I love yoga. I’ve been a half-assed student (which might be an asana, I’m not sure) for close to twenty years. I remember the moment I fell in love with the practice. It was at Kripalu. The teacher was Stephen (Kaviraj) Cope. The pose was trikonasana/triangle. Following Kavi’s precise verbal instruction and watching him model the pose with his beautiful (and beautifully human) body, I suddenly found that I was suspended in space in an unexpected way, my body draped into an unaccustomed but oddly thrilling design. It can do this, too?! I thought. How cool.
Kavi gave point-by-point instruction on how to find the proper alignment. Once there, we were encouraged to feel into it and then relax, including the awesomeness, including the oddness, the beauty, the discomfort, and the enjoyment of not knowing what it was supposed to feel like. His instruction to establish the pose but “relax around the holding” has served me to this day, on and off the mat.
From this, I learned that the first step in asana practice is precision. Each pose has a magical kind of integrity that is awakened only when animated by your body. Without alignment, the integrity goes away. From this precision, an opening of the energetic body is created. The pose then starts to animate you. And the third step, to let go—of expectation, judgment, hope, and fear—allows energy to continue flowing. In this way, honest transformation, the kind that transcends mere self-improvement, can occur.
Precision. Opening. Letting go. I had never related to myself in this way before and it changed the way I felt inside my body. I still love yoga for the same reasons, only more so.
Since then, I’ve been to like a zillion yoga classes: Iyengar, Ashtanga, Kripalu, Anusara, “Power,” Bikram, heated vinyasa, and on and on. I’m not a yoga snob and I pretty much like them all. As long as I shvitz, I don’t really care what the style is. Wherever I live, I just go to the studio closest to my house.
A long time ago, I stopped caring who the teacher was, too. (Apologies to all the incredible, devoted yoga teachers out there.) This is because I stopped being able to count on the skill of my instructor. Some time in the last decade, I found that deep knowledge of asana was replaced with an unchanging posture sequence spiked by a coaching vibe. I don’t care for this, particularly. It’s not that I don’t like repetition, I do. I actually prefer it. But I don’t want just anyone getting all up in my grille with their ideas about who I am and ought to be. First and foremost, I want them to know a lot about asana practice. If their knowledge on this score is great, I would maybe trust them to sneak in some ideas about life. Otherwise, hold the deep thoughts. I can tell when you’re posing, so to speak.
And so I arrive at the point of this post, which is already turning into a bit of a rant. (Apologies.) Yoga teachers, I would like to be taught by you, not “invited” to do this or that. “Make it feel good” is not an instruction. Neither is “do what feels right to you” or “this is the pose I suggest, but if you prefer another one, go ahead.” When I hear things like this, I can’t help but sneak a peak around me. Often, people seem a bit confused, like they’re supposed to know what this means, but don’t. Most interpret it to mean something sloppy or embarrassing. They may start rolling around or making some kind of baby sounds.
“Do what feels right” is actually a super-advanced instruction that requires tremendous self-awareness. Unless you know the proper alignment of a pose, doing what feels right is not a release into an internal energetic shift, but more of a self-indulgent collapse.
Please, before offering too many choices, help the poor guy with his shoulders up about his ears in Downward Dog. Give the young woman who is jutting forward with aggression in Warrior Two permission to rise up out of her waist with elegance instead. I’m not saying we all have to become mini Iyengars, moving our femur bones about and whatnot—but it would be so awesome to focus on meat-and-potatoes alignment. The basics.
Encouraging us to do what we want is more often than not an encouragement to fidget and I’m already pretty good at fidgeting. I excel at doing random stuff just to entertain myself. I would love to hear a yoga teacher counsel stillness. Waiting. Silence. Space. Allowing discomfort, rather than chasing it off. What I really need to practice is the discipline of being with my experience, not creating endless distractions from it.
We live in a culture that eschews discipline as punishment. The truth, though, is that through discipline we find spontaneous, self-arising freedom. On the yoga mat or off. As a student or a teacher.
Discipline begins with coming back to the basics, over and over. Only then can real transformation occur. As the great transpersonal educator and psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo said of music, “spontaneous innovation can only arise from repetition,” and this is one of the smartest things I’ve ever heard anyone say. Ever.
Beloved yoga teachers! I “invite you” to stop inviting us, your students, to do anything and instead to instruct us clearly. Teach from a place of your own inner knowing, from your own intimacy with the practice, from having screwn (yes, a made up word) it up a thousand times, gone back to the mat, worked it out again, and learned each pose from the inside out of your own body.
Don’t humor us. