The technology of Yoga

What an honor it was to spend the last few days at the Yoga Journal Conference in San Diego assisting my teacher, Gary Kraftsow. Curmudgeonly Gary. He has the onerous task of traveling widely to these corporate-sponsored events—for whom poses do a better job than self-inquiry of selling— to say again and again, ‘Yoga is not simply asana.’ He says it kindly at first. And then he repeats himself. And then he take a long, deep breath when someone raises a hand and asks, ‘so should I keep my feet hip-width or not?’ His answer should be trademarked under the American Viniyoga Institute: ‘It depends.’

I don’t believe I run the risk of learning too much curmudgeonry from Gary. For this, I can thank earlier teachers, the law and a healthy few millennia of past lives. But in the spirit of curmudgeonly cooperation—curmudgeonly community?—I offer this little echo of Gary’s broken record and a hopefully helpful metaphor.

Every time I’m introduced as a yoga teacher, someone is sure to say, ‘oh, you must be really flexible.’ Or they harumph: ‘those poses are for circus freaks.’ Or maybe, ‘I should stretch more.’ Even funnier lately, when I meet fellow yoga practitioners and they tell me, ‘I just can’t get a good workout in your kind of yin class. I need to sweat and get my heart rate up.’

Okay, right. Where to start? Honestly, with a small sigh. And then a little bonk of my heart to jostle my compassion muscle. It is absolutely the case that we are all perfect souls seeking higher consciousness. Our paths need not always converge or even cross. And I’m grateful for the tension that I may practice the discipline of patience. Breathe.

So, what does yoga mean to you?

If yoga means poses, you’re not wrong. You’re just missing the forest for a tree.

(If yoga means racerback tshirts with wacky sayings—’puppies, lattes and yoga!’— you’re totally on the pulse of the Yoga Journal Conference of 2016. But you’re a little distracted. Please pay attention.)

In fact, yoga means union. And the union it seeks is within you—body, mind, spirit— and beyond you. It is you learning how to master your body and mind so that you can be you. Your best you. It is you discovering that you are infinitely connected, absolutely perfect and invested with unconditional joy.

The history of yoga is long, circuitous and complex. The tradition, however, can be viewed quite simply. For several thousand years, humans before you have sought a path to find peace. There have been masters—sages like Jesus, Buddha and Mahavira— and there have been millions of ardent practitioners. The ardent practitioners discovered from the masters that an steadfast effort toward self-exploration and discovery can transform their microcosmic power. With this greater personal power inside, they can spare a little to contribute some positive change to the macrocosm. This potential is the birthright of every individual. And yoga is simply a means of finding it.

Wow. That’s awesome, right? But how?

Around 2600 years ago, a guide book was offered. This is the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. It’s generally accepted that this small compendium of yoga advice brings much older wisdom into one location. And it’s by no means the only book to consult on yoga. But it’s so well-organized and this post is already going to be way too long. So. The Yoga Sutra. We’ll start there.

In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali lets us know that yoga is a system. Followed diligently and with humility, it will quiet the fluctuations of the mind. It requires discipline and patience, deep self-inquiry and devotion. There are eight limbs that must be practiced. They are, in order, the ethical restraints, internal restraints, postures, breathing practice, sensory control, concentration, meditation and integration.

You’ll note, poses are one-eighth of the practice. And the poses we find familiar were not described in print until the Hatha Yoga Pradipika came around… in the 15th century CE. Which isn’t to say that postures were not taken to assist a practitioner’s ability to sit still for meditation. But they probably weren’t taken in conjunction with an awesome playlist, live DJ or stand-up paddleboard. Although, what do I know?

All of this is to reiterate, as Gary says, the poses have no inherent value on their own. It is the poses practiced for the purpose of self-discovery that come to mean something. The poses, like the ethical and internal restraints on behavior, like the breathing, the concentration, the meditation, all of it, serve as a mirror. These are tools that serve us as we pursue our paths of self-discovery. As tools, they are fantastic. Practiced for the sake of the tool itself, they are meaningless.

Think of it like this: if I show you a bridge between two land masses, do you immediately think of the cranes used to build it? Do you want to know more about the bolts used, the brand of cement and the grip on the wrenches? Maybe yes, if you’re an engineer. But the engineer will see the bridge for its utility, its harmony, its safety and know that its construction required more than a knowledge of nuts, bolts and the wrenches to bind them. And this is precisely how an engineer of the self must think: though we may be fascinated by some of the tools we use, ultimately, we’re building a bridge. It’ll take more than a tool or two to get there and we’re going to need to change our tools as we progress. And age. And learn.

