you're reading...
Asana Practice, Buddhist Traditions, Mindfulness, Modern Postural Yoga, Social Issues, Yoga Cultural History, Yoga Philosophy

YogaNerd Beef: Lovingkindness and Adam Levine’s teacher

This post was originally published under the AskYogaNerd blog on Sep 23, 2013.

Admittedly, the word “beef” seems inappropriate in a yoga column, not only in the sense of cow but also in the Urban Dictionary sense of the word: “to have a grudge or start one with another person.” Not only is this against the principle of ahimsa, non-harming thoughts words, and deeds, but it is also against the related idea frequently featured in meditation, sometimes translated into English as lovingkindness, although also benevolence or friendliness. And yet it is a beef I have.

I find the pop music connection and the deep struggle I have practicing lovingkindness toward Chad Dennis, teacher to Maroon 5 lead singer Adam Levine, can only be summed up by this word. I am choosing this word carefully, largely because coming from a nerdy yoga girl like me it sounds especially ridiculous. In the hip hop world, while sometimes meaning a very serious and deep rivalry, it began to be used for record label promotional tactics and occasionally symbolizes something being hyped up but essentially harmless.

I use this word because I genuinely mean the man no harm, and indeed no disrespect as a human or yoga practitioner, but I have a major grudge with him that despite my best efforts I cannot surrender, absorb, or overcome with lovingkindness, although the principle is one I try to take to heart. While it is not directed at him as a Person, my beef is directed at his choices.

As a yoga nerd, I am struggling…

Here’s the thing: I’m sure Chad Dennis is a wonderful fitness instructor. According to his website, he is certainly more qualified to teach vinyasa than I am and I’m sure his execution of asana is impressive. His biography from his official website “Metta4Yoga”, shown below,states he has studied for 15 years, and has studied under highly knowledgeable and deeply respected [YogaNerd Note (YNN): although some maybe not as deeply respected as they once were] teachers:

Some may point out that I am hardly in a position to criticize considering I started practicing yoga in 2003, only 10 years ago. While I assisted and occasionally taught yoga for many years before Yoga Alliance registered training, I did not start teaching yoga as a formal profession until end of 2010/early 2011. Not only that, my personal practice tends more toward the inner, philosophical and meditative aspects of yoga than the hardcore physical practice and a serious Ashtanga yoga practitioner will have far better asana form than mine.

Not only has he taught for far longer, he’s studied under a number of big name teachers, and while I’ve attended workshops, read books or watched videos by some of them (or read headlines about), I have never personally studied under them. Even if his study was brief, for instance a one-time conference or workshop, I think it is important to cite your sources because it defines your position. I list some of the teachers I’ve attended workshops with [YNN GrammarPS: with whom I’ve attended workshops] because people can tell what my point of view is likely to be.

I have also often mentioned how my teaching experiences in other disciplines from 2003 on have informed my practice and vice versa. Not only has Dennis practiced longer, and studied with more master teachers, but he has also been apparently teaching in general longer than I have, as his old bio in Google Cache states he has been “Studying and practicing yoga for almost 15 years and teaching in NYC since 1997.” This means he has been teaching for at least a year longer than he has been practicing yoga (if that paragraph was written this year.)

Yet despite his superior qualifications on many fronts, I would never, never, take a class from him and I can’t recommend him to other yoga nerds. I should probably explain how I came across Mr. Dennis’s instruction in the first place for you to truly understand my beef.

I came across his website in January, after finding an article about his work with Maroon 5.[YNN: After seeing Levine’s SNL performance on the Saturday night of the 2013 San Francisco Yoga Journal Conference, I suspected he had an Ashtanga/Vinyasa that may have started in a Bikram class, and I wanted to see how I did on my prediction. Also, I had a Sanskrit seminar with Kate Holcombe early that morning and tried (and failed) to translate his Devanagari tattoo. Tapas, BTW. Got stuck on “sa”.] In fact, Chad Dennis’s site says he is currently on tour with the band.

