The Guest Blog: The Beauty of Yoga: Cosmic or Cosmetic
A sense of humor about perception, and our human condition, will be helpful if you choose to read further.
This story was relayed to me recently by a 52 year old Iyengar teacher who grew up and teaches in Hong Kong. She recounted a question that was asked of her by a young yoga student in her early twenties who was from mainland China. The student asked "How come Iyengar teachers are old and not beautiful?" She thought to herself "Well at 52, I might be old by this young person's standards, but I wouldn't exactly describe myself as not beautiful." Ok—maybe a lot has been lost in the translation of this statement. Maybe the person who said this didn't really mean to say it in this way. However it was intended, it can be helpful to see the humor in this observation by a young and inexperienced yoga student from mainland China.
What attracts people to yoga, especially young people (and in countries where yoga is a relatively new subject)? Probably many different things. But since much of one's exposure could be through advertisements, magazines, and mainstream media, the physical and superficial aspects might stand out as that which are most desirable, since the subtler benefits are less apparent.
B.K.S. Iyengar said during his visit to China a few years ago, "Yoga is for cosmic beauty, not cosmetic beauty," or something to that effect. This comment was in response to what he felt was an overt emphasis on the cosmetic, as in too much makeup and fancy clothing on many of the students who were in attendance at that particular conference.
The teachers are on the mainland are, like this student, mostly young (in their early 20s) and apparently extremely attractive as many are models, dancers, and the like tend to be. So all is relative. And experience, wisdom and compassion, and the inner or cosmic beauty BKS described may not have been high priorities for this particular student. Or maybe it was just an awkward observation, like a child might make, the meaning of which was somehow lost in translation. And it is also probably true that there are many teachers and students in mainland China who do not share the perspective of the student who made the comment and might even be disturbed by such sentiment. The students in the classes that I taught in Hong Kong (and there were some in attendance who were from the mainland) were mature, sincere, extremely dedicated, keen and enthusiastic in their approach. Teaching in Hong Kong was a delightful experience in every way.
So it was even more amusing to discover that, when we told my friend’s husband, a native of Hong Kong, and my husband, who was with us at the time, this particular story, they both burst out laughing. And they let out an especially hearty laugh when my friend said "well, a more accurate translation of what was said would be why are the Iyengar teachers old and ugly?" Oh, Boy. And truth be told, I, along with several friends (all of us teachers of a certain age—as in over 50) also laughed when we again heard this version of the story. It was so bizarre to hear such a question and to hear it expressed in that way. Our perceptions are so interesting and context dependent. What we see, or don't see—what we might be looking for in others, or more accurately for ourselves. In this case it was sad, but also oddly amusing.
In yoga we learn to see and feel below the surface of things, and into the patterns that underlie our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. We also learn that our perceptions are so colored, so distorted by our minds that very rarely do we actually see clearly or even accurately. This includes the inability to accurately perceive ourselves, each other, and our environment.
So what exactly is beauty? What does it mean to be a beautiful person? And how do our minds condition our perception of our own aging process? Do we see the aging process, even death, as un-beautiful, or as an ugly event?
I, for one, am eternally grateful for having had the opportunity to be with my father at the end of his life and to be with his body for a while after he died. What I saw was something beautiful. And I believe that I was, in those moments, seeing accurately what lay before me. It didn't feel like decision or an interpretation of what I saw. It was arresting because it was unexpected. I did not expect to feel what I felt or see what I saw. He was in his old age and in his death astoundingly beautiful. The truth of love, and the full process and effects of life's unfolding, is the most beautiful thing in the world. Wisdom and experience are also beautiful. Compassion is beautiful.
I love teaching in different contexts, and in different parts of the world because it is so mind opening. It is also heart opening. And having a sense of humor about oneself, and our human condition, is probably one of the most helpful travel and life companions one can have. Because what can potentially hurt can also make us smile, laugh, and see a little deeper into our humanness. And there is nothing more beautiful than a genuine smile, especially the smile of recognition. Maybe there is some grain of truth in this student’s observation/question. So what if many of the Iyengar teachers are "old." Isn't that a wonderful thing? It takes a long time to mature in one's practice and as a teacher. And the Iyengars were never much concerned with outward appearances or superficial presentation of the subject, anyway. One man's ugly is another man's wizened authenticity.
It may be true that we, as Iyengar teachers, would probably not be described as "cool." We wear bloomers for goodness sake!!! Or some of us do. And the youthful countenance in body and behavior that is evident in many teachers who are in their 50's 60's, 70's and beyond is at its best, a natural one. It is cosmic, not cosmetic. Yes, I do try and take good care of myself, and like many people, find it fun to play with cosmetics at times. But what I consider my personal elixir or fountain of energy is the attempt to give a full and honest expression to the playful and curious side of myself in both my practice and my life. In that way I feel like I am tapping directly into that which is true and alive at the very core of my being. I think that is what creativity is—an expression of that innermost mysterious and ever-fresh part of each of us, perhaps even an expression of divinity (or at least humanity) itself. Truth is a force—a life force, that will out itself in one way or another, because it is bigger than any one of us, and bigger than that which would try and squelch or limit it. And isn't a goal of yoga liberation? So what is it that we are liberating?
I read a description of practice by the Zen teacher Jakusho Kwong that went as follows: "We practice in order to let go of that which limits the expression of our innermost authentic selves." This is an incredible statement.
So, in light of this statement, I actually found the story of the comment from the youthful Chinese student both amusing and liberating. It was a good reminder for each of us to be as we are, and not to limit the expression of our innermost authentic selves by being overly concerned with outward appearances, or the perceptions of others. People will perceive through their own lenses of perception, just as we all do. But if you love what you do, what you are practicing and teaching, and share that love with compassion—it is indeed a beautiful and life affirming process. Perhaps we lose our freshness when we limit ourselves by not sharing, or giving an embodied voice to what is actually true within us, to that which we really care about. Maybe we appear to some unhappy, or un-beautiful because we are simply imitating or regurgitating that which is no longer—or never was—truly authentic and alive within us. If our approach is dry and dogmatic, maybe it stands to reason that we ourselves might be perceived as such. But again, laughter and a sense of humor while reflecting on such things can be so helpful. It gives us a light hearted ease and enables us to playfully entertain different points of view—which can be enlightening on so many levels.
What truly enlivens and awakens you? When do you feel most alive, and most integrated? What do people mean when they say they are young at heart? And what, for you, is this cosmic beauty that B.K.S. Iyengar spoke about?
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