Namaste Responsibly: WTF is Drunk Yoga and How Did It Happen?

Originally published by Shut Up & Yoga, April 2018
https://shutupandyoga.com/namaste-responsibly-wtf-is-drunk-yoga-and-how-did-it-happen/

There comes a point in a yoga teacher’s career when the teaching moves beyond the instruction of the poses, and into the realm of what it means to be a radiant human being.

Or, perhaps I should speak for myself.

Yoga to me is about learning to develop a relationship with one’s own body in time and space, for the purpose of cultivating personal joy.

And, when we have techniques to uplift ourselves, we can then work better to uplift each other–find levity in the communal.

I have experienced firsthand how the abuse of spiritual power can destroy one’s relationship to one’s “self,” a community, and to one’s personal yoga practice.

Scene 1:

During my first yoga teacher training in my early twenties, I spiraled into an abusive relationship with my yoga teacher. He was twice my age, a self-proclaimed yoga master, and a former Scientologist. Also, a bit of a Casanova, mind you, and toward me at the time, quite seductive. In the year I spent with him, he became more than my teacher; he was my boss, my lover, and eventually a roommate, and he was abusive mentally, emotionally, physically, sexually, and worst of all, spiritually. He threatened me to keep our relationship a secret. He brought other women he was dating into the yoga studio, introduced them to me, and kissed them in front of me, for the purpose of humiliating me. Like clockwork, I’d leave the office to cry. Later, he’d lecture me on how he was “teaching me a lesson about non-attachment.” According to him, I wasn’t “spiritually conscious” enough and too invested in the “ego.” I, of course, being the yoga student, felt pressured to believe him. So, yoga, to me, turned into a punishment. Yet another daily practice to remind me that I would never be whole—or at least would never meet the standards of perfection set by the elusive yoga elite required to achieve enlightenment.

There is an aspect of yogic tradition that promotes a student/master relationship—that there are the sage teachers, and they know what’s best for you. And you, being the student, do not. My relationship with this teacher was extreme in that I didn’t have the know-how to set boundaries, which caused the student/master dynamic to slide into a master/slave relationship.

In that year, despite the excessive vinyasas, meditation, and green juice, I grew extremely ill and fatigued because I was emotionally drained, stressed, and depressed. This yoga wasn’t working.

Eventually, space and time from this teacher granted me the perspective I needed to extract myself from his clutches, though it wasn’t easy. And for quite some time after, I had a bad taste in my mouth for all things “yoga.”

The tumultuous experience ignited such a personal awakening, in fact, that in response, I bought a one-way ticket to India, and backpacked by myself across the country for several months. After my quarter-life-existential trip of a lifetime, I flew to Thailand where (plot twist!) I fell through a roof and broke my back (…long story). Then, of course, I thought my journey with yoga was over for good.

Scene 2:

Upon my return to New York, I discovered Katonah Yoga, created by Nevine Michaan, which not only helped me to heal from my back injury but was a philosophical game-changer. Through her restorative Hatha practice, beautifully interwoven with Taoist theory and sacred geometry, she taught me that the universe has no personal investment in my happiness. (Gasp!) The universe will continue to run by its own laws, regardless of my feelings about them.

The universe does not care if I am happy or healthy—only I do.

And because I am the only being personally invested in the quality of my life, it is up to me to hone techniques to achieve my own sense of joy, working with the laws of nature—not in spite of them.

Infatuated with my newfound practice, I once again immersed myself in the New York yoga scene. I was trying my best to navigate a path forward, with only a loose grip on my own sense of identity, all while trying to “keep up with the Joneses.” (…And by Joneses, I mean everyone who teaches and practices yoga in Manhattan.)

Although I was happy to be practicing and teaching yoga once again, as I began to work at high-end studios and gyms, I struggled to enjoy teaching as I watched my students glued to their iPhones, carrying enormous amounts of energetic baggage. Still today, many of my students and clients cling to their stress and misery, unconsciously addicted to the overworked hamster wheel of Manhattan, burning in their desire for achievement until they burn out completely.

