Thursday, February 21, 2013

Teaching Yoga: Opening a Path for Everybody

There is a responsibility in teaching yoga that goes beyond my own practice. It all boils down to creating a space where seekers seek, athletes work out, the ill heal, the lost find company and a shape is given to that for all of them. People respond to different types of stimulation, are attracted to varying degrees of intensity, and definitely have vastly different amounts of time to give to a yoga practice. For some, it must fit into that one hour slot in a work day, or that open time on a weekend or evening, and for others everything shapes itself around practice. Some can commit to a weekly practice, others to daily and others barely commit, using yoga as an occasional activity. Some come looking for their physical limits, others bring their physically limited bodies in search of an ethereal self.

I've been to such a range of classes as a student that I cannot help but wonder about communicating the essentials, giving the raw ingredients that can be used in so many ways. Surely discipline and physical prowess were a part of the ancient practices when men of contortionist skill displayed their asana ability to spur a desire for the practice and a healthy dose of amazement at what that practice could make of a human body.  But there was reverence also for the aesthetes, who suffered in silent isolation in the mountains waiting for the divine insights, and the ecstatics who cried out for the beloved in all things. Through all these avenues, the ego was seen and the mind's grip loosened from the attachments that limit perception, allowing escape from the I-me-mine framework that ruins so much of life. Possibilities opened on all these paths, and the suffering of grasping and aversion could be understood and reduced.

It is no surprise that there are students who must be pushed to their physical limits in order to feel their deepest awareness of self judgment and attachment. I'm not sure that there is enough encouragement to cultivate that level of awareness in some of those classes where the body is used to create the endorphin high that takes one out on the trip of bliss in Savasana.  Certainly there are those who can use their bodies to build strength and skill, learn trust in the breath, and push their practice into the unknown through these challenging asana classes. There are also those whose seeking will not take their physical practice to that level, perhaps living in bodies that can improve in health and integration, but will not transform into that level of athleticism. The practice does not require an able body, nor even a brilliantly trained mind. The practice only demands willingness and at a certain point, commitment. Yoga is not a weight loss program nor a reversal of aging elixir. Yoga is not a cure-all, nor a religion. But my goodness yoga is definitely an opportunity to broaden perspectives and live a fuller life as the person you actually are, encouraging each person to more fully inhabit the body they have and develop the mind they brought with them.

So as a yoga teacher I feel it is my responsibility to offer from the heart of the principles as I have come to know them. My own practice being one of open inquiry, rather than a structured sequence of asana, within which the subtleties are explored, that is what I tend to teach. I started yoga in my late 40s, without an athlete's or dancer's training. My first experiences brought me to my knees (child's pose, actually) because of the insights that arose during those early practices, the profound support I felt for being myself that saturated the practice, and the absence of dictates that pushed me into corners from which I could not see or experience for myself. There was no authority other than my own intelligences: my mind, my heart, my sensations, the space between my inhale and my exhale.

In this way I think that the path remains open to everybody: those who must sweat it out with fast paced and demanding physical asana sequences, those for whom it is the ancient texts that beckon with pearls and stars of insight, those for whom the seeking of the quiet place on the cushion, the mat and in the mind are the glimmers of truth between the asana, and those for whom the sound of breath around them is the deepest comfort, having a place to go where someone will see them with compassionate care, and hold them equal to the task of being who they are.

The classes that I teach are not all things to all students. I've been subbing classes lately and I know that I am offering a practice, but that it is not the same tempo or temperament as those of the absent teacher. For the students, I believe this is a good thing. The experience of yoga comes in so many forms and running into a substitute teacher can offer a glimmer of that. It is also a beautiful mirror to use to see their own practice, get a sense of the expectations they may have brought with them, find a new view of their self judgment, and cultivate awareness in myriad parts of their life experience.  It is exactly the same opportunity for me, as the teacher. Seeing my offering in new ways, sensing my own constraints and expectations, observing the view of my teaching from a new perspective, and growing my own practice as their teacher.

The range of people I teach, from young athletes to centenarians, is my sharpest tool for keeping the path open for everybody. I see my task is just that, stretching my own mental structures, asana practices, and understandings in order to assist others to find the opening to their own path.

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