Reflections on practicing and teaching yoga — a path toward greater balance.

 

As I re-enter the yoga teaching world, after not even a year away, but for what feels like an eternity, I am once again faced with questions from students as to how they can get better at a certain pose, or move forward in their practice. A question just a couple weeks ago was: “is there some pose you can give me that will help make upward-dog easier?” I showed her a couple techniques to make the pose/movement easier and safer, but I don’t really know if I “gave” her what she was looking for. These questions always bewilder me, but at the same time I understand them completely. I think it takes many years of practice to come to the realization that yoga, or the Ashtanga Yoga of Pattabhi Jois which is the type of yoga I practice and teach is designed in a way that can either strengthen or diminish the ego. The former is the problem, as the latter comes only with time. I’ve experienced a variety of teachers in my years as a student of ashtanga (12 years and counting) and a variety of approaches. I’ve learned there certainly is no one-size-fits-all teacher, and in my 10 years of teaching I’ve finally come to trust my own approach, both for my practice and as a teacher. I remember once asking a teacher “is there something I can do to get better at ‘x pose’?” His response was “do x pose”. The practice is IN the practice. And that is my approach now too.

 

We exist in a culture of always wanting to be somewhere else other than the place where we are. The “grass is always greener” mentality flourishes, and so goes it with yoga-asana practice too. But yoga is about becoming balanced — balanced right where we are, and not about trying to become more limber, stronger, slimmer, more athletic, better, etc. Those are often side-effects of the practice, but not the purpose of the practice. It is a disservice to ourselves and to our students if we foster the mentality that achieving the next pose, or becoming more advanced physically in our practice is any kind of goal at all! That only serves to strengthen egos, bolster self-esteem, and bury us in only one aspect of the practice – the physical aspect. So as I reflect on my approach to yoga, both my own practice and my instruction to others, I realize I am about as ‘old school’ as it gets. I don’t teach extra poses to help students ‘open or lengthen’ this joint or that muscle, though I know and love many teachers who do! I believe the kind of yoga I want to practice and teach involves being where you are. Being IN the process of growth and progress, and at times being in a ‘stand-still’ no matter how slow or boring it might seem. Yoga and asanas exist within ourselves, and we all have the ability to experience them in a variety of ways – some students beautifully so, with structurally and mechanically sound postures and other students in less beautiful or ‘proper’ looking ways. If yoga is an internal practice (albeit reflected outwardly when practiced through asana) we must keep the focus internal, otherwise it simply becomes gymnastics. If a body is not ready for the next pose, there is a reason for it — perhaps a reason that is beyond physical, such as mental, emotional, or karmic. And I believe it is a disservice to the natural process of the student’s development to shortcut them by teaching them other exercises to increase flexibility or strength just so they can “do” a pose perfectly, or move forward in the practice to some illusory place where the grass is somehow greener. There are times when my teacher, Sharath, has taught students, myself included, subsequent postures (i.e. the next pose) which are often thought only to be practiced once the previous pose has been ‘mastered’. But Sharath’s method is clearly based on something deeper than whether or not a student can physically/technically ‘master’ a pose. His reasoning most certainly is individual. Sharath has never made me think that he is rewarding me for physical mastery of a pose, by teaching me another pose. I somehow feel that he senses when students are ready to progress, based on criteria that goes beyond the physical level.

 

 And so as I re-enter the yoga-teaching world I’ve found it helpful to examine my own approach to practice, and reflect on what I want to share with and teach to students. I want to teach people that patience is of value, and that yoga is beyond mastering poses or physical feats of strength. I want to teach that yoga is an internal practice that is experienced through the physical body, the energy body, and the mental body. I want to teach that yoga is about balancing our energies, as well as our bodies and minds. And I also want to take myself out of the equation. I only want to share this information through me, and not from me. I’m certainly not an expert, and my poses and adjustments are very rudimentary. In fact, I realize that students always know more about themselves than their teachers do, although they generally have blind-spots in some areas and that is why a teacher is worth wonders!  I am not interested in taking on a role of ‘expert’ or ‘giver of poses’. The practice and the poses already exist in all of us who have a karmic predisposition to ever finding our way onto a yoga mat. I have nothing to ‘give’. My teacher never suggests he has anything to give me either. He never says: “I will give you a new pose,” he simply tells me to do it, when he thinks I’m ready. And so with me, I only want to help, teach, and encourage the natural progress toward greater balance for students who share the same thirst for yoga that I do. Nothing more, nothing less.Image

 

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