Scene 3:

Despite being fully equipped with Lululemon pants and a respectable Instagram following, I began to feel nauseated by the dogmatic principles of purist yogis that I found to be hypocritical. In this world, an excessive amount of gossip and criticism spewed from the mouths of those preaching non-judgment and non-reactivity. (Listen, nobody is perfect. But, if you’re in a position of power within a spiritual community, you better make sure the sun actually shines out of your ass if you make it a habit to criticize others for doing things you don’t agree with.)

Friendly reminder: just because you don’t like something someone is doing, it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily “wrong,” it just means that it makes you uncomfortable.

I think a large part of this delusion certainly has to do with social media and the perverse need to post, “like,” and be “liked” by the masses.

*For the few of you fortunate enough to have the luxury of avoiding Instagram, here’s the scoop: There is an extremely competitive component to being a yoga teacher on social media. In order to be taken seriously as a professional instructor, a yoga teacher is expected to maintain thousands of followers.

All of this is to say, the New York “yoga club” felt to me a lot like High School: where skinny, beautiful women harnessing an obscene amount of Instagram followers smile at me down their noses but never let me sit with them at the lunch table.

Scene 4:

I had no intention of making such a splash with Drunk Yoga. At least, not at the idea’s conception. One night a few months ago, while I was out at the bar Grey Lady, I was catching up with one of the owners, and I told him that I’m a yoga teacher now. He said, “I need yoga, I can’t touch my toes.” Then, he immediately proceeded to touch his toes. “Oh,” he said, surprised. “I guess I can touch my toes when I’m drunk.” (Cue lightbulb moment.) With excitement, I blurted, “Let’s do Drunk Yoga! I’ll teach a class in the bar’s back room for beginners. It’ll be fun.” He loved the idea and responded, “Sure! What should we call it? ‘Tipsy Yoga’?” I said, definitively, as if the Gods above had just granted me permission from the Drunk Yoga heavens, “No. I’ll call it ‘Drunk Yoga.’”

To my dismay, the first few classes were empty. I planned to scrap the idea, as I had a yoga retreat in Bali to plan for, and I needed to be in front of an audience. But, in one last-ditch effort to pull in a crowd, I reached out to my friend who used to write for Gothamist. I dragged her to a class, and she kindly wrote a great article about it.

As soon as her piece published, the world exploded. Or at least, my world did.

News outlet after news outlet across the globe wrote about the story. “Eli Walker’s Drunk Yoga class is the latest trend in NYC…” they said—some in a more positive light than others. Fans of the class were ecstatic, and Grey Lady and I had to whip up a website and an online reservation system to handle the influx of inquiries as Drunk Yoga went viral overnight. Nay-sayers weren’t so pleased. However, they were equally as passionate about reaching out to share their views on my new idea, chastising me for bastardizing a “sacred practice.”

But the ignorant, hateful reactions I witnessed as a result of the polarizing name “Drunk Yoga” didn’t bother me. What did bother me was the hostility I encountered from fellow yoga teachers. My teachers.

One teacher, in particular, was livid, and accused me of “teaching people how to drink.”

Let’s pause so I can take a moment to set the record straight: I’m bringing yoga to bars, not wine to yoga studios. I am not “teaching people to drink.” People already know how to do that. I’m teaching people who already drink wine how to do yoga. (And people are allowed to do both.)

Of course, I understand her initial concern for the obvious risks involved in offering alcohol to yoga practitioners. Still, it alarms me that these figureheads in the spiritual community allow themselves to be so triggered by a concept that may threaten what they know, as they preach to their followers to do the opposite.

Their feedback forced me to deeply consider my intentions for this Drunk Yoga venture. And it was then that I realized, for me to say “no” to this opportunity that was tugging at my heartstrings simply because it made my teacher uncomfortable, was not an option. I couldn’t live with myself if I’d made this impactful life decision out of fear rather than trust.