Adam Levine is notorious for his “yoga body,” frequently featured unclothed in Maroon 5 videos and usually surrounded by equally disrobed models. [YNN: Although occasionally just disconnected and disembodied clay female body partsObjectification PS: Did you know that although the story of Pygmalion is from antiquity, Galatea didn’t even warrant a name until the Early Modern? Full disclosure PS: I have the mp3 of this song. It was the only way to kill the earworm.] Levine is often willing to discuss publicly how yoga aides in his success. A recently published article in fact uses Levine to demonstrate Dennis’s poses and promote what a Fox News reprint calls “Manly Yoga.” So, even a casual reader (particularly one who was alive in the eighties but doesn’t use the acronym TLDR and has read this far) might ask, “Where’s the beef?”

Patient reader, allow me a moment to return to the idea of lovingkindness. This idea is associated with Buddhism, and is one of the “divine abodes”, also known as brahmavihāras. The Metta Sutta, a key text in the Theraveda Buddhist canon, specifies 4 states of being to cultivate. The others include compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.

If the word “sutta” looks familiar, it is because it is linguistically related the the Sankskrit word “Sutra”, as in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra-s. [YNN: For this article, I am adopting the not uncommon convention of using a hyphen to indicate that the grammatical ending of -s for plural is not original to the Sanskrit word.] Sutta is Pali, the language largely associated with canonical Buddhist writings. Now dead, it was an ancient language of the Indian subcontinent related to but not descended from Sanskrit, and especially associated with the region now known as Sri Lanka.

While these ideas are closely associated with Buddhism, they also show up in the Yoga Sutra-s, a significant text in the Hindu Darshana of Yoga, as well as Modern Yoga. In the Yoga Sutra-s list of meditative practices for yoga, Sutra 1.33 on the contemplation of these four qualities is the first example. Many scholars have found this particular sutra of note because it signifies the merging of Buddhist and Hindu ideas. Generally, in the Hindu yoga world, the ideas are sourced to the Upanishads, which spanned many centuries of time, some before and some after the writings of the Buddha. Dating of the Upanishads is problematic, and some argue that they are not examples of the Hindu basis for Buddhist thought, the argument that allowed Buddhist culture to be re-enveloped and assimilated back into the Hindu majority. The dating of the Yoga Sutra-s is equally challenging, although the range spans a far shorter amount of time and after the time of Buddha.

While the values themselves are above the petty divisions of of our material world, to some people they also represent a cultural history of two belief systems of yoga pulling at each other. Some writers in the yoga community have traced the tensions between the systemsthrough the Classical period of the Yoga Sutra-s, the Medieval Period of Hatha Yoga, the post-colonial period of Modern Postural Yoga, and even in the rhetoric of today’s 21st century emerging styles and hybrids. To some Buddhist communities that have deep histories in Indian Hindu culture, it can even be a signifier of how the Buddhist and Hindu political histories turned out as they have. In fact, this Sutra could be seem as representative, emblematic, of the deep tensions present in American Buddhism today: the separation and/or unification of Buddhist and Hindu communities, the fragmenting of the various Buddhist communities spread across Asia, and the sometimes studiously adopting, sometimes shallowly co-opting of Buddhism in today’s white Western society.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, Metta Matters. Although, so does Maitri. Because, just as Sutra is the Sanskrit stem for the Pali language Sutta, Maitri is the Sanskrit word for the Pali word, “Metta.”

It’s OK if you didn’t know about any of this. I’ve noticed that the pop-culture postmodern 21st century Western yoga community (of which I’m definitely a member!) has gotten really into Metta lately without always noting its linguistic or cultural origin. Not everyone is as concerned with a cultural history, or philosophical complexity, or even that people speak different languages (although many are). The average student doesn’t really get exposed to the deeper background until they have been studying for some time. I think, as a teacher and as a practitioner, it is important to study yoga not just as a physical practice or even as an academic field, but as a profound, meaningful and complicated practice that has many religious, philosophical and cultural forms and a very long and sometimes painful social, historical, and political impact on the world. I think we need to remember that there is a history before us, and we need to honor that not only through our action but through our study.

