The Little Lessons…
Recently several of my students, at separate times, presented me with an article about the dangers of yoga. The article discussed the very real fact that yoga can lead to injuries, especially when practiced with a fervor that does not honor the body’s signals and limitations. One very wise student (Ginny), pointed out the article’s reference to the struggle many modern yoga practitioners face, sometimes unwittingly, with “ego and obsession”. There is always someone in class, in a magazine, or on the internet who can do a more challenging pose, or can do a pose with greater precision or depth. It is a very real part of our nature to try to be the best, to push ourselves beyond our limits in the pursuit of some idealized goal.
My initial response to this article was to receive it with gratitude. It had opened up a discussion, not only in my classes, but in the broader public discourse, about something that needed to be brought to light. As yoga has grown in popularity, there has been a lot of talk about its myriad benefits. And they are many! But the truth is yoga can lead to injury when practiced carelessly. We are putting our body in some funky positions, doing things our body may not be used to. And more importantly, we all have different bodies, different limitations, different edges. Discussing this article opened the door to discussing the importance of honoring our bodies where they are at and establishing a comfort with developing a practice that supports us rather than harms us.
As I sat with awareness around the whole topic, a deeper level of understanding also blossomed. I began to think about what inspires my own personal yoga practice. For me, the physical postures have always been a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves. My practice has been informed by the 8-limbs of yoga, only one of which is asana (physical posture). I have found that practicing asanas has not only prepared my body for prolonged periods of meditation, as was its original intention, but it has served to detoxify my body of stored-up stress and tension. It has connected me deeply to my body and all its wisdom, informing me of places in my body that are holding tension, emotional build-up, and memories of past traumatic experiences. It has provided me with a way to let go of those toxins and return to a feeling of comfort, balance, and peace within my physical experience.
My personal practice of yoga has always been driven by my intention to cultivate contentment, resilience, concentration, and perhaps most importantly, the capacity to be truly engaged with my present experience. To me, this is one of the greatest jewels a yoga practice can offer. I have practiced with the intention of learning to, in the words of Deepak Chopra, In the midst of movement and chaos, keep stillness inside [me]. The discussion inspired by my students presenting this article to me reminded me to share this other aspect of my yoga practice with my students. I realized I had over the years of teaching drifted from an emphasis in my classes on pranayama (breath awareness & control), pratyahara (sensory withdrawal), dharana (concentration), and dhyana (meditation and observation of the mind) to mostly focusing on alignment and deepening of the asana practice.
As many of my students already know, we began focusing with more intention on this aspect of our practice. That is not the focus of this article, however. What I would instead like to reflect on here is the incredible gift my students gave to me, probably without knowing it, by simply bringing this article to my attention. This served as an inspiration to me to re-examine myself as a teacher and reminded me to bring the fruits of my personal practice into the classroom. The truth is, each and every class I receive the gift of my students’ unique presence and inspiration in so many unspoken ways. And thinking of all this reminds me of how life has a way of offering us lessons in the least expected ways. We are all each other’s teachers.
Sometimes life unfolds in the most agreeable, easily-recognized-as-beautiful way. Other times, life offers us challenges, opportunities to see ourselves and the world around us in new, refreshing, and enlightening ways. The key is to be receptive to the lessons of those challenges. In the context of a yoga class, this sort of challenge may come in the form of a limitation, a condition that suddenly interrupts or shifts our practice, or an inability to relax into savasana. In these moments, it’s so helpful to remember that the point of our yoga practice is not to reach some imagined level of perfection. The point of our yoga practice is to come to know ourselves (body, heart, mind, and spirit) more deeply, just as we are, and in doing so, to become actively engaged in supporting the unfolding of our own unique path.
I thank all of you for supporting my path in the many ways that you do, and it is always my intention to support your path to the best of my ability. I encourage you to explore your relationship to yourself, to the other people in your life, and to the world around you each time you come to your mat. The time you spend with yourself in mindful awareness of your present experience can offer a multitude of little lessons.
P.S. Special thanks to Leslie for reminding me it had been a long while since I’d taken the time to write a blog entry. Namaste.