What’s more is that through all of this controversy, I realized I had touched on something much greater than our culture’s love for mixing alcohol with…everything.I realized there is a societal thirst for a breaking away from what has become an exclusive yoga elite, reserved for the wealthy, flexible, “holier-than-thou” die-hard practitioners who’ve taken a practice that teaches non-judgment and non-reactivity and used these very tenets to polish their own spiritual egos.

So, in a way, Drunk Yoga is a response to this superficial hypocrisy. Truthfully, my soul is smirking. I’m happy that I’m bringing awareness to it, however inadvertently.

Indeed, I’m glad that my work has hit a nerve with the “purists,” so that we can dare to deconstruct what yoga means once again in regards to practicing compassion and humility.

I have always had a knack for teaching yoga to non-yogis in unconventional settings (Divine Your Story for kids in Harlem Public Schools and Columbia University, Pranayama for Scuba Divers in Thailand, and Yoga for Actors at Actors Connection), so Drunk Yoga isn’t a stretch for me. I knew in my heart of hearts this would be a great way for me to bring a practice of self-love to a community of bar-goers who wouldn’t otherwise try yoga.

Drunk Yoga is not about “getting drunk.” It’s about indulging in something new and subversive because, um, hi, we’re human, and it’s healthy to have a little (okay a LOT) of fun. It’s about untangling the perfectionist syndrome and the walls we’ve worked so hard to build around an egocentric facade that screams to the world through gritted teeth, “I KNOW EXACTLY WHAT I AM DOING AND I AM INCREDIBLY HAPPY ALL OF THE TIME!”

…When, the truth is, none of us know why we’re here, we’ve got no clue what we’re doing, and we don’t know when this life will end. I’m not quite sure who decided that we’re supposed to have all the answers, even in yoga.

Drunk Yoga is for individuals who need the uplifting of community because depression and feelings of isolation in this city run rampant. But, it’s uncool to be sad (let’s blame Instagram again), so many suffer alone. And for those people, I want to create a communal container in which they can feel welcome to laugh, meet new people, have a glass of wine, and learn a few things about moving their bodies on a yoga mat sans pressure to be perfect.

Through my work, my mission is to advocate for joy cultivated through celebration of aliveness and mindful movement. All are welcome here.

 

*For more about Drunk Yoga, check out www.dodrunkyoga.com. And keep your eyes peeled for Eli’s new book, “Drunk Yoga: 50 Wine & Yoga Poses to Lift Your Spirit(s)” soon to be published in November of 2018.

 

ELI WALKER

Eli Walker is a yoga instructor, actress, and creator of Divine Your Story and Drunk Yoga. She attended New York University's Tisch School of the Arts for Acting, and has been teaching yoga professionally for over four years in NYC, LA, and internationally. She's developed her own niche teaching yoga to non-yogis in unconventional settings, challenging social norms by teaching the art of joy through empowerment. She teaches storytelling through movement to kids in Harlem Public Schools through Divine Your Story, and weekly yoga-with-wine classes all over the country through Drunk Yoga. She is also a monologue-aficionado, and as such, an avid creative writer. For Eli, writing for Shut up and Yoga feels like a match made in multi-preneurial heaven. Eli is also the author of “Drunk Yoga: 50 Wine & Yoga Poses to Lift your Spirit(s)” which will be released in November of 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

     

     

    All of Life's Coconuts

    Just last week I was rushing around my villa in Ubud, Bali, finishing a work email, cleaning up gecko poop on my porch, and packing a change of clothes in my purse. I was hurrying to leave so that I could get in line at the Yoga Barn for Friday night ecstatic dance. See, you need to arrive two hours early for tickets (but it’s totally worth it).

    As a New Yorker, even in paradise, I am perpetually living in a busy and neurotic state of mind. Or rather, how we New Yorker’s like to call ourselves, “productive.” I was so wrapped up in my tasks, in fact, that I’d forgotten about a coconut my Balinese landlord, Wiji, had opened for me earlier that morning that was still sitting on my table untouched.

    Note: I fucking love coconuts. Highlight of this year’s trip to Bali, hands down, was the unlimited coconuts gifted to me daily from my landlord’s palm tree. 

    So, it was unusual that I’d let this one slip. 

