Yoga is an ancient spiritual tradition, science and art of living founded upon the knowledge that all life is interconnected. Yoga, often inadequately translated as “union,” refers to the action of awakening to, as well as a description of, the unified nature of the True Self. When we perceive ourselves to be separate from life we suffer. As a result of this misperception our actions in the world may be misguided, causing unnecessary pain to ourselves and others. Yoga teaches that we can free ourselves from of unnecessary suffering by recognizing that no “one” and no “thing” is separate from us. We achieve this undivided state through an earnest and careful practice of the eight limbs of Yoga as recorded in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
The eight limbs are the very foundation of yoga. Though many volumes can be devoted to their meaning and application, it is an endeavor that is beyond the scope of this paper and I will keep my description brief. The eight limbs consist of moral codes for living (yamas and niyamas), physical practices (asana) and breath awareness techniques (pranayama) designed to purify and strengthen the mind and body so that attention is free to turn further inward. Through consistent practice we begin to dis-identify with the objects and thoughts held captive by the five senses (pratyahara). We recognize the impermanence of the contents of our consciousness and are invited to concentrate the mind (dharana) on what is unchanging and of lasting value. In time we learn to surf life’s waves with grace so that even in the face of monsoon season, we are able to maintain our equanimity (dhyana) and thereby liberate ourselves to attain our highest potential (samadhi). This may sound all well and good, but the practice of Yoga requires a genuine commitment to become established in the state of freedom. Yoga is for those who are disciplined and perseverant, devoted and humble in a field where everything is verified and understood through first-hand experience. Fortunately, it’s called Yoga practice, not perfection. On this path I think you will find your practice to be your greatest teacher.
The beauty of Yoga is that it is not a religion. Yoga is a philosophy of existence free of dogma and a paternal figure that actively defines your progress. Yoga allows you to come as you are and meet what is arising in the moment. With the veil of perfection raised there is enough room for all of you to show up, even the parts you question, judge and would rather deny. My own personal definition of Yoga has to do with holding space for all aspects of the self. In order to embrace the union of Yoga we must welcome all of ourselves into the room. Yoga isn’t about rejecting or repressing certain things while elevating others. It’s not a power struggle of sacred and profane. It’s about being with it all just as it is, equally. In this way we transcend our patterns of thought, emotion and behavior and resolve residues of unfinished “business.” We step off the figurative wheel of suffering.
Now that you’ve committed yourself to the practice of Yoga and perhaps teaching, you’re probably wondering what comes next. The two pieces of wisdom I will impart from my own experience as a student and teacher of Yoga are: Start where you are and never take off your student “hat.” Most of us are drawn to Yoga through the practice of physical exercise or asana. If you are a considering teaching Yoga this is a fantastic place to start as the largest part of most mainstream studio and fitness club classes are devoted to the art of sequencing, adjusting, demonstrating and calling postures. For this reason, a dedicated asana practice, whether at home or elsewhere, is essential for beginner teachers. The Yoga tradition is not interested in textbook explanations and diagrams. It is primarily concerned with first hand knowing of its observances, physical and otherwise. Practicing asana is especially important in finding unique ways of describing sensation and succinct ways to language technical cues. When you first start teaching you will be amazed at the various ways a simple physical instruction can be interpreted! You are not alone if as you read this you are badgering yourself for not currently having a home practice or are stuck with the quintessential “blank screen” syndrome. Remember your practice is for you and you alone. Try to let go of the “right” way of doing things and find your own way into the practice.
There are various ways to cultivate your home practice. My personal practice involves taking a moment to settle in and listen to what is arising in the moment. This can be done by coming to your seat or to stand and feeling into your body and breath. Open all of your senses and notice what is present. Welcome all physical sensations, emotions, thoughts, beliefs and images into awareness. There may be an overwhelming amount of messengers or not a one. Nothing is still something and if continue to feel stuck notice if you are striving or thinking your way in to your body. Can you melt your eyes and mind into your heart and feel the body from there? Usually something will announce itself quite adamantly. It may be stiffness in the hips or a tired feeling that leads you to a hip opening or restorative focused session. If you need more structure to your practice try focusing on a certain area of the body or category of postures (i.e. forward bends, back bends, standing poses). You can refer to books, videos and sequences you remember from classes you’ve attended to supplement your intuitive process. It may also be helpful to set aside twenty minutes rather than an hour and allow your practice to grow organically. It’s worth saying again; your practice is your teacher. It is only through consistent practice that you become your own unique flavor of teacher.
Cultivating a home practice means never taking off the student “hat.” As teachers, particularly new teachers, we are vulnerable to getting carried away by the many demands and “hats” of the role. It is easy to get so swept up in teaching that I forget to make time to nurture myself as a student of Yoga. For this reason it is crucial to continue learn at home or with other teachers in your community. This alone establishes a fertile ground of inspiration for the teachings of Yoga to naturally and authentically travel through you to your students, family, friends and colleagues. As Donna Farhi states in her book Teaching Yoga, “In the study of Yoga, the teacher can lead the student only as far as she has gone herself. She can shine the light only into places that she herself has been willing to go.” This is no small task and may take a lifetime to explore. The Yoga Sutras define practice as the ability to remain there (I.13). Thus we come full circle; start where you are and continue to evolve and grow as a student of Yoga. Make it your own and teach what you practice. Students have an uncanny ability to sense ingenuity but when it comes from your heart and first-hand experience you can never go wrong. As teachers we mirror the student’s search for authenticity. We will all undoubtedly fail at times but what is most important is the teacher’s sincere and deep commitment.
Lastly, I feel it worthy to mention the practice of Yoga is not limited to physical postures. Your individual work may involve breath awareness, meditation, mantra, reading sacred texts or related books, reflective writing or other creative expressions. If done mindfully, you can be doing Yoga while washing the dishes, walking to work or talking to a loved one. Your practice can blend seamlessly with everyday life and completely transform the way you experience the world.
The place of light within me greets, honors and welcomes the place of light within you. When you are in that place in you and I am in that place in me, we are one. NAMASTE.