We want to move from the chaos of our minds toward the peace in our souls. If we obsess on the wrench, we’re never going to move beyond the tightening of nuts and bolts. And there’s a lot more to a bridge than nuts and bolts. Just like you are so much more than that beautiful body containing you.

Now, what’s yoga to you?

I know. It’s about the pants.

What was I thinking?

(Please note! You may also be interested in reading up on Tantra. Which actually means system. And will be the topic of some other post, some other day. For now, I have to go balance in eka pada koundinyasana. Until I find enlightenment.)

(Also, if you’re interested in learning more about the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, please join me at 8 Elements West on the first Wednesday of every month at 6pm. We’ll chant the Sutra and discuss.)

How do you decide?

In the last couple of years, I’ve enjoyed a privileged sort of fun. I bumble around with people who came to a decision to change some old habits. Something happened, some sort of ‘that’s it, this is it, who am I, I’m doing this, let’s go.’ And they didn’t just let the decision go. They acted on it.

So they tried some stuff out—pilates or running, rock climbing, swing dancing, diet or bike riding—and they get a little insight, and then a little frustrated, and then they pick themselves up and try again. They start to see that this decision is going to require some attention. That they want to be paying more attention to how they live their lives and interact with life around them. They stumble into ideas rooted in the practice of yoga. Not just ideas about poses and yoga journal conferences. But ideas about calming the mind through careful, consistent observation of habits and patterns of behavior.

And because I’m lucky, or because the wind blew, because the door was open, because I had availability on my schedule, some of them introduced themselves to me.

A friend asked me recently whether I would ever stop my yoga practice. He said, ‘Do you get tired of doing the poses and doing the meditation? Do you get tired of sitting still and then hearing people like me dismiss yoga as some false faith system? Don’t you get tired?’

I answered, ‘No. Because I make a new decision every day to practice yoga.’

Which means, I say hello to every morning with gratitude for the light shining through the windows. And then I decide to express my gratitude by making a decision to practice. Which is my way of growing my love—for myself, my questioning friends, my clients and everyone I haven’t yet met. It’s my way of knowing myself so I can know the world.

Which doesn’t mean that I’m not going to fail a bunch. But a new day comes along with frequency, and, as long as I’m fortunate enough to awake to it, I’m regularly grateful to the light for returning. It gives me another opportunity to dedicate myself to my practice. Because the whole point is practice. The brief moments when light shines in the darkness are just gifts that remind me to recommit to my practice. Plus, they break my heart open a little more. And that just makes me happier to see how much light shines in everything. In everyone. In me.

The Yoga Sutra advises consistent practice. Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodha. We should use consistent effort and we should keep ourselves from attaching to it. And we should do this for a long, long time. Satu dirgha kala nairantarya satkarasevito drdhabhumih. The effort becomes fixed only when done over time, with reverence and focus.

Which means that a diligent effort requires a continuous decision. It isn’t easy to practice. The mind wants to be busy with external ideas. The body wants to be lazy or active or fed or rested. The decision is to become disciplined but the decision itself requires discipline. And every day, a new decision. Every moment, another one.

So see what happens if you start by making a decision every morning: today, I’ll practice yoga. I’ll practice coming to the present moment through awareness of my movement, my breath, the flow of my thoughts. And watch what happens if you do this a few days in a row. And if you fail to make the decision on one day, no worries. Just try again. And again. And again.

It’s always a decision. And no one else is going to make it for you. So when you make your decision, remember how special it is that others are doing the same. And appreciate the presence of your sisters and brothers meandering mindfully on the path—whatever path it is that they decided to pursue.

Because time is always moving.

Happy New Year, my friends. I hope you’re inspired by the turn of the calendar and delighted by your place on earth. Why not?

As we reflect on the march of time, it’s darn common that we look at ourselves and wonder: who have I become? how can I be better? what the hell happened? Or maybe we aren’t quite so confrontational. We may, instead, make a promise to ourselves that sounds something like a sweetness offered to a neglected kid: I’m going to make you happier. Healthier. Stronger. Fitter. More productive. More creative. Different.

We make goals; we make promises to ourselves. And then we join the march of time—to steadily march away from them.

I write today because I have a suspicion that I’m starting to understand why this happens. I don’t want to be presumptuous, so correct me if I’m wrong.