    Just then, Wiji had entered my garden with a small machete with which to chop open the coconut for me…(the good stuff’s on this inside).

    “Elliiee” he sang as he entered. He’s a small Balinese man: no shoes, always wearing the same t-shirt that says “Chicago” written across the front, un-kept hair and a huge smile. 

    Seeing him, I thought,“Shit! My coconut!” 

    I quickly grabbed the coconut and my bamboo straw and started chugging. (I’m sort of an expert coconut-chugger, and also I just really wanted the snack before dancing.)

    Seeing me do this, Wiji laughed. “Ooooh,” he said, “No worry. Slowly, slowly!”

    He then sat at the bottom of my steps, set down the mini machete and patiently waited for me to finish, looking silently off into the distance of the garden. And I sat at the top of the steps, still slurping. (Listen, it was a big coconut). 

    But then, quite suddenly, I stopped. You know when you unintentionally sort of drop into full awareness of the present moment? That happened. And, for the first time in quite some time, I released a long (yet still somewhat neurotic) exhale. 

    I observed Wiji and I, quietly sitting together, barefoot on the steps of a humble Balinese villa. The only common language we shared was a love of coconuts. Birds were chirping. 

    The Russian couple living across the fence were having their daily 5pm argument that always sounded more violent than [I’d like to think] it actually was. The sun was nearly setting. Wiji was in no rush, and I, well, envied him for it. In that moment, a wave of emotion surged in my gut, traveled to my eyes, and silently started to drip out of them in slow tears. (But I tried to play it cool, so, like, don’t tell Wiji, okay?)

    I couldn’t remember the last time I’d allowed myself to “slow down.” See, I’ve spent the last decade hustling hard as an entrepreneur in New York City, working sleeplessly to figure out a sustainable way to earn a living via my only passions--performance and yoga. And, in a nutshell, what I’ve learned is that being a successful entrepreneur in performance and yoga boils down to one thing: Instagram. 

    It’s tragic, but true. Now as I work on building my digital platforms, I am constantly brainstorming Insta-worthy photos and intelligent captions that manage to achieve that sort of “oops-look-at-me-I’m-so-enlightened-but-sort-of-accidentally-sexy-at-the-same-time.”

    Embarrassingly, even in that heartwarming moment with Wiji, I thought, “Oh, this would make a great blog post.” 

    Fast-forward to last night. I was struggling to fall asleep because of jet-lag, and so I got up to take a hot bath with some lavender oil, as this technique usually does the trick.

    It was about 1am, and there was a blizzard outside. As such, there was a snowy thickness to the silence in my studio. The only sounds that I could hear, after I turned off the bathtub faucet, of course, were the sporadic scratching and squeaking of my apartment building’s old furnace pipes. 

    In this moment of solace--sans phone, or the energy to worry about much of anything--I found myself enjoying my own company. “Wait, what?” I asked myself. “You heard me,” I responded to myself. “You’re enjoying a quality moment with yourself, so deal with it.” (Jet lag + lavender oil = mild forms of multiple personality disorder). 

    Admittedly, it was a familiar feeling, (the enjoying myself part, not the personality disorder), because I used to sneak these moments all of the time: as a child, alone in my room reciting monologues to my sleeping cat that I’d make up from the perspective of my Spice Girl doll. In middle school, watching the sunset over the infinite expanse of Wisconsin farmland on my backyard trampoline while daydreaming about my boy crushes and getting cast as the lead in the school musical (the latter being of greater importance). And in high school, coming home late at night from one of my many luxurious summer jobs (washing dishes at a local brew pub, refilling the salad bar at Pizza Hut, and car-hopping at A&W). Smelling like grease and root beer, I’d lay face-up on the front yard picnic table to steal a long moment staring at the stars, blanketed by the warm summer air, and wondering if I’d still be able to see the stars when I moved  to New York City. Even as a freshman at NYU, before I got my first smartphone, I would religiously finish my homework early (cough, nerd, cough cough) so I could spend hours on Sunday afternoons aimlessly wandering around the streets of Manhattan while listening to my iPod nano, loving everything about everything.

