I spent the weekend in Oklahoma City teaching at Spirit House Yoga. This was my third visit to the studio and I enjoyed seeing everyone again and meeting some of the folks at the studio for the first time. Ted and Martha, who own the studio have a strong and abiding commitment to offering safe, thorough and conscientious yoga instruction to students of all ages and abilities. It was clear to me that they are doing a great job because the students were incredibly attentive and took instruction very well. Teaching well-trained students is such a pleasure and the foundation the students had made my job very easy and enjoyable all weekend long. We laughed A LOT and in the midst of the playful atmosphere I think we did some some really good work.
I think a lot about yoga--what it means to practice, what it means to be a yoga teacher, how best to share what I know and how best to serve the students who end up in my classes. I am very clear that yoga is a massive subject and that the practices of yoga extend far beyond the execution of postures and that asana is one little piece of the yoga pie, so to speak.
For instance, in my own life of practice I meditate regularly, practice mantra, pranayama, study and have a handful of rituals I practice like puja and so on. Practice, to me, is much more than asana practice. In fact, sometimes I look at what appears to be our current obsession with postural practice and I get a little disoriented and confused about how important it seems to be to so many people. (Seriously, step back a little and look as though you knew nothing about asana and its very odd, this thing we do. Maybe we really are just stretching in sanskrit....)
And, then I reflect on the things that have really helped me shift and change over the years. For instance, if I want to make the topic even bigger than yoga and extend the discussion into what makes for a happy, wholesome and fulfilling life, it is abundantly clear to me that I have needed techniques, tools, experiences and education way beyond postural instruction and far beyond the reaches of advanced asana. So, when I come into a studio to teach asana, I am very clear that asana practice is one piece of the pie. I believe asana is a tasty, lovely, nourishing, potentially risky and yet very worthwhile piece, mind you. But still, I see it as a sliver of the pie, truth be told.
I am certain that if I was a psychotherapist I would look at my clients and think, "Wow, some yoga could help them." And let's face it, as an asana instructor I know some good therapy has helped a lot of practitioners make peace with themselves when yoga was actually giving them one more thing to beat up on themselves about. If I was a minister, I bet I would think, "Some pranayama with this sermon would round out this picture nicely." And as an asana teacher, I do hope people have ways to connect to themselves spiritually beyond the 90-minute public yoga class. Suffice it to say, I am not into the "one-stop shopping" type of promises that proliferate the yoga market-place these days. As amazing and wonderful as I think asana is and as fascinating as the practices of yoga are, I am not so inclined to promise that yoga will change anyone's life, make anyone happier or help anyone make peace with themselves. I mean it might. Of course, it might not. It has helped me. I am into it. But a lot of things have helped me, truth be told.
So, its a big picture, this life of growing into who we most truly are. And lots of things are needed along the way. And many modalities are beneficial. And right now, I am an asana teacher. And, as an asana teacher, I am charged with the opportunity to present the asana practice to people as intelligently, creatively and clearly as possible so that they can engage the practice for themselves and add its power and potency to their lives to move them forward in whatever way they can. I teach asana so passionately, not because I think it is the end-all- be-all of what it takes to wake up but because I love what it can offer us and because teaching it to others is the contribution I am making right now.
And the funny thing is that the doorway of asana opens up so many different hallways and passageways within us. As soon as we decide we are going to engage the physical practice of asana, the many facets of who we are come into play. In order to practice physically we have to learn and study how to do the yoga and the intellectual aspect of who we are comes along. Between philosophy, anatomy, sanskrit names, sequencing strategies, modifications, props, etc. there is a body of knowledge to explore that can keep the brainiest of people busy for lifetimes.
And there is nothing like the seemingly-physical asana practice to call us to work on ourselves emotionally. When we are able to do something for the first time, we grow in confidence and get a chance to feel that wonderful feeling of accomplishment that comes with overcoming our limitations and making what seems like tangible progress on the mat.
And there is nothing like being unable to do something to teach us acceptance, humility and how to validate our efforts when outcomes don't appear as we wish they did. Sit in any yoga class and you will have a chance to watch your mind play the comparison game which can wreak havoc on your emotions. Get an injury or an illness and as soon as you can't physically do what you are used to, you are going to have a confrontation with your emotional self since slowing down, backing off and sitting out are sometimes the hardest poses there are.
Or, start attending a class that offers more detailed work or more physical work than you are used to and lo and behold, the emotions join the experience pretty quickly with frustration, despair, confusion, etc.
Anyway, these are just some of the reasons I like the asana practice so much. As I walk through the door of the physical practice I am getting this download of information about who am I beyond my physicality. I get a chance to observe my mind and emotions when I enjoy the posture and when I don't. I get to watch who I am and how I am as I try, succeed, fail, gain and lose the ability to do, to understand and to feel. And it is this "watching and learning" about who I am and how I am that to me is what asana is actually about, not the posing. I use the poses as tools of this self-observation, as means or Self-observation and not as an ends that stand alone with value outside of what happened along the way.
I think the role of asana in yoga can be misleading in the current culture of snapping photographs of ourselves doing yoga poses and posting them on every available social media site possible. Certainly, asana has a outward aspect of practice that so many of the other practices don't. I mean, I can be chanting my mantra silently to myself while sitting on the train and that is not going to make it to instagram, right? In a letter BkS Iyengar wrote endorsing yoga competitions he noted that, "Of the eight petals of yoga, the only petal that is exhibitive is yoga-asana where the other petals are very individual and personal."
That being said, just because yoga has an exhibitive aspect does not mean that it is primarily or essentially about exhibition at all. In the same way, asana uses the body and yet it is not, in my opinion, about the body only. Nor is asana essentially about the body. We use poses in asana and yet asana practice is not only about the pose or even essentially about the pose. To me, it is about the watching and learning. Asana is about essentially about awareness.
And the beauty of this perspective is that we can watch and learn in the most basic of postures without ever leaving normal and healthy ranges of motion. Using asana to learn about ourselves and to glimpse the larger Self can happen without ever balancing in handstand, without ever pushing up to urdhva dhanruasana and without ever putting a leg behind our head. In fact, I do believe that the pursuit and ambition around the harder postures can be so compelling that some folks get lost in endless posturing and the agony and ecstasy of the exhibition aspect of practice takes on a life of its own can become more of a distraction than an aid to growth.
Don't get me wrong I have nothing against hard poses. If you feel called to do them and enjoy working toward them and so on, great. Far be it form me, queen of handstands on mountaintops and peacock pose on fences and to say, "working on hard poses is wrong!" I personally like that aspect of the endeavor but I do not think it is the point. Just so we are clear, I am not making a case against putting your leg behind your head, I am simply saying I do not think it is necessary. At all. Period.
We talked a lot about these themes this weekend as the group worked diligently to bring awareness to action, clarity to movement and dignity to their posture. So, again, I don't think asana practice "does it all" for anyone but I do think its a great aid to the process and most days, I am pretty happy to contribute to people's lives as an asana teacher and endlessly grateful that people are willing to be my students.
Have a good one. I am going to meet a friend and stretch in Sanskrit for a little while! I will probably even post some show off shots on Instagram.
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