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Finding Spirit: Q&A with Seane Corn
GAIAM: Why do you think the response to your approach has been so strong in America?
SEANE: I say what's on my mind and in my heart, and my approach is nondogmatic — it's just universal truths. I'm comfortable with it, and that creates space for other people to be comfortable with it. People are hungry to be reminded of the things they already know: that truth and love are the most important aspects of being human.
How does your experience of spirituality in the West contrast with the sense of spirituality among Eastern cultures where you've studied and taught?
Spirituality is embedded in Eastern culture. Prayer and recognizing the holy and being motivated from a sense of the mystical — it seeps into the way they work, the way they relate, the way they're educated, and the way they say hello, as in the Sanskrit namaste. It says it all: I recognize the spirit within you.
Here we're motivated much more by capitalism and what we can create. We don't have that profound sense of mystery. We're a very practical, logical and literal society. Of course I'm being general. But growing up in an environment that was both Jewish and Catholic yet didn't really celebrate either spiritual avenue, I really felt that this is what's missing — that mystery.
In other cultures, every day on every street corner there are marigolds and deities and temples in the most honest of places. There's a sense of that other world.
Here, very often when you start to acknowledge [the sentiment of namaste] — the you that's within me and then vice versa — people roll their eyes. But it is vulnerable and intimate. It requires a heart-to-heart risk rather than mind-to-mind. Our culture isn't so comfortable with that. But it's getting more so.
What signs have you witnessed of a spiritual "renaissance" in the West?
I get such a strong cross-section of the population. And I'm in these situations where I watch the light go on. It's not that the information is necessarily that profound, but they're hearing it for the first time.
I had a young student, maybe 25, big muscle guy. In my class he would do pushups between all the yoga poses, and work physically harder than everyone else. Other students would ask me, "How do you deal with this guy?" But I had a sense of what might happen. Still, I would think, Does he even hear me? Is he just here for the way I choreograph?
Maybe six years went by, and one day I glance over and he's in child's pose. This was a guy who would never do that. Never. So I walked over. I just put my head on his back and I said, "How's it going there?" He looks at me and says, "I don't know what's happening to me." I almost had to stop myself from cracking up, it was so sweet. He was sobbing but he wasn't scared. I could see that it wasn't just happening in this moment. Something had been coming on in his life. And I thought, "Welcome home."
After that he stopped working out the way he had. He took breaks often in class. And he was always rolling his eyes at himself and referring to himself as a crybaby, because after that he just wouldn't stop crying. He is such a pure example of the typical male out of his element, coming into the yoga ideal. He followed all the rules brilliantly until finally the yoga penetrated and he was in such unknown territory. But he was strong enough to face it. And I watched this man's world change.
I could tell you dozens and dozens of stories like this.
What sort of spirit are your students looking for, and where else have they looked?
For a lot of my students, looking for God outside themselves never really worked, and it didn't work for me, either. It still seemed like there was a God who was judging. That if you made choices that went against that point of view, you would suffer somehow.
My message is there's no right, wrong, good or bad, and there's no God judging. It's just opportunities for experiences. If I make a choice and there's fear in it, I always have this sense that Spirit's kind of rolling his eyes at me, saying, "Well, that's interesting. I wouldn't have chosen that. I guess you still have some stuff you've got to learn here." My students are very comfortable about the idea that real spirit has always existed within their own heart. They like the idea of being able to create it for themselves.
But you're very vocal about yoga being a ritual and a devotion. Doesn't that make some students feel it's a more of a religious practice, vs. just a way to connect to a feeling of spirit?
I do see ritual as a way of connecting with spirit. What I'm trying to invoke is the energy of the symbolic nature of yoga.
We get on our mats, we start to pop out this stuff — upward dog, strengthening my bones ... Frankly, it just starts to lose its interest. But when I step on that mat and recognize that I can use this time to pray for peace or dedicate the practice to somebody I love, or someone I need to forgive, the practice takes on a very different energy. More generous, more elegant, more connected to the heart of the practice, which is love. It is a ritual, like lighting incense or lighting a candle. It's earthier, more sensual. But I don't see it so much as a religion. A religion to me is so classified — it's organized and tribal-minded. Spirituality is unique to the individual. It's an independent endeavor, an art.
Yoga is physical, psychic and symbolic. Weaving all three of those elements together is the closest way I can communicate with God.
What does "God" mean to you?
It's the light within my own heart and soul, the light and energy that exists in all living things. It's what unites us. I talk about my impression of God in a lot of my classes. In creating sacred space, which is what the yoga room is, you are never closer to God than you are right now. How can you not talk about it? It's one of the things within the yoga community that I feel like saying, "Shame, shame." How do you not use that word?
I refuse to be intimidated by that word or concerned about what other people think it means. I don't want people to buy into my interpretation, either. It's creative, unique to the individual. My hope is that they'll interpret it for themselves and take comfort in hearing the word said out loud in the context of their yoga practice.
Does your popularity in the West seem like a contradiction? Hasn't America embraced yoga partly because many programs and classes here tone down its spiritual elements?
Definitely. But I don't care what it takes, as long as you get into the room. I would rather someone tone down the spiritual aspect if they can get Joe and Jane to do yoga. Joe might do it just as physical; he's just going to get healthier and feel better. But Jane might hear something the teacher says. It might be subtle, but it might touch something in her and inspire her to go buy a book. And then all of a sudden, she's starting to explore other realms of yoga.
It's going to take different styles, teachers and methodologies to draw people in. I think the contradiction really lies within myself. I present a physical image that seems very Western and modern, and I hope a little more relatable. What I'm teaching is quite the opposite.
You use the reference "body prayer" a lot. Is this a way of making spirituality more accessible to Westerners?
In our culture, we're so physically oriented. We like the five-sense reality. We feel safe with it. When we use our bodies as an expression of prayer, it gets our minds very, very quiet. Traditional prayer is much more mind-spirit oriented. Is body prayer better? No, it's just a different expression of it. A more activated version, just like when you see T'ai Chi or someone who's really dancing. There is such a connection with the natural realm, in the way things move — your heart beating and the blood flowing through your veins. How more connected can you get to spirit than in your own humanity and your own body?
It's a much more embodied expression of prayer than, "Dear God, please make my life easier. God, give me a house. God, take away this pain in my shoulder." Body prayer is, "OK, reveal to me. Let me stay open to whatever you need me to understand today."
I need about two hours of yoga a day to be somewhat pleasant [laughing]. I'm an intense woman, and I carry a lot of the energy of my world in my body. Yoga opens my heart and I become more vulnerable. When I'm not vulnerable, my head is in the way and I start to try to control everything in my environment. A lot of people who are attracted to this style of yoga are very similar. They need to work through their body to feel their hearts. Oh my God, and once they do ... Change can happen. These are creative, intense people. They're the ones that can get things done in this world.
What do you most want people to learn from you?
I want people to get involved in the world. Use your talents and that energy purposefully to make change happen. And I think my most important message is for people to take responsibility for their life. Our generation still tends to define our lives by our wounds: I am an alcoholic. I am a child of sexual abuse. My parents were divorced. I have abandonment issues. There's a time in the healing process for blaming; it's one way we come to understanding. But then we have to see that while it's an aspect of who you are, it's certainly not the whole. Once we can separate ourselves from that victim mentality, that's when the possibility for real spirituality can happen.