Sunday, June 7, 2009

The strawberry's a raspberry

The yoga studio I attend follows the Anusara school. Classes are steeped in tantric philosophy, and the core concept is "opening to grace". We start class with a chant, but first, the teachers are expected to enlighten us with a story that sets the theme for the day. This might relate to the physical practice - such as maintaining the balance between muscular energy and flexibility, or the mental practice - say, letting go of poisonous thoughts.

As a skeptical, non-religious person, it took me a while to adjust to Anusara's emphasis on Hindu spirituality. I'm not much of a monotheist as it is, and adding on gods just multiplies my doubts. But it's a terrific workout, and I do believe yoga has emotional benefits as well. It has helped me face day-to-day challenges with greater equanimity, fixate less on my problems, control my anger and tolerate fools just a wee bit more gladly. I suspect my many hours in down dog have kept me from strangling my incredibly challenging 16 year old son. Plus, I can now do a handstand against the wall, which is quite an achievement for a woman in her middle years who couldn't even manage a cartwheel as a kid.

Recently, I showed up and the studio was packed. A popular teacher was in town, subbing for his sister. It turned out to be a great class: He really kicked our butts.

If only he hadn't treated us to the parable of the strawberry.

Way back in time, there was just the first man and the first woman - and the gods, for whom watching the first couple was like ancient reality tv. So one day, First Woman asks First Man "Am I the most beautiful woman in the world?" To which the dimwit answers "Well, honey, you're the ONLY woman in the world". First Woman marches off in a fit of pique, leaving First Man looking sheepish and wondering what he did wrong.

In an attempt to get First Woman to chill, the gods go on a charm initiative. Flowers bloom in time-lapse and exhale their perfumes as she walks by. Trees lob perfectly ripe apricots at her. Butterflies encircle her with flashes of nacreous color. But First Woman's got her sulk on and she's sticking to it. Just as she's worked herself into a full-blown hissy fit, she comes upon a patch of strawberries, plump and jamming sweet. Overcome by rage, First Woman starts stomping on the berries like a frustrated toddler, releasing a pink cloud of fruity fragrance. The scent proves irresistible and she suddenly finds herself scarfing down berries by the handful.

In the middle of this feeding frenzy comes First Man, contrite and ready to grovel. But First Woman smiles up at him with juice running down her face and croons, "Hi, honey!" She has forgotten all about their big conflict. As the yoga teacher explains, "She's been touched by grace."

Or maybe bulimia.

I guess if you have a non-problem like your husband not being willing to stroke your ego often enough, strawberries might do it. But if your kid is on drugs, or your spouse is leaving you for a same-sex partner, or the bank's about to foreclose on your house, even strawberry Haagen Dazs won't make it better. The parable of the strawberry is not enlightening – it's 1960s sitcom. The woman in the story is a narcissistic twit. Her behavior is a waste of time and energy and has diminishing returns, and this story revolves around outdated, sexist, stereotypes of the irrational woman fishing for compliments and the bone-headed guy wondering what do women want? But it's not the actual parable of the strawberry that disturbs me the most. It's the fact that the intelligent, educated, professional women around me were eating it up.

I am fine with the basic idea of feeling connected to nature and the life cycle. It resonates more with me than the notion of a big bearded man in the sky. But like many contemporary people, I don't need symbols and metaphors to illuminate abstract ideas. If my yoga teachers must wax philosophical, I prefer they dispense with the fables.

My friend and favorite yoga instructor is a naturalist with a masters in the study of jelly fish. She worked on the Monterey Aquarium at its inception. Her classes have themes based on nature and sometimes science. And she never tells stories about Kali, Lord Ganesh or the first man and woman. Tantric philosophy resonates with my friend's deep connection to nature, respect for the planet and general world view, but like any true scientist, she doesn't buy into mythologies.

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