Noah Mazé – Ancient Yoga in a Modern World
What is yoga, anyway? How does a lively, inspiring festival on the beautiful island of Bali relate to an ancient practice of self-observation and austerity? What are the common threads linking these wildly differing experiences across the ages?
These are some of the questions rattling around my head as I make my way to my first class of the festival, an arm balance workshop with Noah Mazé.
One reason I’m so keen to take Noah’s classes is that his name jumps off the schedule at me as someone I’ve heard of, and therefore am especially curious about. I remember reading a Yoga Journal article of his, describing the path towards Hanumanasana. Plus, of course, he’s well-known as a former prominent Anusara teacher. Nowadays, he leads teacher trainings, classes, and workshops under the YogaMazé brand.
I’m interested in exploring the intersection between yoga and celebrity culture, and I’ve chosen to do it with a man who could legitimately be termed a yoga celebrity, and who lives and teaches in Los Angeles, the epicentre of celebrity culture. Hashtag irony.
Noah Mazé’s own teaching style is fairly old-school, and he eschews the trappings of flashiness that characterize some modern classes. He doesn’t play music. He invites us, with demonstrations, adjustments, and precise movement cues, to focus on our experience of our bodies in yoga poses. It’s an interesting contrast for a teacher so well-known, and so much in demand.
In the age of the Instagram selfie, it strikes me that this may be a way of protecting the sacredness of his yoga classes. Later, he tells me that he wants to give people an experience of dwelling exclusively in the present moment, and that he’s not convinced music supports this. It’s as though, in exchange for accepting the media circus that follows him around, he expects the right to protect himself and his students from distractions during classes.
Noah is a fascinating paradox. He embraces the multiple personae of the modern yoga teacher (celebrity, businessperson, spokesperson) and, simultaneously, it seems, stands up for the more traditional role of the teacher: the spiritual guide who marks out a space in the chaos of the world and invites his students into a new experience of themselves.
Once classes are finished, he poses affably for photographs with groups of students. As we talk, he tells me a story about his blonde, six-year-old daughter being picked up by a stranger and used as a prop in their photo. He’s relaxed about it.
He used to push back against the culture of photographing everything that moves, he says, but he’s come to accept it. Again, it’s a far cry from the traditional image of the yogi or renunciate. And yet, I’ve come to believe, that’s OK.
Yoga has, in fact, always been mediated by society and culture. The early yogis lived in rigid caste systems that determined the parameters of their lives. If they were born cobblers, cobblers they would die. To escape from such strictures, they had little choice but to reject the demands of society entirely and seek a new path.
For those early yogis, freedom was an end to the karmic cycle of death and rebirth. They resented, even abhorred, this physical form because it bound them to the limitations of earthly life, and the only possibility of escape they saw was to transcend the physical plane entirely.
Modern yoga practitioners? Not so much. We enjoy a degree of freedom and social mobility that would have been unimaginable to the early pioneers of yoga. We’re also connected electronically with people all over the world.
Contemporary yoga has come to mean something much simpler, and less esoteric, than it once did. It’s come to symbolize leading a good life, being strong, fit, and healthy, making conscientious lifestyle choices – and sharing all those things with others.
This is our new definition of freedom. The freedom to live joyful and meaningful lives. To the purists, it’s nothing short of an affront, but there’s really no singular lineage we can hold up and claim that it represents ‘true’ yoga.
All of this would, perhaps, be worrying if not for the robustness of asana practice. In Noah’s words, it “seeps in”. My introduction to yoga, 12 ½ years ago, came when I happened upon a nearby class and decided to find out whether it would give me something that regular aerobic exercise didn’t.
I had no great ambition to reach Enlightenment. I still don’t, to be honest. My yoga practice, however, has quietly, subtly influenced every aspect of my life, from my relationships with friends and family, to my working life, to what I eat.
It may not have liberated me from this physical body (which I’m quite glad about, frankly), but it has liberated me from a number of persistent negative habits, improved my energy levels, and increased my capacity for kindness.
And that, in a way, may be exactly what the ancient yogis were searching for. Noah tells me a story about visiting a temple in India, where the dikshitar (steward of the temple) was accosted by a sannyasin (renunciate) who angrily told him that he, the sannyasin, had direct access to God, while the dikshitar was nothing but a gatekeeper.
As Noah puts it, physical practice is spiritual practice. It’s a pretty confusing world we live in, and my yoga asana practice is the one space I’ve found large enough to hold all the contradictions.
We bring our biases to the mat. Whether those biases stem from a rigid culture in which our place is pre-ordained at birth, or a hyper-self-conscious culture in which we measure ourselves against celebrities and insist upon documenting every meal we eat, yoga practice becomes a place we can work those biases out.
We breathe, and we move. And, if we’re very lucky, we find something infinitely precious in those moments. Something that cannot be mediated by a dikshitar, or any other representative of an institution. Something that cannot be distilled into a photograph (though it may be glimpsed in one). Something deeply personal and unique to this moment, and yet utterly universal and timeless.
Robert Wolf Petersen first set foot on a yoga mat almost 12 and a half years ago, and has worked on and off as a freelance journalist, copywriter, and editor for most of his adult life. His greatest passion is the intersection between yoga and literacy, and the possibilities it opens up for increasingly heartfelt, intelligent, devoted practice. He publishes work intermittently at www.woldandeagleyoga.com, posts occasionally at the Wolf and Eagle Yoga Facebook page, and tweets even less frequently @wolfandeagleuk. He does, however, have a very exciting new business in the pipeline, which you’ll hear about if you follow him at any of the above.