A few weekends ago, I returned to Scottsdale, AZ to teach at Yoga Village, an Anusara yoga studio run by Barbara Adams. I met Desiree Rumbaugh, John Friend and eventually, a world-wide community of practitioners and teachers from my very humble beginnings taking classes and workshops in Scottsdale over twenty years ago. I felt happy and more-than-a-bit nostalgic, upon returning to the area.
In each session of my weekend workshop, students I had taught in the first year of my teaching were in the room, many of whom are now seasoned teachers themselves. In any given session, I looked out and saw people I had known for twenty years sitting with students I was meeting for the first time. I saw long-time students from my Anusara yoga days and folks I had met since terminating my license to teach Anusara yoga, with whom I have weathered the aftermath of that tumultuous time.
And while the landscape of teaching and practice has shifted considerably over the years, and every year in front of the room seems to bring some new challenge or shifting narrative — from social concerns to personal finances and everything else in between, observing the many ways that yoga is still knitting us together inside ourselves and with one another continues to inspire me.
As I have written before, I have made just about every mistake in the book as a yoga teacher. My learning curve has been long and pretty steep at times, taking me through the terrain of my own self-centeredness, anger, jealousy, and insecurity, while also offering me glimpses of the deep humility that lives at the heart of being able to witness other people grow through yogic principles and practice. I often joke (although I am 100% serious about it) that God made me a yoga teacher, not because I was so well-suited to the task, but because I needed to live close to the teaching in order to grow into the position I had been given.
In the words of Papa Peter Rhodes, “God doesn’t choose the qualified, he qualifies the chosen.”
How is one chosen to teach yoga? Essentially, we raise our hand and say, “I will help.”
The way I see it, we live in dark times and the waters of hope, faith, compassion, personal growth, accountability, and service are muddied by competing cultural narratives, unexamined psychological patterns, and even larger cycles of nature. If I were God, Supreme Consciousness, The Universe, Spirit, or whatever name you have for the ALL THAT IS, I would look around and see how much pain there was, how much oppression, injustice, and fear existed in the hearts of even good people and I would give as many jobs as I could to anyone willing to work on the side of Light — be that the light of awareness, the light of generosity, the light of honesty, the light of compassion, the light of well, you get my point.
And while every year brings with it a new specialty within the world of teacher training and a new niche of service to explore and in which to get certified, the path of “getting qualified” of which I am speaking is an experiential training program that anyone interested in helping can enter. Each of us who teaches starts from where we are— full of wounds, projections, hopes, dreams, shortcomings, and talents. And we meet our students where they are, full of the same.
And then the messy magic happens. In the midst of such a meeting, in the field of all of what we are and are not, of what we can do and can not yet do, we hold one another in an uncertain Grace. I say uncertain because this is not the Grace of easy promises, of no hurt feelings, of always being and feeling understood. The teacher-student relationship is as likely to go wrong as it is to go right because while we learn and teach the subject of yoga— from philosophy to posture, from mantra to meditation— we are all just ordinary people, which always makes for a bit unpredictability.
I am not as passionate about big back bends and long, sweaty practices as I used to be, preferring a different approach to asana as I turn 50, than the one I had at 25, 35, and 45. I no longer think that every year I am practicing will bring with it some new asana achievement or some new “next level” of accomplishment. And while some of my students are upset my interests are changing, others like the new direction, happy at last to stop pushing so much. At any rate, as with any relationship, we do not always grow together, grow in the same way, or grow at the same time and none of that means something is going wrong.
One thing I love about getting older is that I am more aware of the long-term game we are playing together than the day-to-day ups and downs inherent in the messy Grace of learning and teaching yoga. Whether our students practice with us over the long haul or find another teacher with whom to share the journey, whether we are on a personal up or down-swing, the opportunity to live alongside the practice and the teachings is a blessing of Light in a time of darkness. Whether our classes are packed or sparsely-attended, whether we make a living as a teacher or not, and whether or not we feel resonant with the latest trend in the industry, each of us raised our hands to help, got chosen, and are spending our days and years getting qualified.
And that, my friends, is a beautiful thing.
Keep the faith.
Many of you have heard me describe myself as a “yoga mutt” when referring to the many streams of asana instruction I have engaged over the years and the diverse sources of spiritual inspiration that inform my practice and teaching.
