Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Choosing A "Path of Fire"

Lela and Nick Beem, both 27, spent ten days of their honeymoon at a silent meditation retreat in Thailand. They slept on concrete slabs, rose each morning at 4 a.m., meditated eight times a day, practiced yoga, and didn’t speak a word to each other – or to anyone else. There was no reading or writing or listening to music. And there was no intermingling of the sexes.

Sound crazy? Maybe for most of us unenlightened mortals. But for Nick and Lela, Chicago-area yoga instructors who met when he was finishing a degree in computer science at Brown University and she was an AmeriCorps teacher, it made perfect sense. “What better way to start a marriage,” said Lela. “The commitment we made to each other was through Buddhist ideas, and we vowed to move forward in mindfulness.” Loose – very loose - translation: To be nice to each other.

So, are the Beems an oddity in today’s goal-oriented, get-rich-quick world? Or do they represent a trend among younger yogis and yoginis who are choosing to make a positive difference rather than a steady paycheck?

There is no quibbling with the facts: The number of registered yoga teachers in the U.S. has increased six fold to 15,329 in 2006, up from 2,521 in 2001. According to Yoga Alliance (YA), 17 million Americans of all ages now practice yoga regularly. And there are no signs of a slowdown. Americans spend some $2.95 billion a year on yoga classes, equipment, clothing, vacations, videos and more, according to a study commissioned by Yoga Journal.

There are no statistics on yoga teachers’ ages, but a 2007 New York Times article reported that representatives of more than a half-dozen top training programs said interest from recent college grads is strong. “Teaching yoga is wonderful, satisfying, sometimes blissful,” said Nick Beem. “But it is not easy.” It is, according to one of Nick’s teachers, “a path of fire.” Class attendance, which determines income, can vary wildly. Many new teachers travel long distances. It can take months, sometimes years, for classes to build.

Given the obstacles, what’s the draw? And what are the challenges of being a young trying to live a yoga lifestyle? Is this a group of mystical misfits comparable to the hari krisnas of the 1960s? Or are they seekers truly interested in spreading a path to personal growth? And does their age matter in the eyes of older practitioners?

As one of the "older practitioners," I can tell you that a yoga instructor's age pales in importance to his or her ability to teach, support, and inspire. I'm interested in how the breath can take my mind off of screaming hamstrings. I'm focused on how meditation can calm my over-active mind. I'm dedicated to strengthening my weak and all-too-flabby arms. And, oh, yeah - I'm trying not to compare myself to the woman next to me who can balance on one leg for days and stand on her head. Hell, as long as an instructor doesn't try to use the podium to tell me how to live my life, I could care less about age.

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