When we make promises to others, we aim to assert our accountability. ‘I promise I’ll be there in 20 minutes!’ In essence, we’re saying: ‘I will not let you down.’ We don’t want our friend to be waiting outside for an hour so we get in the car and get our ass down to our friend.

When we make a promise to ourselves, the issue of accountability becomes a little fuzzy. ‘I’ll be there in 20 minutes!’ doesn’t really matter if it’s just you waiting on yourself. What are you going to do if you don’t make it? Pace the block cursing that flake… I mean, you? Unfriend yourself on facebook? You’re just going to sigh and have a beer. If you even notice that you let yourself down.

So why do we let ourselves down? What’s up with that? I think it has something to do with this: we prefer to avoid suffering. Because we don’t understand the value of suffering. And the resilience of our own hearts in response to it.

Consider this. Your best accomplishments are generally hard-earned, fueled by passion, sweat, tears and a refusal to surrender. We all have a few of them. We sometimes forget how we got there. So let me suggest a little guidance from an old tradition.

In the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, we’re told to practice consistently and remain detached in order to shift our patterns toward greater understanding, integration, control of wild thoughts: abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodah. In the following sutra, we learn: tatra sthithau yatnabhyasa. Practice—through an ardent and sustained effort—will bring stability to this understanding. With this understanding, we find tranquility. Calm.

Which all seems pretty familiar. No?

It is a great gift when we are able to succeed and experience the satisfaction of a goal completed. We feel exhilaration and relief. It is a blessing when we turn the requisite steps of success toward the development of our best selves. This is when we find calm. Equanimity. And this is what Patanjali is getting at. This is how we find the stability to stick with our resolve. To go the distance on behalf of ourselves so we can be tranquil.

As an exercise, consider answering the following.

What efforts do you make that lead you toward greater stability in your self-knowledge, toward personal calm? What actions can you commit to that will lead toward this stability?

What efforts or actions do you make that lead you away from this stability? What actions should you release because they deter you from calm?

It’s a good time for this kind of reflection. It’s the new year. It’s a time of renewal. Of course, any time is appropriate to begin considering your patterns of activity that serve or challenge you. But now is now. And this is the only moment I have. Join me in giving it a little thought.

Because time is always moving. And we all are so lucky to move along with it. Hopefully, with great love for the calm in our souls and the bodies that usher them around this good earth.

Finding happiness…

Well. Here’s a great big topic. Finding happiness.

I can hear the snorts. See the eye rolls. Because a whole lot of folks think happiness is something that rumbles into them. A storm that dumps rainbows and unicorn tears on the heads of those born under perfect stars. Or worse: a consequence of status. As if financial security brought happiness. Sheesh. If this was the case, I think all the billionaires in the world would be way friendlier. And not trying to take more and more from those with less and less.

But I digress.

Happiness. Consider for yourself how you feel it. Is it the consequence of situations outside of your control? Or is it some kind of magic that arises when the state of your mind allows it? And if your happiness was the result of external circumstances, how long did it last? Was it fleeting? Maybe just a moment of pleasure that you confused for happiness? (Which is not to say that pleasure can’t complement happiness… it can!) And if it came from within, can you access that feeling again? Like, right now?

Ready, go.

This is sort of how you cultivate happiness. (Though there are a lot of things you can do to help you do this. Like yoga! Call me!) No matter what, however, it must be cultivated. It doesn’t just find you. You may have friends who seem unrealistically lucky; you may know people who don’t seem to suffer quite as much as you. But look carefully before you make your assessment. Are you friends actually so lucky, or do they do something to create their good fortune? Do you truly believe they’ve failed to suffer in their lives?

We have the seeds of happiness within. And all the factors to allow them to grow. But we have to do a little work to get the sprouts sprouting. It’s sort of like seeing a beautiful plot of land alongside a river in a valley of sunshine and realizing no one’s planted a veggie garden. It’s just going to take the decision to become a gardener.

Take a moment. Look inside. And source that deep love and gratitude that occasionally overwhelms you. That’s where your seeds hunker down, waiting.

In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali writes about the arising of negative emotions. ‘When harassed by negative thoughts, one should cultivate their opposite.’ You can find this at chapter 2, sutra 33. And this, in a nutshell, is how happiness is created. When we indulge again and again in negative emotions as they arise, we cast a spell over ourselves. We come to believe that we have no control over them. We victimize ourselves with them. We say things like, ‘there’s nothing I can do.’

