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Its hard not to notice the daily influence of the broader society on yoga in this country.  We see it in the slick ads, the beautiful yoga clothes, and the way we carry ourselves in the studio and amongst fellow teachers and practitioners.

Of course part of the way we carry ourselves in the studio and among our fellow yogi/nis is not always something we are very proud of.  There are aspects of the yoga business and lifestyle, which can manifest itself in backbiting, materialism, unethical business practices, exclusivity, cattiness, and passive aggression.

And so often, these aspects are ignored or covered up so as not to disturb the image of peaceful positivity – something that brings so many people to the practice.   So, whenever one dares to bring up these subjects, a palpable tension arises and some will look askance at the person who deigns to open the box that many would prefer we left closed.

According to Yoga For Cynics founder Jay Winston:

“This is, I think, the inevitable result of the religion of positivity–everybody’s supposed to be “positive” all the time, no matter how they’re actually feeling, and those who honestly express their negative emotions are shunned as “negative people.”

We’ve all heard similar stories; students feeling left out because they don’t own the latest hot yoga fashions, can’t do advanced asana, and don’t have the kind of bodies their teacher’s “favorite students” seem to have.  Or there is teacher rivalry, the acrimony we so often see when a teacher leaves to start her own studio, or the rumors, innuendo, and gossip which serve no one and harm our practice and our community.

All too often, such behavior is explained away as something to be expected in any business, or just part of living in society and not in an ashram.  All of these points, while valid and true, lead to a question that we, as a community, don’t seem to ask ourselves often enough:

As we acknowledge the impact the broader society has on the yoga community, what influence do we want to have on society?  How can we change the flow in the other direction? What gifts can we offer to the rest of the world?  How will they know us when they see us?

Are we ready as a community to be defined by the values we claim to live?

“Breathe in experience, breathe out poetry.” ~ Muriel Rukeyser   

I believe our greatest gifts are those things that we discover and develop during our times of greatest difficulty.   Among these are radical self-acceptance. fierce compassion,  and sacred honesty (to name a few).  However, I humbly submit that a valuable gift we can offer our society is to authentically live our practice – to do our best to be truthful, compassionate, disciplined, and accountable for our actions and intentions.

So what does this look like?  It’s the yoga teacher with the courage to keep it real and not try to present a perfect image to their students; it’s the person who in the middle of a misunderstanding with someone, chooses to talk to the other person and find out what is going on instead of making assumptions, it’s the person who can apologize when they’ve hurt someone, it’s the yoga community that can admit its not perfect even though its trying its best to live up to its ideals.

There is freedom in authenticity not only for ourselves, but for our students as well. As Dallas, Texas studio owner DeAnna Shires observes:

“If you’re not authentic and try to act perfect all the time, your students can put you on a pedestal and make themselves dependent on you.  Eventually, they’ll find out you’re just human and knock you off that pedestal…and they may even become disillusioned with yoga.  Covering up your own faults and insecurities only makes it harder for them to own their own imperfections and insecurities.”

Indeed, what comes along with living our values is what I call the Ninth Limb of Yoga; responsibility.  Once we learn, without beating ourselves up, to accept responsibility for our actions and intentions, we learn to accept the challenges of daily living as normal, we are less daunted when we encounter difficulty, and we can find peace within the challenges we face every day – instead of trying to escape them.  For this is how the responsibility inherent within authenticity allows us to be fearless and free.

As a child, my family went to church every week and since then, one song always stuck in my head. It was called “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love.”

What I’m really wondering is how we would apply that to our community. They’ll Know We Are Yogis By Our…what? Hot yoga pants? Great bodies? Organo-groovy lifestyle? Amazing arm balances?  Or something more meaningful?

How we, as a community, answer that question will significantly impact what direction the yoga community will take in the coming decades.

This article was originally published in Flow Yoga Magazine in 2012