Colorado Colllege Cipher: Downward Facing Dollar Sign

March 25th, 2014|


I look around the room and watch the other trainees sink into their own worlds; the only space I’m disturbing is my own.

In Sanskrit, the word yoga means union—between the body and the mind and between the self and all other beings. The practice of yoga illuminates this union and aids the individual in reaching a kind of spiritual enlightenment called Sampranjanita Samadhi, the highest meditative absorption. Unfortunately, even the most devoted yogi will not likely reach this enlightenment. Connection with the “highest self” is not a practice that involves aid from anyone else—its purpose is to achieve liberation of the soul and complete detachment from the ego. Yoga is, ironically, a selfish practice that exists to serve others.

At the end of my very first day of teacher training, our teacher, Neda, tells us to never, ever consider her as a guru. She explains how she is a student who has the distinct honor of taking her seat as a teacher, and goes on to posit how there is already a guru inside each of us.

I picture a little Indian man with a long beard occupying my heart space. I picture the same little Indian man sitting at the front of the room, taking the place of the revered Neda.

When I watched Vikram Gandhi’s recent documentary Kumaré, I discovered I’m not the only American searching for or trying to make sense of what a “guru” is: Gandhi’s documentary explores the twisted perception of what it means to be a spiritual leader. A U.S.-born Indian man from New Jersey, Gandhi reinvents his image and his lifestyle to outwardly appear as a guru. Drawing inspiration from legions of “fake” gurus in the United States and India, the filmmaker grows his hair and beard, adopts an Indian accent and calls himself “Sri Kumare.” In his new persona, Gandhi builds a legitimate following of students in Arizona, where he structures his made-up teaching around something he calls “The Mirror.” When his students look into “The Mirror,” they discover their own inner gurus; and by the time Kumare reveals his true identity to his disciples, he believes firmly in his constructed teaching.

Unlike many yoga teachers today, Neda doesn’t have any sort of corporate backing. Her fierce devotion to teaching has brought many committed followers to her studio in Atlanta, GA. Unlike many of the commercialized yoga spaces, the house of “Sri Neda” seems to truly care about its students.

Perhaps that is what the other students at Neda’s yoga studio, disciples of Kumaré, and I had in common—we needed someone to treat us with respect and love. We needed someone to make us believe that everything we needed to succeed was already inside of us.

When I moved to Colorado Springs and sought a vibrant yoga community, I found a surprise: Neda reincarnated as a Japanese New Yorker named Mike Matsumura. Mike, alongside his wife Charlotte, owns PranavaYoga Center. Located on Weber Street, the studio is a favorite location for Colorado College yogis, Springs residents and military folk alike. It is a gem amongst the commercialized yoga takeover in Colorado, built with the same intensity as Neda’s studio, strengthened by personal relationships between students and teachers. Though Mike comes from a different school of yoga, his personal yoga philosophy strikes a similar chord with that of Pravana. Instead of a gong, a harmonium invites the students to tune into their inner strength.

I recently sat down with Mike to get his take on the purpose of a personal yoga practice, the perception of the yoga community and what it means to be a guru:

Q: In what ways is yoga a personal practice? In what ways is it not a personal practice?

A: I’ve always felt like I’ve been trying to improve myself in many different ways, on and off the mat. From the practice on the mat I’ve learned to become a better person by treating myself better—not putting so many demands on myself. By nature, humans are very competitive, self-critical. It forced me to embrace that within myself from coming to the mat and practicing and also from teaching. I used to smoke like two packs a day. I was not the healthiest. You have to treat yourself well before you can start helping anybody else.

Q: What is your take on the way Americans have westernized yoga? Do you think that, in the midst of the corporate workout-yoga takeover, the practice has lost some of its integrity?

A: If it’s going to bring people to the mat, then great. But also when I talk to people who’ve been to India they say that asana [physical postures] is a very small part of the practice—if anything, they do a sun-salutation or two and that’s it. Here, in the Western world, we’ve made it into more of a group practice. In older times it was one teacher and one student and that’s how it was practiced. But here, it’s made more into a commercial world. On the flip side, if that didn’t happen, I would not be sitting here talking to you right now. I think it’s all about the intention. A lot of the time these corporations offer yoga and they have the intention, as with anywhere in the western world, to make money. And that’s okay. If that’s going to help people really spread the word about the practice of yoga then I’m okay with that.

Q: Do you view yourself as a guru? Do people treat you that way?

A: No. Not at all. They’re not here for me. Guru means teacher, but it is more than that—a guru is also someone who makes the students see the light. Anybody could be a guru, technically speaking. To me, the true guru won’t say they’re a guru—if someone says they are, run the other way. That’s why I like to put myself in the same category as the yogis who come to my class. We’re all off on the same journey to the same place. To me, I feel like a true master is someone who is egoless.

Q: What do you think of situations in which students put the teacher on a pedestal? Is the phenomenon displayed in Kumaré an accurate depiction of spirituality in America?

A: People need something to look up to. We look up to rock stars, athletes, our favorite artists—we all look up to people who’ve accomplished something. And that’s good. People need to look up to somebody to find themselves and inspire themselves. In Kumaré, of course, a lot of people are longing for someone to look up to. That’s why we have religion. You always have to believe in something, to look up to something, whether mystical or not—even atheists believe in something. People feel lost or ungrounded without that kind of leadership.

After the interview, I realized that since practicing with Mike I’ve felt that kind of leadership. Admittedly, yoga is a commercialized fad—a six-billion-dollar-a-year industry. Yet it is also a practice that succeeds in alleviating the anxieties of an increasingly ungrounded population.

Battling my ego and learning not to project or internalize anxieties has been one the greatest challenge for me in my practice. Once, I asked a friend and fellow student if she practiced hot yoga. She responded, “I go probably two times a week. Makes me feel more open.”

This reminded me that a yoga class is as spiritually “real” as the practitioner makes it. If my friend, the epitome of a yoga realist, can take hot yoga classes without sounding like a hypocrite, then it’s probably time to climb off my own high horse. It’s time to stop worrying about the tiny sounds I make when I’m late at the beginning of class. It’s time to stop projecting my own self-critical worries onto others, like judging one of the students at the practice who eats a tub of quinoa the size of a small child every weekend at practice—he just wants to eat his quinoa in peace.

And for anyone who thinks they can’t do yoga because they can’t touch their toes, I would tell them to have faith in themselves. I would echo the great Sri Kumare: “You’re making changes in your life, and you don’t need me because I don’t know anything about you. I don’t know anything at all.” At any point, we already know everything we need to know. ∼