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.
Written by : Robert Wolf Petersen