After my interview with Matthew Sanford a few years ago, I started thinking about yoga. I had dabbled in it intermittently across the years, but until very recently the structure of my life did not yield happily to new “non-essential” commitments. I would sign up for a weekly class and then only attend once or twice.
Then I discovered a studio with a full and flexible schedule — drop in classes literally morning, noon, and night — and I was off. Initially — and this is how Seane Corn describes her experience too — I was mostly aware of how good the physical workout felt. (I’m doing “core power yoga” — a fusion that is indeed more of a sweaty workout than I’d experienced in yoga classes before.) But at some point a few months on, I realized that yoga was working in far more significant ways on my energy, my sense of spiritual and mental well-being, the way I moved through the rest of my life.
Several of my colleagues were nearly simultaneously going through a similar process with yoga in their off-hours. And we’re not special or strange in this. The past few years have seen a surge of cultural and journalistic attention — some wary, some appreciative — to the way yoga has suddenly taken in cities, small towns, schools, and workplaces. Perhaps I’m justifying the fact that this show, as much as any we’ve done, indulged an enormous curiosity that has grown in me privately as well as professionally. But when I read Sebastian Faulks’ James Bond redux novel and found that he has the Chief Spymaster M instructing his agents to practice yoga for strength and focus, I felt we had no choice but to at least devote an hour to it.
Seane Corn is a wonderful and surprising voice for this exploration. She is a master teacher and a star in the ever-expanding universe of yoga teachers and trainers. She appeared as the beautiful face and body of yoga in a Nike “goddess” ad campaign. But the cadence and intensity of her voice — as she’s quick to point out with some pride — reflects a blue-collar New Jersey upbringing and the fact that she is one of life’s fighters.
Nothing in her early life prefigured her current embodiment of yoga’s alignment of strength, energy, and grace. She left home and school to move to New York City at 16, found work as a waitress, and partied hard. She discovered yoga at 19, as she was on the edge of sanity. She had been battling an undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder, which she believes was connected with an episode of childhood sexual abuse.
The drama of Seane Corn’s story makes for a fascinating conversation. But she is also a very down to earth guide into the basic facts about the practicalities and power of yoga.
I’ve written a more personal essay about the changes this practice has affected in me — the very unexpected lessons it has brought to the rest of my life. On this point, too, the intensity of Seane Corn’s story is compelling. But it also throws into relief parallel experiences I’ve had and heard about in others that have practiced yoga in varying forms and degrees. She had been practicing yoga for years until one day she was filled, walking home, with an utterly strange sensation, which she finally understood to be a sense of joy, of happiness.
Her practice of yoga is thoroughly interwoven, at this point, with her understanding of grace, God, and love. The way she comes at that — and expresses it — is anything but light and airy. The joy and love at the heart of yoga drive her to be ruthlessly honest about the darkness in herself and to face the darkness in the world. She takes yoga’s sense of the teacher in every experience with utter seriousness — working with organizations helping get teenage prostitutes off the streets, for example, from Los Angeles to Cambodia.
Like meditation, this ancient spiritual technology lends itself to interpretation and incorporation with many spiritual sensibilities and religious traditions — just as its range of practices are adaptable to any type of body at any stage of vitality or disability. I also see this yoga phenomenon as part of a larger move that we’ve variously explored towards rooting — or rather, reintegrating — the body into spiritual and religious traditions, from Judaism to Pentecostal Christianity. There is some wonderful, fundamental insight here that many of us are reclaiming from wildly different directions. And as Matthew Sanford still so memorably put it to me, the more completely we inhabit our own bodies with both their strengths and their flaws, the more compassionate we become towards all of life. That’s the kind of earthy, reality-based mystery I love.