Calling yoga a source for spiritual enlightenment can be a stretch for some—literally. In her new book, Yoga Bitch: One Woman’s Quest to Conquer Skepticism, Cynicism, and Cigarettes on the Path to Enlightenment, Suzanne Morrison writes about something many yogis have struggled with: total ambivalence about the often-narcissistic, sometimes-spiritual yoga world. Morrison says it’s easy to get caught up in the complexities of all that, and wanted to share her experience as a modern American yogi who says the more she tried to find her higher self, the more she found her lower self.
When she took a drastic step and went on a two-month retreat to Bali (something she did long before Eat, Pray, Love put the idea into thousands of women’s heads), she left with a grand vision of yoga transforming her life. She writes:
Okay. So this is my visualization: I’m living in one of those thatched huts I saw in my travel book. There’s a mud floor. I’m sitting lotus style next to a straw bed in flowing white yoga clothes, the ones I saw in Yoga Journal and would buy if they didn’t cost half the price of my plane ticket.
But when she got there, she found herself often disillusioned and wanting to run:
It’s very difficult to look into the murky past and know, for sure, why we once did all the things we did. So all I can say is that I know my staying in Bali–when my brain was screaming at me to get the hell out, to go be a tourist for a few weeks and then catch an early flight home–had something to do with penance…I imagine this creator, this observer, as a sort of annoying sibling in the sky, forever calling me on my bullshit.
Ten years later, Morrison admits to still struggling with finding a balance in it all—in a very funny and real way. So we rolled out our mats and talk with her about her experience on the so-called path to enlightenment:
Who is a ‘yoga bitch’ and how did you come up with that title?
I am the yoga bitch, but all the females in the book are yoga bitches. It’s also a bit of a bitch session about yoga. It’s about me though. In spite of my cynicism, I did find myself becoming a yoga bitch. I was telling myself that I was so enlightened, and I had it all figured out. I was consumed with spiritual pride. I’m also very susceptible to the yoga commercial thing of wanting to buy the expensive yoga pants, candles and conflicted about all of that, and that can also make you a bitch.
How can someone tell if they are a yoga bitch?
I think if you find yourself looking around the class and thinking, “Wow, I’m so much better at this pose than everyone else,” then you’re a yoga bitch. Or if you find yourself looking at your teacher and thinking, “She just doesn’t get it,” then you’re a yoga bitch. There are also women who are now proud to call themselves a yoga bitch, so it’s a term that is kind of evolving. I think it’s like anything, it has a million different meanings. It can be amusing to notice those things about yourself and your ego, and it’s actually part of the process in learning about yourself.
In the book, you talk about your trip to Bali to study yoga. What happened to your plans for spiritual enlightenment?
I started off not really knowing what I was getting myself into. Then I went into a period where I learned from my teachers about it’s spirituality and a path to God. That seemed a little strong to me. I grew up Catholic and had very mixed feelings about religion and whether there was a God. Then I had a breakthrough, and it opened up my mind a lot. That became an ego trip and it was extremely destructive to go through something like that. I actually think it’s funny that someone can go on an ego trip about something spiritual.
It didn’t turn out as planned?
It didn’t right away. I left Bali feeling kind of disillusioned about yoga and my teachers, but it planted a lot of seeds that transformed me later in my life. Transformation doesn’t automatically happen over night. Over time, you keep thinking about those things you learned. I have thought about those concepts every single day and have continued to practice yoga off and on. Transformation happens over time.
You talk about a hilarious–albeit disgusting–ritual that yogis in Bali do, which is drinking their own urine. Is that just indicative of “drinking the Kool-Aid” so to speak and not buying into everything some yoga teachers want us to believe?
I don’t think it’s just yogis. After I performed a show in New York, a guy who I worked with told me he drinks his pee too. He is an opera singer, and he would do it if he had a sore throat. But yes, it’s absolutely indicative of maybe trying things that are outside of your comfort zone. We should all try things outside our comfort zone–but not so far out like drinking your own pee.
I love how you talked about people farting in your yoga class. “So I simply can’t keep it together when my placid-faced yoga mates start honking at each other like Ganesha the elephant god,” you write. Why can’t all yogis laugh at stuff like this?
They transcend the farts. They are more mature than I am, apparently. What I thought was so funny is these really serious yogis who stand there farting up a storm with a completely placid look on their face. They just don’t get attached to their farts. If it were me, I would be laughing and so embarrassed. A lot of them are so focused though and so concentrated on their practice that these things don’t matter.
You talk about some yoga studios being all about money and the industry being littered with people like a “spokesyogini” for Visa. Do you now think yoga is just for the purists?
No, I’m actually just as conflicted about it as I’ve always been, but I am now better able to get over that and just do the practice. I’ve found my practice is not contingent on what’s happening in the yoga industry. Ultimately, there’s more good in that than bad, even though philosophically it’s incoherent to want to teach this practice and make a lot of money from it. I’ve been able to move on though and not let it bother me.
What’s the worst thing a yoga teacher can do, in your opinion?
Manipulating a student’s emotions is as bad as it can get. You definitely see this in the yoga world. Some teachers try this with money and say things like, “If you were able to let go of money and not be greedy, you’d be able to contribute to this.” Or, “You’re not putting yourself first or putting your practice first or contributing to the yoga community.” I think there are a lot of really young, earnest yogis who will buy into the fact that if they don’t spend enough on their yoga practice, they’re not going to get anything out of it.
How about a student? What’s the worst thing someone practicing yoga can do?
Two things: One, believe that the way you look has anything to do with yoga–like how you look in the poses or in general. Like how you seem. The other is to look around and consider yourself to be better than anyone else, particularly the beginners. It’s so hard and those things take constant practice. You have to constantly ask yourself, “Am I trying to seem something or am I trying to be someting? Oh, and one other thing yogis should never do: take themselves too seriously. We should all have a sense of humor about the whole thing becuase it’s all terribly funny.
Photo: Yoga Bitch