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The Yoga Trap

It's easy to practice non-attachment when things aren't going well, Neal Pollack writes, but what about when they are?

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It’s easy to practice non-attachment when things aren’t going well. My failures don’t define me, you think. They’re temporary blips on the path toward something better. My relationship problems, my professional problems, my family struggles, my poor health: Theyaren’t me. 

But what about when things are going well? Can you non-attach then? If you’re madly in love with the perfect person, or if you’re having career success, or if you’re making a lot of money, it’s not quite as clear-cut to say that these things aren’t me, because you want to believe that they are, that you’re awesome and unique. But you’re not, at least not in the way that you think.

Yoga helps you get through the tough times in your life, but you need it during the good times just as much, because that’s when the ego threatens to disrupt your equilibrium. And it becomes doubly true when you succeed at yoga itself. When you start to think you’re good, you start to get into big trouble. As my teacher Richard Freeman likes to say, “yoga sets traps.”

This came to mind last week when I read a New York Observer story about Jared McCann, a two-time U.S. National Yoga Asana Champion who is, apparently, our next big yoga star. In the article, they called him “Yoga’s New Messiah.” Obviously, that title was bestowed with more than a little irony, but it’s still upsetting to hear such a sentiment. McCann is a glamorous former heroin addict with abs that ripple like estuarial waters in the wind. He’s a studly dude. It’s dangerous to follow such a person, but it’s probably a lot more dangerous to actually be such a person.

Despite constant warnings to the contrary, and despite the seemingly endless stream of scandals that topple yoga teachers who ascend to a lofty perch, we continually want to place them on a pedestal, to proclaim them as rock stars, as something special. Witness a recent New York Times article that dubbed Colleen Saidman Yee the “first lady of yoga,” whatever that means. I don’t know Saidman Yee, have never met her, and probably never will, but I sympathize with the position that article put her in.

While it means nothing now, 10 years ago, I had a run of two or three books that got me a lot of attention, even if they never earned me a lot of money. I was a guest on The Daily Show and profiled on CNN. The New York Timesgave me full-page book reviews. Nightlinedid a feature on my family life. And it was really bad for my ego. While I never totally believed the press, I believed it enough. It messed with my mind. I couldn’t detach from all the hype.

Things were going well for me, but I couldn’t enjoy them. I couldn’t see clearly. My mind was clouded by the simultaneous praise and criticism that I was getting from all corners. I got confused. I did drugs. I said stupid things and ruined more than one friendship. And that happened when my life, and my career, were supposedly at their height.

Only after I unrolled the mat for the first time and started practicing yoga regularly was I able to finally see that all the good things that had happened to me, as well as all the bad things that were starting to happen, weren’t about me. My “life,” as I perceived it, was just a series of random events. My real self, wherever and whatever that involved, was something grander and higher, which I could occasionally and briefly access through diligent practice. Yoga, if it does its job right, makes you humble in the face of the universe’s infinite mystery.

The same is true for you as well as for “rock star” yoga teachers. No matter how many followers they have, no matter how much money they make, no matter how awesome their trademarked asanasystems might be, they’re still people, just like you, battling their ego-structures and trying to figure things out.

Idols have no place in ordinary life, but they have even less place in yoga, which is about freeing yourself from your attachments to the artificial systems that are set up to distract us all from the pure happiness that’s our birthright. We’re all one, on the mat and off. The sooner we start to realize that, the sooner we’ll free ourselves from the yoga trap.