    Now, when I occasionally have a moment to myself, I turn to my phone and open Instagram, so I can, ahem, “be productive.” Perhaps it is a habit, but, if I’m honest, it could also be out of fear of feeling. More often than not, it’s uncomfortable to be present, because, well, being human is uncomfortable. 

    Having had the privilege to be able to turn my passions into my career, I have clearly sacrificed the value of my own presence that I once revered so greatly.

    Still, as a professional yoga teacher, it is my unfortunate duty to post competitive photos of me “practicing” and “preaching” yoga on social media. 

    But recently, sitting on those steps with Wiji, unexpected tears spilling out of my eyes (sshhhh!), I realized that if I don’t value quality time with myself, I’m living a rather wasted life.

    Forgetting how to enjoy your own company won’t make living a life any less traumatic, but it will certainly make it less fulfilling.

    So, the reflection is this: yogi or non-yogi, in order to live a fully awakened life--one of meaning and joy--we must learn to embody our experiences with full appreciation for all that being a human being entails. My advice? Challenge yourself to stop turning to your social media persona as an escape route, and take time to enjoy all of life’s coconuts--figuratively speaking.

    ...And also literally, if you’re in Bali. 

    Feelings Aren't Real

    Originally published by Shut Up & Yoga - January 2018

    “Feelings aren’t real because they change with new information.”

    The first time I heard this statement from my teacher, Nevine Michaan, creator of Katonah Yoga, I was a little offended, to be honest.

    “What do you mean my ‘feelings aren’t ‘real’?” I thought. They’re real to me…and they MATTER, damnit.

    But, after she elaborated, my own little personal planet I’d been living on for 27 years shifted on its axis. From that point forward, I started to realize that feelings are incredibly important, yes. They contribute a lot of insight into our moment-to-moment experiences and interactions with others. However, emotions embody the archetype of a wave waving. Just like the changing tides, emotions, too, ebb and flow. Anything that is by nature ever-changing, is not a universal truth. In other words, your feelings are true, but they are not the only truth. So then, to measure the quality of one’s life, or to write one’s life story in direct response to fleeting emotions, is not only unproductive but naive and reckless.

    Emotion, in fact, is chemical and often based on past experience and conditioning. In fact, we often cling to what we know, even if it is uncomfortable, because unconsciously we like to surround ourselves with the “known.”

    Most people are dissatisfied in life because they are stuck recycling the same emotional responses that lead them to familiar patterns of behavior, which do not direct them to where they need to be or even want to be.

    That is to say, what most people need to do in order to achieve personal happiness is not what they know. (If they knew it, they’d do it already.) So, the magic of yoga is that it provides the opportunity for one to see another angle, or a new perspective, that might take one’s experience beyond the personal and into the universal, where infinite possibilities for happiness are available.

    The question is not,“is this true or is that true?” It’s all true. All of it. The question is, “why are you seeing this truth and not that truth?

    Because of this, when I’m in a yoga class and I hear a teacher preach something to the effect of, “Follow your feelings,” or, “Do what feels good,” I want to jump off my mat, grab them by the shoulders and scream, “No! Feelings don’t take you where you need to go! YOU do!”

    You see, a deadly error we often make is to think that our feelings are out of our control, and that they come from an external source – that they happen TO us, rather than because of us. Negative.

    Nothing is happening to you. Things happen in your awareness and through awareness, you can make things happen.

    Personally, I teach that you should follow your feelings until you find the source of them, which is always you. Then you can redirect your feelings to tell whatever story you want.

    Taoism, as well as many other esoteric practices and religions, play with the idea of “trinity” as a tool to understand personal empowerment. In the middle of every polarity, there is a center (you) mediating your experience of it. (Ex: For every up, there is a down. For every left, there is a right. For every front, a back, and for every circumference, there is a center.) You, the sutra atman (the threaded self), have the power and pleasure to decide how much up to how much down. How much left to how much right. How much yes to know, good to bad, happy to sad, etc. You write your life story by playing polarity, whether you’re conscious of it or not. (Here’s a good video of my teacher Nevine explaining this.)

