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Sunday, July 28, 2013

the french connection: what crossing the atlantic has taught me about yoga

I just came back from the US for my annual family visit and, as always, was marked by some of the prominent cultural differences between my old home in the American West and my new home in the South of France. Granted, given my former career in cultural exchange, I tend to see nuances of cultural difference in everything, and there is nothing new about France and America's mutual love-hate relationship. For years, Americans (and especially American women) have been mining the French lifestyle for tips on how to incorporate a bit of their "je ne sais quoi" (see French Women Don't Get Fat,  and more recently, Bringing Up Bébé - released under the title French Children Don't Throw Food in the UK).

But what do the French have to teach us Americans about our beloved yoga? This is the question I asked myself when I was invited to teach a French-themed yoga class at Le Cercle Community Yoga Studio in Basalt, Colorado last month.

First of all, let's be clear: yoga as we know it today in the West, and especially vinyasa yoga, is "a distinctly American phenomenon," a fact underlined by the recent court ruling in favor of continuing to allow yoga instruction in schools in Southern California as a non-religious practice. In its Americanization, yoga has benefitted from medical and scientific research, and has expanded into a number of styles offering something for everyone, but very often offering a hot and sweaty mind-body workout that reflects American fitness culture and "no-pain, no-gain" values. Which is great! The incorporation of yoga into the American fitness regime has probably helped people who were adverse to working out a better dose of physical fitness and those who wouldn't be can't fathom meditating a taste of inner peace. A typical American yoga class (especially in uber-active Aspen) might move quickly from pose to pose, focus on challenging poses such as standing and arm balances, and get you dripping and panting, probably to a rockin' soundtrack.

When I arrived in Paris in 2008, this kind of class was nowhere to be found, and when you mentioned yoga to most people they would groan and mutter something about cults or old ladies. Today, the proliferation of yoga in France is largely credited to expat Americans, who are bringing their brand of happy, healthy, fun yoga to the Old World. Slowly but surely, the image of yoga is changing in France as modern styles become more available. And all the better: according to a recent New York Times article, the French are among the most pessimistic people in the world, and so maybe are perfectly poised to benefit from yoga's proven mood-boosting effects.

The French often tease Americans about their eternal cheerful optimism (i.e. "oh my god!!! so awesome!!!") but I think the major dividing line between the French and Americans lies in their orientation toward time. Optimism requires an ability to imagine the future, and possibility, whereas, according to Maureen Dowd of the NYT, French pessimism is rooted in a past-dwelling nostalgia can can leave people "trapped" or stuck. Enter yoga and its mission to unstick the body and the mind, to put oneself in positions otherwise avoidable or unimaginable, and to live fully in the present moment.

Americans and American yogis in their anything is possible-let's do it now-and bigger-and more can be a little hyperactive, a little too undisciplined and a little too dilettante. This plays out in the yoga sphere in those hyperactive classes that leave you gasping for breath, checking yourself in the mirror, bragging about your handstand-to-chaturanga while secretly nursing your injuries. American yogis might be prone to enjoying too much of a good thing, too fast.  Enter the key concept behind the French Paradox: taking your time, and enjoying good things in moderation. This applies to all good things, be they food, wine, fashion, makeup, or exercise, that in excess turn, well, not-good.

sometimes less is more.

So my new mantra after 5 years in France is SLOW DOWN AND ENJOY. And even sometimes DO LESS. Sticking to that is often hard and frustrating for me, but it has also helped me to find a little more balance in my yoga, put a little more sukha in my sthira, practice more restorative, more savasana, and languishing in the pleasure of practice.


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