My friend Kele sent me this text last week: “I taught 6 a.m. yoga to a group of women every day this week. At the end of each class, there was a round of applause. So awkward...”
Kele is a master yoga teacher and a yoga therapist. When you finish one of her classes, you feel like the planets have aligned and the seas have parted and all kinds of inner magic has taken place. She opens the door for her students to take fantastic adventures into themselves. She holds a sign with the words “This Way” and an arrow pointing down the rabbit hole.
So why would her students feel the need to clap at the end of class? Kele isn’t offering a performance – or an aerobics class. She’s guiding her students through an inquiry into ever-deeper layers of being. Why the need to whoop it up after a sweet savasana and complete nervous system chill-out?
I know some teachers who perform in front of their classes. A guy at the local power yoga studio comes to mind. His shtick is more about controlling the class than leading his students’ experiences. And he does appear to revel in applause and adulation.
After one of his athletic and super-sweaty classes, I asked this teacher about all that clapping.
He said, “We clap because we don’t celebrate enough in this culture.”
I almost choked on my shanti.
If there’s something we do excessively well in the US of A, it’s celebrate. I’ve done a fair share of traveling around the planet, and I have yet to meet a culture in which celebration is more central than right here at home.
I’m not talking about rituals and cultural festivals and national holidays. I’m talking about partying like it’s 1999 on any given Tuesday night, giving medals to every kid in Kindergarten, and raising a glass to just about anything that glimmers in the light of “the good life.” That kind of celebrating has been perfected by us Americans.
To be clear, I love celebrating. Even as I write this, I’m planning, not one, but two birthday parties for myself. Still, I’m cautious about merry-making as a default way of being. Life is not one-dimensional, and its pains, failures and fear can never be hidden by another glass of wine, piece of chocolate cake or round of applause.
Yoga is a spiritual exploration. As such, we don’t need excuses, explanations or cover-ups for the unusual physical, and even emotional, sensations that we encounter in our practice. Because yoga invites us to places where we have never previously ventured, it stokes a certain discomfort. Committing to a regular yoga practice requires the courage to stay in the fire with these new and often-strange feelings, to tolerate them and even venture beyond them. After all, this is how we move forward on the path of yoga and of life.
My hope is that the ever-increasing numbers of us who come to our mats with some regularity have a taste of that, and a growing awareness that yoga offers us something really special. In yoga as in few other places in 21st century America, we can practice new ways of being, of showing up, of knowing ourselves, of taking full responsibility for and joy in our presence.
I don’t think applause after yoga is an expression of joy or even, actually, of celebration. It looks to me like a nervous cultural habit that dulls the impact of the very special thing that has just opened, the myriad new possibilities that are unfolding in the core of your being precisely because you chose to breathe and move and sync yourself up with something much bigger than yourself. That casual clapping is a way of jumping off the path of transformation and right back into the main stream.
There is a rich gift in containing the energy of yoga – and not just for you. After the final relaxation of savasana, the nervous system is soothed and quieted. This state of deep peace – which the world so desperately needs right now – can weave into your being (and doing) over time. But when we enthusiastically slap our palms together and let out a little “woohoo,” we rend the fabric of that tranquility, and it unravels right there in the studio.
So, my beloved yogis and yoginis, I encourage you to clap. Clap at your child's play. Clap at your favorite band’s rousing encore. Clap at any sports event and at both of my birthday parties. But if you’re a yoga-class clapper, I implore you to consider how you, your practice, your family, your community, and your planet, might benefit if you restrain from applauding after your Namaste.
Yoga is about transformation. By embracing silence we can dare to change those last minutes of class from a culturally conditioned pseudo-celebration into a powerful container of joy-filled peace that nurtures our hearts and lives well beyond the yoga mat.