This kind of magic isn’t the kind that serves our best selves. So why do we bother with it? Because, somehow, we’ve been convinced that we can’t do anything to change. Despite the fact that change is always happening. Every moment.

Happiness attends the liberating realization that you can shape the change happening in you. This is also an important teaching of yoga. With the wise decisions that come from careful self-study—svadhyaya—we can influence the direction of change in our life. We can never stop change; we can shape the course it takes.

Consider the amount of time we spend cultivating things—relationships, careers, homes, gardens. This is a way that we shape the course of our lives. We don’t expect these things to manifest for us without a degree of effort. Positive emotions and the happiness that blossoms as a result of our practice with them requires the same effort.

The next time you find yourself stewing in a sludge of yucky blahs, take control of your mind. Remind it that you’ve got seeds somewhere in there and you’d like to water them a bit. Then shine some light on them. Think a happy thought. Turn your frown upside down. And keep doing that. Again and again. Forever.

Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tanninirodhah. With practice and detachment, your mind will calm. It may take a while. But so did saving for your home, your graduate degree and all those other things you hoped would make you happy. And didn’t quite hit the mark.

The point of yoga is you.

I’ve got some rubberband hamstrings. I love to stand on one foot. Most of the time, gravity is challenged by me. And sure, I did hanumanasana in the cradle. A man once told me that he wanted a girl who slept in half pigeon. Well. I may or may not have fed that fantasy.

So it’s not surprising I do yoga. It pretty much came with the body. (A functional body for which I am grateful.)

But here’s the rub: I started doing yoga as an angsty teenager who wanted to find something greater than the world I perceived. I saw malls and bad movies and ugly fashion choices and made my commentary by scowling heavily. As in, I just didn’t have anything else to pierce to lodge another complaint against the world and its inhabitants. So I made myself look at the world differently.

Lucky for me, my crunchy-granola high school offered yoga. Unlucky for me, the teacher really liked my hanumanasana. Not in a gross way. But certainly in a way that pet my ego. I tolerated it because who doesn’t like to be pet sometimes? Plus, I was 16.

As I got older, and the brawn of my ego waxed and waned, I always knew I had hanumanasana. But I also kept hoping to see the world differently.

I meditated sporadically. Did asana with the ardor of a Sound of Music nun. And I played around with pranayama and meditating occasionally. Never enough to feel any different, if I’m honest. The only thing I was finding in yoga was a body moderately changed from adolescence. A good feat, I admit. But at 30, I suspected that my mind had stalled as well. I sometimes felt angry about my life choices. I’d become a lawyer in the middle of all that asana. I was fighting all the time for causes that would never resolve in a fight. I was sad. Sometimes, I was angry.

The truth I was missing is that yoga is a philosophy AND a practice. Or, to be more clear, understanding the philosophy is PART of the practice. And the way to understand the philosophy– in addition to studying it carefully– is to recognize that yoga offers a system for anyone to attend to their body, energy, mind, personality and heart.

The first step, I think, to appreciating this system is to gain control of your breath. When you start to regulate your own breath the deeper purpose becomes much more clear. But controlling the breath takes practice. Pattabhi Jois used to say, ‘practice, practice and all is coming.’

So how does this work? What does the breath have to do with anything?

Pranayama, or the practice of breath, is the fourth limb of the eight-branched system of yoga. It follows the guidance on personal discipline, social conduct and the method of asana. Krishnamacharya, my teacher’s teacher, said ‘Control the breath, focus your mind, and direct it into the heart. That is the meaning of spirituality.’ The breath, then, helps you bridge the divide between moving your body and the more subtle stuff. In Patanjali’s Sutras, it is sandwiched between the practice of asana, or poses, and pratyahara, the mindful taming of our senses. It’s that part of the yoga infrastructure that leads you toward the integration of your body, your personality, your intellect, your energy, your heart. But like bridges in America, we might have let it crumble a bit. Despite having to use the bridge daily.

We really should be a little more attentive to the state of these things.

To jumpstart that attention, look around for a teacher who can help you learn to regulate your breath. It really is just that simple. You can even call me, if you’d like. I promise I won’t totally freak you out.

Though I may ask you to consider your commitment to your own sadhana—your personal practice. This means reconsidering your relationship to your yoga. Not the yoga of poses and studios. The yoga of you. Are you simply doing a series of poses at the gym so your hamstrings get lengthen? Are you even aware of what you’re asking of yourselves when you hang out with your asses up in downdog? Or are you engaging with the science of a personal practice?