    All of this said, I do encourage my students to explore their feelings, because “every piece of you is a part of your narrative,” and creating space to explore one’s own interior landscape is at the core of why we do yoga in the first place. However, I also challenge them to consider that these feelings could easily change with new information – a new perspective. Change the direction you are looking, and you’ll change the memories behind you. Shift your focus and you’ll change your narrative. Churn up your body’s alchemy through movement, breath, laughter, and healthy food, and you’ll begin to hone the skill that is responding to your circumstances consciously, rather than reacting to them as if your immediate truth is the only reality that exists.

    Now, let’s recap. What did we learn today, readers?

    Ahem. Learn to feel your feelings, wholly and completely! Explore them, move them, and be enriched by the insight that they give you about your experience in this life. But do NOT “follow” them under the delusion that they will take you to where you need to go. Don’t let your feelings tell you what to do. Don’t let them rule your work, your relationships, or your yoga practice.

    You decide what truth you would like to subscribe to in each and every moment. Because, after all, you are the author of your own story.

    Rituals: "Doing is Believing"

    Published by Happy Girl Yoga August 6th, 2016. 

    I’ve never been one for rituals. Not for bedtime, not for the morning, not for any time in between. I’ve always done what I wanted, when I wanted. I’m a “live-in-the-moment” kinda lady. (I am an Aries rising, after all.) Rituals and traditions always seemed so arbitrary to me. Consistency never served me because I never let it. 

    It wasn’t until I returned from backpacking across Asia and had to start my life back in New York from the ground up that I began to appreciate the value in creating routines like boundaries, or a figurative structure, like a house to live in. 

    Routine has become essential to my recovery. And although it took me a while to develop... behold, my newly found bedtime ritual:  (Ahem.)

    1. Light an incense stick with an intention for the next day
    2. Meditate for at least five minutes
    3. Journal at least one page + gratitude list
    4. Place a healing stone of my choice under my pillow after giving it a prayer
    5. Spray pillow with lavender essential oil
    6. Turn out the lights.

    This routine is now the difference between 8 hours of peaceful, rejuvenating sleep vs. a night of restless, erratic sleep that leaves me pulling my past behind me like a bag of bricks for the rest of the week. 

    To be honest, there’s a part of me that resents the dependency I have for this “consistency.” To me, living in the moment is contrary to all things tradition. Tradition is living in the past. It’s blindly following guidelines someone else wrote, even if it was you...yesterday. 

    But, but, but...then why is it helping me heal so quickly? I’m sleeping better, feeling better, working better and I feel happier and more "whole" when I remember my rituals. And damnit, if I don’t write in my gratitude journal for AT LEAST two minutes each night, my sleep schedule goes to hell. 

    So I started to think about this idea of ritual more. Where did it come from? Why do humans and other animals feel so inclined to ritualize events? Making ceremony out of life, death, love and ideologies? 
    And when the answer didn’t come to me quickly enough (cough, Aries rising, cough cough), I googled it.
    That’s when I found this little nugget on Wikipedia:

    Performance
    The performance of ritual creates a theatrical-like frame around the activities, symbols and events that shape participant's experience and cognitive ordering of the world, simplifying the chaos of life and imposing a more or less coherent system of categories of meaning onto it. As Barbara Myerhoff put it, "not only is seeing believing, doing is believing."

    Of course! Performance. The ritual of acting. Something I can relate to. 

    For the same reason we act, watch theatre, and go to the movies--we tell stories so that we can better understand our human condition. It’s like looking at life in a mirror, so that we can sit in the seat of the observer and reflect on what’s important. Who we are, how we got here, where we’re going. 

    And that’s when I realized, routines/rituals/traditions etc. are not about reliving what is already past in order to somehow dodge what’s really the present, but in fact, lays the foundation for us to absorb the present moment even more profoundly.

    In other words, rituals are a homecoming. A safe haven from your journey, to touch base with where you’ve been, where you are now, and a place in which to situate yourself, with conscious deliberation, in order to succeed in where you’d like to go.