatha, there is Yin. How do we choose a Yoga that is right for us?

Mark: What we can do now is put the principles of Krishnamacharya back into the brands and styles that derived from him. Krishnamacharya brought the principles of real Yoga forth with a great clarity on how you do postures, and the specific technology of asana, and how the movement is there to serve the breath. But somehow because of the branding of Yoga and turning of it into business, even his own young students didn’t represent what he taught, so he got ignored in the popularization of Yoga. I can tell you that many people who have done these popular brands of Yoga and have recognized the dead end of it, have put the principles that came through Krishnamacharya into their practice, and have begun to practice at home in a very natural way.

Özlem: In September, I was in Ubud at the Yoga Barn and it was such nice surroundings. We were in the middle of nature and a lot of people around me were very chilled and relaxed. I did Yoga for ten days every morning and in the evening and I was just in a flow. I wasn’t like I need to do it this morning or tomorrow evening, it just happened. And also, like you said, I was actualizing the sacred texts, or for me my connection with God, with Allah, by doing a lot of Yoga… The setting there was kind of easier, the nature the weather, the sun on your face, it was amazing.

And then I returned to Europe, to Amsterdam, to rainy days. I registered for a Yoga school and I said I’m just going to keep doing it here… Then what happens is like this: I go to work, and I’d already registered one day before for the Yoga class. After work I try to really get to the yoga school where I’m on the bike, and everyone is also rushed and going to the gym because it is five thirty, six o’clock. I’m rushing there and then my head is spinning, I arrive and the teacher says, “Okay sit down, five-minute meditation.” But my head is thinking about all the things I did, and I have to do tomorrow. I was physically present for a one-hour long Yoga but it is so different than it was in Bali. Do you really need to be in Bali or any other spiritual place to do Yoga?

Mark: You have to admit that everywhere on planet Earth including Amsterdam is THE beauty. The one thing you can depend upon is THE beauty of the Cosmos, the Beauty of Mother Earth. And everything on Mother Earth: all forms, all human life, all creatures, all flowers, all plants, are the beauty. So the great recommendation is that you take up your own Yoga practice that’s right for you; adapted to your own body type and age and health; and adapted to your own human culture that you are from—you might be a Muslim, you might be an atheist, you might be a Rastafarian, whatever is your culture. And then we adapt yoga to your life out of great respect for your life and as respect to life you do your yoga at home. Your own non-obsessive practice. Daily practice, that’s the secret. That is what Yoga actually is.

The paradox is that in this pandemic we’ve had to return to doing Yoga in the way that it always was, as sacred activity in your own sacred home, in your own sacred garden wherever that is on mother Earth. Whether that’s in Amsterdam or Bali, everywhere is the sacred life.

Now, it might be true that you went to Bali to learn it, maybe, that’s why I teach in Bali because it is an extraordinary place that hasn’t been completely destroyed by colonialism. For some reason the fluke of Hinduism and of Veda flourished on that precious island. It certainly does serve a purpose for humanity. But to think that we have to go there to live this lifestyle that we want to live, which is direct intimacy with life, with reality as it actually is, no, you don’t have to go there. You never have to go there.

Özlem: So knowing that this biking to my Yoga school and being there for one hour but actually with a lot of stress, knowing that it doesn’t help me, it doesn’t actualize my beauty, but it brings me more stress, I can instead of that do this practice on my own time in my own home?

Mark:You could have stayed home and done your own Yoga at home by the time you got to the class your Yoga would’ve been finished, and you could’ve been seeing a lovely friend and having a lovely leisurely evening…

You can listen the full interview on Özlem’s podcast “Bridging,” including discussion of practicing as a Muslim yogini and yoga and online dating.

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