The Quandary of The Introvert

When I first started doing yoga in 1999, I would go to this small Iyengar studio twice a week. The best part of the ninety-minute class for an over stimulated, over scheduled high school student was, you guessed it, savasana. I perpetually fell asleep. I think I was so overstretched in my little life that the only rest I had was those fifteen minutes of each class.

There was no music. There were no partner poses. It was not a big scene. It was me, a dinky thin tapas yoga mat (which is still my favorite by the way) and a teacher. The directions were clear. Even though sometimes the directions were complex. You just went. Did. Felt. Breathed. Learned. Rested. Went home.

I started yoga because I was craving solitude. I needed a sense of peace and ease. I longed for quiet. Everything around me felt loud, out of control and big. There was too much pressure, too much stimulation, and I didn’t know how to (yet) understand my intense sensitivities. I went to yoga because intuitively I knew I could be myself in a place where I was anonymous. There would be enough space to just be me. No expectations, no forced actions, no assumptions

Back then I didn’t know about the Myers Briggs. I didn’t know about being introverted and what that meant. Back then I didn’t understand what being a highly sensitive person was all about. I started yoga because I needed a place where my introversion was honored and not a problem.

I always hated team sports. My parents had me play softball and it was fine. But I really hated being on a team. In school I detested group projects. Teachers always told me that I should be more outgoing. I should get involved in school activities. I should show school spirit. I should be an equal participant in group-projects. When we had to do a group project I ended up being the bossy one or doing it myself. I was told I was antisocial. I was told I was selfish. In middle school I was chastised by the Rabbi for being an independent thinker. And in high school I was ousted from social acceptance because of my independent thought.

Some days I didn’t want to go to school because I just couldn’t take the social aspect and the sitting in the chairs and the interaction. But on those days my parents let me stay home its not like I was smoking weed and watching TV. I actually did my schoolwork. I didn’t go to school because I disliked school. I liked learning. I wanted to do the work. I just wanted to work alone.

In college I did four independent studies. I thrived in small classes but hated the big lectures so I devised a plan to put in independent studies instead of these tediously annoying large classes that felt like such an injustice.

Flash-forward and I know all about introversion versus extroversion. I know about personality types and I know about being a highly sensitive person.

Back to the yoga.

For me yoga was and has always been a time to be in my internal wild. If I don’t have the time to simply be and move I feel as though I am at a great loss of the sanctity of my soul. I’m sure some of you can relate.

Flash forward to yoga today in 2014. It is still possible to go to a low stimulating class. It is still possible to go to a class with no music and clear instruction. It is possible to go to a class where there is you, a mat, some props and the teacher. But it is not the norm. Big classes poised as events, music, lighting, retail, the newest partner pose of the month are the norm now.

Lets be clear. I am not against social interaction or community building. On the contrary, loneliness and solitude are not the same. Loneliness is a stab to the heart. Solitude is a bath in the ocean of the divine. Depth within solitude yields a greater ability to connect to others. Connection to others fosters community.

In the great effort to build yoga community, I fear we have in some ways sacrificed the fostering of individual sanity.

The shadow of community, even well-intentioned lovely yoga community, is groupthink.

A community with individualized members who are self-sustaining but make the collective stronger by being together is healthy. A community of co-dependence is unhealthy. A community whose members can go on their own independently to evolve and come back together to help unite the group towards even further cultural growth is amazing. This is the way of the future. They say the guru is no longer the self but rather the community. This is true but do not forsake all those years of the lone wolf. There is a reason why the guru is the self first and then the collective. Understand yourself. Then contribute to society.

I wonder sometimes if all the festivals, shows, classes as events, online summits, loud music and partner work is feeding yoga only to the extroverts. And also letting the introverts know that even in yoga, the extrovert still trumps all. Where the introvert used to shine in professions like yoga and counseling, now, it is the extrovert who finds themselves at the top of the game. And if you are truly an introvert finding yourself a force and presence in this highly extroverted market and you pull back for your solace as a life line, then you are often criticized for not being present enough or speaking up enough. Everyone is allowed to have their processes in their own time and those processes do not need to be public. 

Now to be clear, I do think the introverted yogi should be socialized well and the extroverted yogi could stand a lesson in sustained home practice. 

I was reminded of the book Quiet by Susan Cain after watching her TED talk on introverts. She says to us that extroversion, in its visibility forces the introvert to get lost in the milieu. She points out that Introversion is essential for the growth and development of novel inquiry and thought. It is responsible for soulful evolution.