You might think that my beef with Chad Dennis is that he used a word that has such a beautiful meaning and intent for his commercial venture “Metta 4 Yoga” but I have no problem with that, nor that he merged a Pali word, Metta, with Yoga, a word usually associated with Sanskrit. I have no problem with someone choosing a more popular version of the word that might encourage his clientele to delve more deeply into the practice, or choosing to express that he follows what he considers a Buddhist approach to yoga. More power to him!

After all, Dennis’s primary client once said in Details magazine, ” ‘I don’t like how people bullshit about how yoga is not about vanity.’ Not that [Levine] doesn’t appreciate the spiritual benefits—Levine sees his routines as a therapeutic antidote to the distortions of his career.” If Dennis chooses to introduce philosophy via his corporate brand because it works for his students, so be it! Look, if your house payment is coming from a guy who got into yoga because Weights made my neck thick, and I would be like, ‘I’m turning into a monster!’ “ then perhaps introducing some deeper ideas with a spoonful of sugar is in order. I don’t disagree with this, especially if introducing them to yoga in an accessible, student-directed way allows them to explore and progress in the future rather than discount the practice.

As someone arguing for multiple paths and comparative studies, I can’t fault Levine for not wanting to fit some of the cliched yoga molds he sees represented in the media. As quoted in this recent Men’s Health interview conducted during a yoga modeling photo shoot:

‘There’s a very specific yoga cliche: Eat these foods, wear these clothes, believe only these things,’ Levine says. ‘I don’t want to be that.’ He just knows his yoga practice works for him. ‘It’s made me more successful. I love it and don’t know what I’d do without it.’ (Check out Levine’s favorite yoga poses.)

 With that, under Dennis’s watchful eye, he’s back into the steady, rhythmic flow of asanas: Warrior. Sage. Peacock. Monkey. Pivoting effortlessly, one pose to the next.

[YNN: I left the link to the elsewhere described “manly yoga” poses intact in the quote rather than redacting it, although this link appears multiple times elsewhere in this blog post, because I think it adds something to the tone of the quote when read in the original form.]

How could I fault the kernel of Levine’s statement about going against yoga cliches and challenging limited representations of what it means to be a practitioner when I’m on record on populations ignored, patronized, or excluded in the community based on weight,philosophic outlook, or socio-economic accessibility. I too believe in promoting an alternative and inclusive image of today’s yoga practitioner, and so long as a practitioner is serious in his study of yoga, I applaud efforts to remain true to an authentic self despite the pressures supplied by unrealistic images or exclusionary, elitist, shallow views of what a yoga practitioner looks like. [YNN: Although, I confess I’m not certain Adam Levine is quite the disenfranchised party that leaps to mind when I consider the unrepresented face of yoga today, but who am I to judge? We need more guys in the community too.]

Not only am I undisturbed by Dennis being perhaps a bit coy about the origins of his philosophical business name, I also don’t have a problem with Dennis naming his celebrity yoga fitness business with “yoga lifestyle” buzzwords. I myself have used a “Yoga-ish” word + Yoga naming model, so I am hardly in a position to criticize. As a tongue-clucking grammarian I must tut-tut at combining them via a number a la Twitter and Prince (yeah, you heard me), but that’s nitpicking, really. (Perhaps I’m being too literal and he was going for some kind of metta4.) These trivial little concerns are the reasons one practices lovingkindness in the first place: to prevent the trite, nitpicking voices from seeming so all-important. It is easy sometimes for the (post)modern, Western Yogi to get caught up in nonsense. Meditation helps us to see which battles are worth fighting, and which are not.

I don’t have beef with Dennis’s business featuring a seeming mish-mash of Eastern cultures between its Pali + Sanskrit name and the characters that I think are a form of Chinese writing in the background and border. I am unfamiliar with the Chinese language personally, but as this is his website, I assume it is something related to the idea of Metta from some Buddhist text rather than just some random symbols he saw on a hipster tattoo parlor wall. I have no problem with someone combining or contrasting languages and cultures as an overall symbol of unification or approaching an idea from multiple angles. I don’t even have an issue with the Flash video intro at the beginning, although I generally prefer sites that tell me what I want to know instead of making me sit through a media presentation before I can click anything, but that is a personal issue. It had a “skip intro” button. No beef.

