Kelly and I got home from Asia on Wednesday night very late. I spent Thursday at home, unpacking (and drinking copious amounts of the excellent tea we brought back home with us) and getting ready to go to South Carolina for the weekend. Friday I left home and made my way to Columbia to spend the weekend with Stacey Milner-Collins and the gang at City Yoga. This was my third time teaching at City Yoga and I always have such a good time when I am there.
City Yoga, to me, is one of those studios that embodies some of the best qualities of community anywhere. Stacey is an excellent teacher, a sincere practitioner and a down-to-earth, passionate, smart and very deep person. She and her faculty of teachers are well-trained, kind, funny and the students there range in ages, abilities and backgrounds and manage to maintain a genuine kindness for one another, good cheer in the face of hard work and enjoy laughing at life's absurdities. Being with Stacey is always a treat for me because I had the great fortune to assess her Anusara yoga certification video years ago and we have weathered more than one season of community challenges together.
It's a long story why this weekend fell so close on the heels of a major overseas trip and as we all know, it is not the best planning, to say the least. However, jet lag worked in my favor waking me up early in the morning with lots of time to practice before teaching and sending me to bed early to get my rest, so it could have been worse for sure. The weekend was very fun for me and as usual, a few themes emerged between my collegial discussions with Stacey, our personal reflections on growing older (my 44th birthday is a week away!) and my interactions with the students and teachers in the group.
One thing I am really thinking about these days is what yoga means to me. In a very real way yoga is not my religion, it is not the whole of my belief system, it is not something with which I agree on all points or try to embody at every turn. Don't get me wrong, I am really committed to my practices and I really love so many of the teachings I have learned over the years. AND I feel more aware than ever of how important it is to use the practices as means of listening to myself and my own wisdom over and above subscribing to outside ideals as a way to live up to some "yoga standard" that seems, more often than not, a bit of a moving target.
And as a teacher, this is the conversation that is interesting to me these days. How can the deep listening that we train on the mat (move your bone this way, direct your attention here, don't do this, keep that and add this, etc.) be a training for a deep listening to ourselves in other areas of our lives? There are a lot of interesting parallels to me with this because when I first learned alignment principles I remember them feeling very much like an imposition. In a sense, "correct alignment" felt wrong because it was often the exact opposite action than was happening "naturally" in the posture. In the beginning, the way I knew what to do in any pose was to watch what happened "naturally" and then just do the opposite. (Still, many times, this is a decent and dependable strategy kind of like my friend who said she knew a guy was bad news for her if she was attracted to him! Joke. But a true story.) Over time, however, my relationship to the alignment changed and I recognized it more and more as an intelligent organizational strategy and less and less of a set of imposed ideals.
It seems that what is natural to us as human beings has many layers and what often feels natural is simply habitual. Both on and off our mat, we often come to the teachings with habitual coping strategies that feel natural and feel like "who we are" when really, they are simply a conditioned set of responses. And my understanding is that yoga was originally aimed at undermining the notion of who we think we are and delivering us to the experience of who we actually are.
So there is a time to adopt a set of organizations strategies to guide our inquiry and our behavior and there is also a time to use the strategies as tools for taking the next step which is really listening to ourselves, not just always applying the outer structures; not just following the rules. For instance, it's easy to just adopt a "yoga personality" or "yoga values" as yet another false self, much in the way we just "scoop our tailbone" in every pose because we think we are supposed to, when sometimes that is not ideal for the pose or for our body type. These outer alignment tools are not the end, they are the means by which we move beyond the rule-based application of yoga into the deep listening required to know ourselves, our needs and our best expression of our own values in the moment.
The thing is- living, alignment, yoga, relationships, etc- are not the kind of things that can be nailed down into one-size-fits-all statements that will always work out beautifully for everyone all of the time and thinking that yoga can provide us with such answers is a bit simplistic and perhaps even naive, in my opinion. My sense of it is that these one-size-fits-all statements like "do not harm" or "trust in the universe" or whatever inspiring quote, teaching, realization or alignment principle we are attempting to work with has an endless array of potential applications- each with its own nuances- and the only way to know how to apply the general principles to our unique situation is to be engaged in a process of deep listening to the multi-faceted aspects of who we are.
Yoga is not an intellectual endeavor only. Nor is is a feeling endeavor only. Nor is it a physical thing only. To me it is a conversation between so many domains of who we are and between the many levels of truth within us and a set of skills that helps us navigate the complexity of the conversation through practice. it must be lived.
Certainly more could be said about all this but well, the day beckons.
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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."