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That Clown in the Back Row

Ever been in a class with someone trying too hard to be funny? It's easy to feel annoyed. But when it comes to yoga, Neal Pollack says, maybe we should all stop taking ourselves so seriously.

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A guy dropped me an email a few weeks ago. It read, simply: “Do yoga teachers ever wish that clown in the back of the class would never come back?”


My initial thought was that it’s very difficult to practice yoga while dressed as a clown. The makeup runs when you sweat and the large shoes and baggy pants make it very hard to transition between poses. On the other hand, the large red nose does make for an excellent drishdi. 

After I was done totally cracking myself up, I thought, most yoga teachers are in no position to wish any of their students away. Unless they’re in one of a dozen studios in New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles, they’re not exactly playing to a full room. At least that clown in the back of his class took the time to leave the house.

And then, like Dorothy’s Scarecrow, I thought and thought some more. What does it mean to be a “clown” in yoga class? Are you putting whoopee cushions on the teacher’s mat? Or are you just feeling out of place and insecure? When I lived in Los Angeles, I practiced with my teacher Patty once or twice a week. It was my unannounced role in the class to occasionally drop a joke, and it became an accepted part of the routine. I didn’t lay it on too thick, or interrupt her when she was talking. But occasionally, in a blank space or a transitional moment, or when things were seeming difficult, I’d see an appropriate moment for a one-liner. And it was fine.

Now, Patty is a long-term friend, and she’s also someone who actually thinks I’m funny. I wouldn’t just walk into any Tom, Dick, or Shiva’s class and start cracking wise. That would be rude. But it’s ridiculous to think that there’s no place for a “clown” in yoga.

Why does yoga have to be such a self-serious enterprise all the time? When you look at the idols of Ganesha that grace the altars of nearly every studio, is he frowning? Does he look unhappy? Of course not. He’s smiling, usually subtly, not like an idiot, but definitely like he’s in on a gentle joke. It’s as though he’s thinking, I see all you Type-A Westerners in your $100 pants desperately trying to gyrate your way toward enlightenment. He’s charmed by how cute and earnest everyone is, when all they really need to do is just sit quietly and smile like him and breathe calmly. Also, maybe they should stop eating breakfast pastries.

My teacher Richard Freeman always says that yoga should be done with a bit of a sense of humor. It’s an absurdly comic enterprise that we mortal humans, with our imperfect bodies and our deeply imperfect minds, have undertaken. The fact that we dare to even think that we can approach some sort of “divine union” through our practice is the essence of comedy. And yet it’s also kind of possible.

If you can laugh at yourself and your endeavors, that means that you’ve begun to realize the absurdity of the “self” that you’ve created. That’s one of the main goals of yoga practice, to break down the constructed layers of your personality so you can get in touch with the higher aspects of your nature, in both grand and subtle ways. Once you begin to laugh at the absurdity of the situation, then that all-important deconstruction has begun. So teachers should welcome the occasional (respectful) joker in the room. When it comes to yoga, whether we sit in the front or the back of the class, we’re all clowns.