Separately from Cain’s manifesto I had been taught that the path of the Soul is a solitary walk. During the walk you may at times move in stride with others or even form pods to change the current of the world. But in the end, each soul is on its own. It has its own work to do. In yoga we call this Svadharam. If the soul is far to influence and ingrained within the societal group think patterns of modernity it will never remember its indigenous heart beat.

This is why I began yoga. It was coming home to a path that had always belonged to my soul. The path of the medicine person and shape shifter has always been my calling. But I had to step out of the over stimulating expectations of going to the mall and playing group sports to recall that knowing. It was not cool to be introverted and highly sensitive then. And it may even be less so now. And the thing is, today with an abundance of social media, even the introvert can be social behind a screen. So we actually miss out on the depth of the introvert because we all look like social extroverts.

People are always surprised to know that I am introvert. Yes, I am all up on the social-media. Yes I have a socially interactive job. Yes I have a presence. All of those things. So it is hard to imagine that someone as sensitive as myself is so introverted because you can't actually tell that from my "social media presence". And its not like that part is fake. Its all real. Remember, if I am eighty percent introvert, then I also have twenty percent extrovert. I lean on that twenty percent often.  

In 1999 there were probably fifteen to eighteen people in the yoga classes I took. This always seemed pretty big to me. Now as teachers we are expected to bring in twenty-five people minimum to be considered a “great” teacher. Festivals, conferences and large ‘events’ are where more and more people are learning yoga. Where yoga used to be the solace for the introvert, it is now in many ways, another cultural expression of the extrovert. I fear we have taken something so intuitively life gracing and life saving and turned into a flash in the pan glammer show. If we continue utilize yoga culture to perpetuate the glorification of the extrovert we have lost the war.

My longing is not for any romanticized version of living in a quaint treetop or secluded cave. I believe deeply in civic duty, enlightened society and cultural expansion. I actually see good happening through social media channels. And because of this, I know we need a yoga that includes us introverts and lets us bring our wisdom to an ever-maddening world without having to lean so fully on our extroverted parts. The world could serve to lean on its introverted side a little bit. 

If you look around, it is actually rather challenging for an introvert to find a quiet yoga venue these days. It is possible I assure you, but it is becoming harder. So we practice at home or in much smaller groups. Introverts thrive on home practice, not constant studio stimulation.  And if they are in a studio classes that actually do not involve partner work to be honest far better serve them.

I hate to say it but it’s even hard to get a job as a yoga teacher if you are introverted. If you are seeking a teaching gig you are expected to go to that studio, build a report, and then perhaps get a gig. I would hope that of equal importance to showing up for a community, is one’s inventive and innovative approach born from personal exploration and internal study. In yoga we often get hired based on the external rather than the internal. There is something to be said for interviewing me, auditioning me and reading my resume.  

Yoga doesn’t have the same separation of work and life the way other professions do. And it is harder to get to know someone who is introverted because we take longer to warm up to folks than the extrovert. This means the extrovert is at an advantage socially for getting a job teaching yoga. You get to know them faster. They socialize fast and they may produce results faster. In the meantime you may have just missed out on a gemstone because you didn’t bother to look closely enough underneath the dirt and clay that surrounds it. The whole world looses then. And so the madness continues.

I find more and more that it is the introverts who are drawn to things like yoga. They are drawn because its an answer to life’s out of control psychedelic concerto. But less and less is the introvert celebrated. One of my favorite teachers Christina Sell always makes a point to create an environment in her intensives where the needs of the extrovert are met and the needs of the introvert supported. And the funny thing is, in those instances, when I know I have a place to go to be quiet and solo, I find I don’t need it as much and I can often be found laughing with friends. But thats the thing about introverts. They shine when they know they can go be alone if they need. Take that away and its like a small child learning to live without a security blanket. 

The more teachers I mentor and the more courses for teachers I run, the more I find introverts in an extroverted yoga world. They want to know where it is possible to teach and not be run ragged. They want to know how to connect without being forced to partner up. And they want to feel freedom to be themselves where they teach. Now that yoga is so popular and all the kids are doing it these days we are too quick I believe to attend to the masses. I am finding that even some of the extroverts are burned out. They too want authentic connection. And in no way should a holier than though swami-i-meditate-a lot shame them for loving the yoga festival.

After all it’s not that the extroverts dislike connecting with themselves. It's just that the extrovert needs to go out to go in. The introvert must go in to come out.