I have spent time in Mysore halls before the sun rises. I have stood in many a hot room in hardly any clothing practicing the same 26 postures and two breathing exercises in the same order. I have enjoyed creative vinyasa approaches in both practice and classes of all flavors. And yet, the heart of my training and background is what I learned in Iyengar yoga and Anusara yoga, which I now refer to as alignment-based yoga. And, as I see it today, the heart of alignment-based yoga is a relationship with awareness, an exercise in consciousness.
Alignment yoga isn’t about the right and wrong way to do a pose. Alignment yoga is not about a set of nit-picky details, dogmatic protocols, or rigid impositions of outer shapes onto our bodies. Alignment yoga does not guarantee safety and will not necessarily heal an injury or structural imbalance. Alignment-based yoga is no substitute for meditation, pranayama, mantra, psychotherapy, or good common sense.
I have not been living under a rock or shut away in a cave and so I do know that alignment-based yoga is frequently presented through the lens of right and wrong, nit-picky details, dogmatic protocols, rigid impositions, and so on. And, I know alignment-based yoga is often sold as being safe, therapeutic, and meditative.
And, I know that in many cases, it may be all that and more.
These days I am pretty doubtful that I will arrive at some future point in time where my knee and ankle are in an exact line with one another in my front leg in trikonasana. I have yet to sit in that happy place where my sitting bones are perfectly balanced in sukhasana, or where my I can triumphantly lift my chest in tadasana without losing fullness in my back body. And so on. And being a competency-oriented type of person, what I am describing here is not great news on the surface.
Don’t get me wrong. I aim at those alignments and more, but in my years of practice, I have come to see that a “well-aligned pose” is a bit of a moving target. As soon as I establish one action, I lose another. I get the lost action back and something else calls me to tend to it. And on and on the game goes until I leave the pose, start the next one, and the same exercise in futility begins again.
I don’t say “futility” to imply that the pursuit is pointless, that no progress occurs, or to indicate any measure of disillusionment with my practice and what practicing this way has yielded. I say “futility” to pierce through the perfectionistic, competency-driven, type-A expectations that drew me to the alignment-based approach in the first place. As I participate sincerely in this exercise of futility called alignment-based yoga, I am using the alignment protocols— no matter how impossible they may be to achieve perfectly— as a guide. As my guide, these principles give me a mirror upon which to see where I am, where I am not, what is stiff, tight, weak, strong, supple, movable, immovable, and so on within me. I can see my relationship to being both able and not able. I can see my relationship to understanding and confusion.
I can see my relationship to preferences, opinions, rationalizations, limits and boundaries. I can see the ways my body conforms to “common tendencies in the pose” also known “common misalignments.” I can see where, in some cases, the protocols simply do not work for me or my body at a given time and I am beholden to myself, not guiding structures or mental concepts. As my guide, these principles and structures— so often confused with right and wrong, good and bad, and imposing outer standards— have helped me develop an internalized awareness that is personal and empowering.
The act of aligning oneself in yoga requires a relationship with one’s attention. And as we tend to the position of the body, muscular recruitment, the energetics of the biomechanical action, the resultant physical, emotional and attitudinal effects, etc. we are in a field of consciousness that can, over time, open a portal well beyond the shape in which we are taking such an interest. While all that outer maneuvering and inner churning is happening, there is another level of possibility that can be found.
In 2004, I was in Northern India at an Iyengar yoga school in the mountains. One day our teacher, Rajiv Chanchani, looked at us and said, “Here we are, dressed for gym class for an exercise in consciousness.”
Since that time, our gym clothes have gotten a heck of a lot nicer and yet the exercise in consciousness remains the same; the call to attention every bit as potent. When I bring my consciousness to bear on my posture, coupled with my awareness that I am doing such a thing, I am weaving web much deeper than physical position, perfectionistic expectations, dogmatic compliance or rigid adherence to protocols. I am placing myself in a stream that says, “Pay attention because your prana will follow your attention. And as you watch all those details in your body, watch, feel, sense and come into relationship with who is doing all that watching in the first place.”
So, like that.
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"There is a light that shines beyond all things on Earth, beyond us all, beyond the heaven, beyond the highest, the very highest heavens. This is the light that shines in our heart."