I hear you: Ugh. A personal practice. You mean I have to think about what I need? Or, maybe, like a student who recently complained that she didn’t like moving at the pace of her breath, you’d prefer to keep bouncing around like an acrobat for a little while longer? It’s cool. All of this stuff only works when you’re ready. As Patanjali put it: ‘Atha yoganusasanam.’ You have to get to the atha—the now. You have to be ready to perceive the now.

But when you do, you’ll be intermittently overwhelmed by the transformation that happens. Seemingly without your own effort, though, of course, you’re the one doing the work. The thing is, you’ll just be preparing yourself to breathe. Then breathing. Breathing to do the work better.

Which, I think, is the whole point of yoga. That you’re changing yourself for yourself, so you can explore the relationships you nurture—between yourself and your body, yourself and your mind, yourself and others, yourself and your higher purpose. Ultimately, the whole point of yoga, I think, is to help you love yourself. And that love—regardless of the length of your hamstrings, the shape of your downdog—is the highest and best use of your life.

So I guess what I’m saying is that the point of your yoga isn’t yoga. The point of your yoga is you.

The form of your yoga.

A few weeks back, I met a brilliant woman at a party who, slightly drunk, invited me to her Jazzercise class. And I, maybe a little goofed as well, said, ‘ohmygodyes.’

When I say she was brilliant, I mean it. She had a shine. She radiated. She talked about her classes and her students and her pathways into, through and amongst the roses of Jazzercise with all the verve of a true devotee. Because she is.

The morning came and I totally missed it. Sigh. (And I dreamed of rocking a leotard with a belt.)

But check this out. While the party did its ebb and flow, I learned that this woman teaches Jazzercise five days a week. Two classes a day. And she’s kept this schedule for 30 years. She has an average of 50 students in her classes. People have been following her for decades. This woman IS, essentially, a guru. She initiates others into a knowledge she’s gathered and honed so they may share in some delight for life.

Which made me think a little more carefully about the status of yoga in our world. By and large, it’s still perceived as an athletic, acrobatic activity for the lithe and limber. As someone fairly lithe and limber, I totally get the source of the perception. But, as I’ve muttered a million times when people blah blah blah about their favorite postures, yoga ain’t all that. It’s not limited to striking poses or wearing tight pants. It also isn’t just playlists or awesome sticky mats either.

Yoga is whatever magical activity you do that consumes you. It compels your body to respond to your mind and your mind to attend to your body. The cooperation between the body and mind lets your essential nature—your soul, your self, your absolute and divine you—experience small moments of liberation. Guess what? Freedom of the true nature is the whole point. That’s yoga.

So yoga is a transformative process, meant to release you from the confines of all that silly limitation. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, he suggests that we can only clear our perceptions by confronting the obstacles that drop a veil over them. These obstacles will be familiar to us all: ignorance, ego, attachment, aversion and an overly aggressive clawing at life. Our practice of yoga is meant to help us see that our bodies and minds are simple tools of perception; that our true nature inhabiting these temporary abodes are truly joyful; that clinging to the temporary is akin to trying to take up residence in a sand castle. Something like that.

All of which is to say that your practice of asana—the poses yoga is so well known for—is only a gateway to a higher ground. And, in truth, your practice of asana is sort of irrelevant. You might like to do Tai Chi instead. Or backward crab walking. Or Jazzercise. Whatever it is that gives you that connection between the body and the mind so your nature can elevate above their transience: that’s your yoga.

Which, of course, begs the question: what is your yoga? And how can you let it grow so that you become a source of joy fueling this world of yours?

Let your yoga grow up.

For years, I practiced Ashtanga.

With all the enthusiasm of a kid, honestly.

Intermittently, my practice may have been a touch irresponsible. I pushed myself into certain postures for no other reason than I wanted to achieve. So simple; so rambunctious. Urdva dhanurasana, with an ankle bind, is a good example from my old circus repertoire. I knew my body would eventually give into the pose because my hypermobile body does that. And my mind, well, it’s an achievement-oriented mind anyway—anxious to prove and succeed. Very little gets in the way of my mind.

If I’d been a little more thoughtful at the time—or prepared for this kind of thinking—I would have recognized that a better way, for me, would be to challenge myself to be strong enough to forego the pose. Or, let’s say, honor what might be a principled tightening of my body to strengthen the musculature around my loose-goosey ligaments. And that, honestly, might have yielded a better experience in the pose. I might have actually experienced the function of the pose, rather than appropriate the form for one silly purpose: showing off.

And I did show it off. To my teacher, to other students, to my students. I didn’t blow up balloons or throw confetti. But I always knew I could do it. Gold star for me. Woo.

Until I was injured. Whoops! I had to go through 6 months of physical therapy to fix my shoulder. I was 31. Sigh. It sucked to discover mortality.

But a little suffering is okay if it doesn’t get in your bones and sink you. And that experience, honestly, became the catapult that made me learn yoga. It made my yoga grow up.

I’d been practicing for 12 years when I hurt myself. I honestly believed that challenging poses would quiet my mind. And they probably did. Sometimes. But I hadn’t come to understand what yoga really meant for me. That the quiet mind would come with the practice of calming detrimental instincts. Like needing to achieve at the expense of my humility. Like believing I wasn’t good enough if I couldn’t achieve. Like ignoring pain.

What I realized then was that, as a teacher, if I planned to share yoga with others, I had to figure out how to be safe about it. And it’s taken me another few years (and some really good teachers—Gary Kraftsow, Juris Zinbergs, Neal Ghoshal and Vincent Bolletta, among others— to work my way through this idea. Here’s where I’ve arrived: safety means understanding the principles of yoga as a system of transition. Not a system of achievement.

My teacher Gary refers to Nathamuni’s stages of life when he describes the way yoga should change as we age.

For the first 30 years or so—what Gary calls the sunrise period—we’re growing, cultivating power, learning balance, discovering morality. Through this period, yoga should be rigorous, disciplined, designed to improve character. From this point of view, practices like Ashtanga make sense. Training the body restrains the mind. But then the body starts to change. And so does the mind.

We approach our midstage—midday—and our interests shift. We find that we’re subject to death; we want to delay it. We want to protect our health so we can nurture others. We want to protect our bodies so they carry us along a journey whose distance we start to appreciate. This is when we discover that asana alone isn’t resolving our stress or helping our diet or improving our relationships. If we’re lucky, someone suggests that we might want to refine our asana to move with our breath. We may want to work with our breath. We may start to meditate. Even if we’re not so lucky, we intuit these things and seek our way alone. We age.

By the time we reach our sunset phase, we might be well-oriented toward self-realization. Or not. But inevitably we’re going to have to turn inward. Maybe. Or, at least, we acknowledge the fact of an approaching demise (may the approach be languorous and quiet). Yoga in this phase should focus on meditation, prayer and ritual. On the ways that allow us to manage our impermanence. To resolve our karma. Arguably, this could be the most strenuous phase. Especially if we haven’t learned the discipline of asana and breath.

The thing about yoga? It’s a system. It’s so much more than asana, if we let it grow up.

Yoga offers a practice for every phase of life, for anyone breathing, for everyone willing. From asana to pranayama to meditation, prayer, ritual and conduct, it’s a comprehensive system comprised of discrete, but complementary, elements. And these elements are available at every stage for anyone looking to find them. Someone at 25 may want a more transcendent practice. Someone at 75 may want to keep up their asana. It’s all good. Yoga provides. And it transforms.

Because everything is always shifting. The way we do yoga, and teach it, should respect this by becoming as mature and wise (and generous and playful) as our natures will possibly bear.

Just what does a teacher know?

In the last few months, I’ve had the neat fortune to meet a variety of new students. Cool students. Nice students. Funny students, highly intelligent students, friendly students who daily teach me that I know almost nothing. These students are also generous enough to trust me to work with them. It’s a privilege and I appreciate them. They teach me about my blindspots—about what I don’t know, which is too much—and keep me more than a little nervous that I won’t be able to help. And I want to help. That’s in my nature as much as causing trouble and talking too much.

The truth is: I worry. I worry about these people—body, mind and soul. They come to yoga because they want something. They want for something. It might be a physical yearning for flexibility that gets them in the studio. A hope for strength or balance. Or it might be a suspicion that the life they’re leading could be different. Somehow.

Regardless of how acceptable yoga has become—in gyms, churches, schools—it carries the legacy of mysticism. I don’t write that lightly. Exploring the mystic is at the very heart of yoga. Acknowledging the students’ curiosity into this union between intellect and the divine is probably the greatest, and most delicate, responsibility of the yoga teacher.

And that’s why I worry.

I don’t want to sound precious, but yoga ain’t just moving around. When someone wants a guide to usher them toward something interesting and deep, the guide better have at least a small torch. With extra batteries. And maybe a compass that isn’t broken.

Which increases the responsibility of the teacher, doesn’t it? Because the yoga teacher is helping bodies breathe then move and align as appropriate. From there, she invites minds to notice the breath and movement and alignment so the experience becomes internal. And if she has the will, she invites the spirit to observe the interaction between the body and mind.

To teach, then, means to be willing to look into these areas personally. And that’s not always easy. I don’t think I’m kicking a sacred cow when I acknowledge that yoga teachers are, with a few rockstar exceptions, poorly paid for their work. Most of them are just a teacher training ahead of their students, and that training may not have included much more than a sequence, a script and a little exposure to anatomy. The first teacher training I attended, in the way back, spent five hours on lining up trikonasana, another hour on music choices but only a short morning session on the Yoga Sutra limited to the yamas and niyamas. (I’ll always be grateful for my disappointment with that course; the utter banality of it got me to India—a trip that taught me to always study the self as carefully as the guru.)

As a teacher, I want folks to find a way in yoga that will endure as long as they do. As long as they have an interest in yoga, I want to provide some insight and knowledge for their consideration. And I find this challenging, to be candid. Because I don’t know everything I’d like to know. And I don’t have all the insight I want. Not for myself, and certainly not for others. But I try to admit what I don’t know. I wish I could chant without blushing and recite the Sutra and meditate really peacefully. I wish I could offer prayer without first questioning its value. I wish I could breathe without losing count, that my body didn’t occasionally hurt and my mood didn’t occasionally sour.

But this is me. And the best thing I can offer, I think, is my absolute conviction that a little bit of yoga, carefully done (no playlist required, folks!), with connection to the breath and a generous and enthusiastic heart, is going to calm the mind. First, a little. Over time, more and more. And then even more.

And I remind myself that it’s a matter of happiness and will and faith and finding stability in what I know. Also, that my own teachers are flawed and funny. And unabashedly aware of it.

We are all a mess with an instinct to become art. As I interpret Patanjali (visoka va jyotismati, 1-36), finding joy despite or because of this may just give us a peaceful place to rest.

 

Yoga on the inside.

Ah, re-entry. I’ll use the metaphor of that awesome Philae probe landing on a hurtling comet to announce myself back in the world: where are my harpoons?! (I would also sing for you. Like this.)

Fortunately, like the Philae, I’ve made a ‘fairly gentle landing’ and I’m curious all over again about what’s what. This old, familiar terrain is new again. And because I’m more human than machine, I get to feel out the sensations of shift even as I operate ground control. Whoop!

So what am I on about? For two weeks, I camped and learned at a phenomenon I call hippie-yoga camp. I do it twice a year with the American Viniyoga Institute’s Foundations for Yoga Therapy program. We are a strange batch of yogis. If yoga remains in anyway subversive, this form of yoga is perfectly tailored—or, maybe, purposefully left seamless—for the misfits.For two weeks, we discuss body mechanics, the physiology of the breath, yoga philosophy, sequencing skills and a bit of esoterica. The asana practice, while understood as the gateway for the west into yoga, is taken fairly lightly. We don’t pretend that perfection is possible. Not in the physical manifestation of a pose or in the emotional result. We are flawed and deteriorating bodies. Our goal is to rot gracefully, as free from our neuroses, attachments and silly limiting behaviors as possible. The time we spend cultivating this grace is what yields the grace itself.

(I won’t prattle on about how much I’d like the training to go on and on; you can snoop on my love letter yourself.)

When the two weeks end, we disperse to our worlds. The worlds where we didn’t/don’t fit so well. We try to figure out how to fit again with this insight into the things we really should leave behind.

So here are some impressions. The rocks and dips around me matter far less than my internal topography. Which is to say: what is outside me is all perception gathered by my busy, seeking mind, which, in its great hubris, has decided to identify as me. The thing is, my mind is overstepping its place.

What I am isn’t a matter of the elements around me but an inherently balanced energy within. Because my mind is so damn communicative, however, I’ve listened to it for most of my years. What a nag. Let this be a lesson to us highly verbal humans: watch the word count else others begin to believe our bullshit.

Being heard has given my mind power to say that it knows how to describe my nature better than anyone else. It says things like, ‘you should be really worried’ and ‘people probably don’t want to read this blog.’ Oh mind of mine: please hush yourself.

