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The Emperor’s New Clothes: Do I have to eat mung beans to get enlightened?

The mung bean question is one that has been marinating in my consciousness for a few years as I observe myself and others on our yoga path. The question, really is of identity (group and individual) – a subject crucial to an understanding of yoga philosophy and the Self.

Inappropriate Yoga guy

Let me share with you part of a story I read in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are, a book which has been influencing my practice and my teaching in the last months. It’s the story of Mount Analogue, a book by Rene Daumal.

Mount Analogue is a fictional mountain. When travellers rest at any of the camps during their climb, they are responsible for restocking the camp for those who come to rest there next. They make sure that the camp is clean, comfortable and replenished with ample food and water. Additionally, each group must send one of their members down the mountain to report to other travellers on what they can expect to encounter on the next part of their journey.

JKZ draws a parallel between the travellers on Mount Analogue and the teacher-student relationship – teachers are just people who are on the same path; they have travelled a little further and they are coming back to guide others on their way.

I love this allegory as it demonstrates how we (in this case, yogis) are all somewhere on that mountain with one common goal – to reach the top ie we are all just people trying the best way we know how to be the best that we can be. We’ll encounter different weather on different terrain so our method of ascending the mountain might look different from someone else’s, and we may adopt methods which work for a time on a certain terrain, only to drop them when we no longer need them…see where I’m going with this?

When I did the Akhanda yoga teacher training, my teachers Yogrishi Vishvketu and Chetana Panwar were very careful not to be dogmatic about lifestyle choices associated with yoga. They did, however, explain that as we progressed in the practice of Hatha yoga, that certain activities and habits would no longer feel right for us and that they would naturally drop away.

Yoga is a gnostic practice and can only be known through experience. The more we refine our experience of ourselves and the world by practicing, watching, feeling, questioning and experimenting, the more we can make conscious choices about what is right for us and when.

As a committed yoga practitioner and teacher, I frequently come up against judgments from others about what yogis are supposed to say, do, eat, drink, wear etc. Sometimes there are judgments on me directly (I was once reprimanded by a student when my knee clicked! I dread to think what that person would have said if she’d seen me down the pub with a glass of wine in my hand) and sadly I hear other yoga teachers being judged and condemned for a word or an action that doesn’t fit in with someone’s fantasy of what a yogi is supposed to be. It saddens me the most to hear teachers talking this way about each other. The words “That’s not very yogic!” have become four words my ears dread to hear.

It is in our nature to pigeon-hole others and to make assumptions based on a little knowledge and sometimes no experience. The result is that practitioners often squeeze themselves into a little box fabricated out of rules in order to fit someone else’s idea of their identity – there are the classic ones: mustn’t drink, mustn’t smoke, mustn’t do drugs mustn’t swear and mustn’t express anything other than serene equanimity. Then there are new rules that have been born in the West which differ from region to region although generally they follow the pattern of no wheat, raw food, no dairy, light make up, mala beads and either white or orange clothing or failing that, plenty of clothes and jewellry that sport the Om symbol or other spiritual iconography.

May I say at this point that I don’t see anything at all wrong with wearing Oms or going easy on the foundation, in fact most of these points mirror my own lifestyle (except the wearing of Oms). What I am saying is that in order for these trappings of spirituality to mean something, they must be adopted from a place of compassion for the self or from a true desire to integrate a philosophy and share it as part of one’s public persona, otherwise it is just a choice made from fear.

I’ll tell you a secret – I only gave up smoking when I was thirty. That was twelve years after I started practicing yoga and I smoked for a total of seventeen years. I was an early starter. My experience was that, as my practice deepened over the years and I became more sensitive and compassionate towards the needs of my body, it was as though my body started to make choices for me. One day I realised I didn’t want to eat meat any more, and a couple of years later I became completely vegetarian. The same thing happened with smoking – I became aware that smoking cigarettes was one of the main things that was stopping me from being the person I wanted to be. The little act of sef-destruction suddenly seemed barbaric and senseless and so that naturally dropped away. Nowadays I no longer drink alcohol as my body just doesn’t like it any more and it reacts as it should do to taking poison.

Every time I have tried imposing one of these choices on myself, I have just created rebellion and disorder. I remember once, a few years ago, I got it into my head that I should be vegan – that lasted a month and then I spent the whole of the next month eating nothing but sausages.

Popular opinion is a very very powerful thing and we are all part of a tacit collective consensus that certain things are true. The fact is that things are only true because the majority believe so. The media are constantly telling us what is beautiful, how to dress, what opinions are in trend and so on. Us humans do not like being outside the loop, or appearing ignorant so we find ourselves adopting certain habits and opinions for fear of choosing something else and being judged “wrong”. There are certain cultural emblems that we are all supposed to like – for example the Segrada Familia, anything by Shakespeare, Beethoven’s 5th; and whilst being in no doubt that these were all produced by great masters of their art – how often do we examine our true response to famous artworks and make a considered choice of preference? How often have you nodded in hearty approval about something you have no real idea about? This mentality of blind belief bleeds into organised religion to the point where in some cases, people commit murder in the very earnest belief that it is the righteous moral action.

My teacher Chetana defines yoga as “The unification of the web of dualities”. This means moving away from the polarity of externally imposed ideas of good and bad, towards an understanding of interconnectedness. In order to find your real moral compass you have to look inside and try to shed your socially constructed skin. Chances are you’ll come up with a similar moral code to the one you’ve been taught, but make sure you know why you’re choosing it, in what context and what that means.

In the context of fear, mung beans as a more “yogic” choice don’t mean anything and neither does waxing lyrical about installation art you didn’t understand – you may as well be eating KFC every night and reading the Daily Mail. What means something is showing up on your mat every f*****g day to learn more about who you are today and what the heck you are doing this crazy practice for. There is nothing you can do about the way that people judge you, the only thing you can control is your response to that judgment. So that means if you gag at the thought of eating kitcheree and you have short hamstrings, guess what?! You can still get enlightened. Just stop beating yourself up and get on your mat instead.

Links: (mindfulness session with JKZ)


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