I have no problem with someone having a less nerdy path than mine, or a more athletic one, or even a celebrity-status, commercially-endorsed, famous one. I can extend lovingkindness to others because I can exercise compassion. I imagine that it is a grueling life to be on tour. I imagine the physical demands are tremendous. And I understand that sometimes people need to practice a more active, or disciplined, or primarily physically expressed form of yoga to get the meditative value. Besides, I’m no angel by using Mr. Levine’s name in the blog title, although in my defense that was more to explain how I found Dennis’s name in the first place. And it’s not like I named this something cheesy like “No Metta4Maroon5Yoga.” Bleah.]

Not to mention, I feel terribly prejudiced and judgmental, especially considering how little time I actually spent looking at his site. Honestly, I didn’t spend that much time on his background, or even watching his video of Ashtanga Surya Namskar A complete with nicely executed jump back to chaturanga dandasana. Plus, Dennis has probably has done a lot of good, publicizing yoga to the general population who read about his practices in Details Magazine and Men’s Health (and later reprinted on Fox News’s website to more effectively cross-promote Levine’s NBC/Universal show The Voice and Maroon 5’s current tour.) [YNN: The Details magazine article is from two years earlier, but the description works for it as well.] While the showy, somewhat commercial side of yoga is ugly, I have a Zazzle store with pithy T-shirts and I’m posting blogs with celebrity names in the titles. I cast no stones.

But no matter how hard I try, whenever I think about Chad Dennis and lovingkindness this appears in my mind:
“Metta, in Sanskrit, …”

And there’s the beef, or there’s the rub if you prefer. Because it was the first real sentence I read on his website, and once seen cannot be unseen.

Up there, in the bio, fittingly just after the “Skip Intro,” but set above the 15 years of knowledgeable teachers.

And I am struggling. As a yoga nerd, I understand that not everyone is a scholar, and there are many aspects to intelligence and many valuable skills and arts in the world, and I try to be a compassionate and forgiving person but… Why couldn’t Chad Dennis have gotten around to doing this before he counted out the cash for a domain and website?

Be aware, if this were Adam Levine’s personal blog about his yoga experience, I wouldn’t care. But I genuinely feel that if a person intends to set him- or herself up as a teacher, a purveyor of information to others, then they have accepted a far greater responsibility than the student to be knowledgeable and clear in the meaning and ideas they are planting and cultivating in others.

I have no qualms about teachers who choose to follow certain aspects of yoga teachings and not others, particularly in a postmodern world of householders There are so many paths and we cannot possibly walk all of them at the same time, and perhaps beginning on one will lead to another. However, we as a community need to start taking the job of teaching seriously, and not just assume it is the thingy that we do once we can execute a handstand. That is still just called “student.” I realize it is a lot easier to spend all day improving yourEka Pada Koundinyasana II when you don’t have a non-yoga day job, but teaching is an art of communication and guidance above and beyond the mere execution of poses.

When a teacher names his business after an idea that carries with it a cultural history significant to millions of people, the least we as teachers can do is *look it up* before choosing to propagate ignorance and misinformation. And by that I really, really, REALLY do mean “the least.”

And there’s the beef, to borrow from someone else’s massive branding efforts. It is not that someone said something wrong on the internet; it is that someone is trying to brand and profit from something in a way that suggests he didn’t take the slightest amount of time to research it. Flippancy, redaction, revision, modernization, and figurative language are all fair game in my world, but challenging a lazy will to ignorance is a battle worth fighting.

I think I will just have to start with equanimity and acceptance and work my way toward lovingkindness from there.

Although I admit disappointment in his teacher, Adam Levine’s philosophy studies seem to be making progress. While it doesn’t effectively address or counter a belief in reincarnation, I enjoyed Levine’s cautionary and collaborative treatise on the dangers of letting your consciousness get too caught up in abhinivesa (excessive clinging to life.) Maybe he just needs to spend more time hanging out with kids from Berkeley?


No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: