I think yoga teachers should be talking about the shooting at Tallahassee Hot Yoga last week. It is an uncomfortable topic and not really in line with the feel-good vibes characteristic of most classes these days. But if such a thing as a “yoga community” exists, this needs to be something we care about. We need to find a way to find some shared meaning from this violence and loss.
One of the hardest things we have to do is to find some kind of meaning, value, or lesson in the wake of tragedy. It is how we humans are able to let go of our sadness and anger. It is the thing that helps us move on with our lives after something devastating turns everything upside down.
I did not know Maura Bikley or Nancy Van Vessem. I have never been to Hot Yoga Tallahassee. I’ve never even been to Florida. But I share something with those women. I was also doing hot yoga on a Friday night. We were most likely practicing some of the same postures that evening. We most likely share a great deal of the same philosophy and outlook on life. They are yoga people. They are my people.
Yoga studios are places of healing, community, and connection. They are a really interesting hybrid of a church, a gym, a community center and a coffee shop. They are a secularized sacred space where you don’t need to share a particular faith in order to join. You don’t even need to share a particular practice as some people come to meditate while some just come for a workout (most come for something in between.)
Yoga can connect us across all social boundaries. This is why the work of accessible and body positive yogis is so important. It broadens our circle and makes it possible for even more people to connect with our world and ourselves.
On Friday night we were reminded of our connection with an angry, violent, hateful part of the world. Our yoga studios cannot insulate us from hate. All the issues that we face in the world come knocking at the doors of our yoga studios. Our sacred sanctuary spaces have porous boundaries.
Abuse, exclusion, inaccessibility, bigotry and every other repugnant reality of our world cannot be held at bay with prayers, mantras and even the most radiant white light. Our safe spaces can be endangered. Our sacred spaces can be profaned.
Yoga classes, like all our ritual behaviours, are an attempt to find order in the chaos. The world is so wild and unpredictable that we crave something that just makes sense. That is why yoga franchises like Ashtanga and Bikram became so popular and manage to maintain a huge following even after the founders of both styles were exposed as sexual predators. For Ashtanga and Bikram practitioners, it isn’t about the teacher. It is about the ritual.
The ritual provides a sense of normalcy. It is predictable. You roll out your mat and the teacher says very yoga teacher-ish things. You practice the same postures with the same instructions. You grow in confidence and capacity until the whole thing starts to feel like 2nd nature. Whether you have had a good day or a bad day, you can count on your yoga ritual to make you feel like everything is as it should be.
Unfortunately our prayers and rituals only provide a thin veneer of shelter from storm. The real power of yoga studios comes not from our yoga mat rituals, but from people coming together.
When Scott Beierle’s gun jammed on Friday night, one of the students attacked him and managed to get his gun away from him. That gave the other students in the class a chance to run for their lives. It was a fearless, selfless, and decisive act that saved lives in that yoga studio.
Rather than trying to escape, Joshua Quick risked his life to protect the other people he was practicing with. That is the real power of yoga. We come together with people we hardly even know and create a sense of community and family.
The magic of yoga happens when we practice together. It is not about spectacular postures and individual achievement. It is not about charismatic teachers and cultish devotion to ritualized sequences. The magic of yoga is in the meeting of two calm, quiet minds who acknowledge one another with a gentle “Namaste” at the end of their class.
The magic is in people from around the world coming together to support the community at Hot Yoga Tallahassee. We need to start seeing ourselves in each other and looking after each other. We need to have zero tolerance for abuse, hate & bigotry in our communities. We need to support each other and ensure that we welcome and include as many people as possible.
A yoga that is more interested in selling pants and taking selfies is not a community. That is a market. That is a yoga industry. Right now we do not need a yoga industry. We need a real yoga community. We need to practice more than sun salutations. We need to practice love and compassion.
That is the lesson to be learned. That is the value we can find. That is the meaning of this darkness. It is a chance for yogis around the world to come together in a shared rejection of the abuse, exclusion, inaccessibility, and bigotry. We can affirm a yogic identity that is based upon respect, inclusion, accessibility and diversity. We can use this moment of darkness to express our solidarity.
A real community does not always agree with one another. We may not even really like each other sometimes. But we love each other. We see ourselves in each other. We feel each other’s pain and celebrate each other’s victories. We push each other to get better and pick each other up when we fall.
There is no one right way to be a yogi. There is no one single method, philosophy, or style of yoga that is best. Because we are so diverse as a community there is no point trying to determine who is doing it right. But we can all concern ourselves with getting better.