I write this now because I’m highly aware that the privilege of hippie-yoga camp is the access to these kinds of insights. As time distances me from the wild turkeys who accompanied me down the hill every morning, and the deer who gathered at my campsite like I was some sort of Snow White, my mind will probably regain some control. Or maybe I’ll be able to keep it at bay? Asana is a start. Pranayama is a whole other experience in silence. And the moment after I let go of controlling the breath? That’s the glimpse of quiet that I’d like to grow.

Defenses usually dismantle upon observation, just like monsters in the closet. And if the mind is offering anything to any of us, for the most part, it’s a fortress hiding the light of our true nature. With practice and letting go, these obstacles clear up.

Patanjali said, abhyasavairagyabhyam tannirodha. My teacher says that it’s practice that allows the letting go. So, onward to the yoga. In all of its forms. It is the cause and effect of innate faith.

Yoga is so hard, for other reasons.

Inevitably, when people learn that I teach yoga, I get this: ‘Oh god, yoga is crazy hard.’ Or, ‘Yoga! I’d do it if I wanted to, you know, rip up my joints.’ Or this: ‘Sometimes I worry I might break my neck. Is that normal?’ Finally, the most common of the common doozies: ‘I did P90X yoga. Whoa. Killer.’ Yikes.

Also perversely funny. Is a marketing campaign successful when the public perceives the product as potentially homicidal? Maybe these days, yes? In place of bolsters and blocks, should we stock our studios with helmets and pads? Maybe we should introduce tigers to class? And gladiatorial guest teachers?

So what’s going on here? Are the people attending yoga classes junked out on adrenaline?

And what does that say about people like me? Me and my friends who teach? Those of us who practice daily? Are we the executioners? The kids with suicidal tendencies?

Well, this turned grim in a jiffy. (Here I thought I was nurturing a little happiness in some handy pockets.)

No question that yoga asana, done safely, offers some decent challenges. Poses present little tests for the body. Sometimes you need strength you don’t quite have; sometimes, it’s balance. Or flexibility. Maybe you need to learn how to relax into something; or to let go while remaining stable; or to contain mobility while remaining soft. Generally, all of this guided by a healthy helping of the breath.

It’s a bundle of action, that’s for sure.

But it isn’t death-defying. And it shouldn’t be risky. The key to putting all this together is a focused mind. And that, my friends, is the greatest challenge of all. Preparing yourself for Bird of Paradise or Sirsasana might seem like a task demanding life insurance but I’d argue that an appropriate response to that fear might be: ‘I’m not ready.’ Not, ‘let’s give it a go, then!’

Which is where the focused mind comes in. A clear mind—one that listens to the depth and quality of the breath and the alarm bells in the body—is a mind that will put the brakes on before you launch into Visvamatrasana without adequate knowledge of your undertaking. A clear mind knows when to say, ‘no, thanks,’ and ‘not yet.’

And this, with respect, is what those yoga classes poking at the mental hive of mortality are failing to cultivate. At the very beginning of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, he writes yogas citta vritti nirodha. Yoga is the ability to direct and sustain the mind’s attention without distractions. Or, yoga calms the fluctuations of the mind. When this happens, tada drastu svarupe avasthanam. Correct understanding happens.

In other words: when you understand, you don’t perceive the poses as inherently dangerous. You know your limit and respect it. You play carefully before you reach it. You’ll have the vision to see why you don’t need to launch into that bird of paradise or headstand. You’ll have the courage to sit the pose out. You’ll realize that the true challenge of yoga is the maintenance of this focus, and not the silly poses, some of which, are nothing more than ego boosters in an esoteric disguise.

There is yoga for everyone, you know. It is mindful yoga—modified for the body performing it, appropriate to the background and experience of the person. If a teacher is making you look around for the reaper, I’d argue you’re in the wrong class. Listen to your suspicions, ask for help or roll up your mat and find someone who will help you. Or, if you’re looking to really experience yoga and what you’re doing is just throwing weights around in poses with battlefield-ready names, I’d suggest you look around for something different. Go ahead and brave the quest to understand. I dare you.

Yoga is out there to help you discover peace in your mind. So you can discover the consciousness behind it. And your truest, joyful nature.

What a gift. Thank you, Patanjali. To correctly and clearly understand. Imagine the burden this kind of clarity removes from your life beyond the mat. Imagine how much easier life will be when you work on the truly challenging part of yoga: the focusing of the mind.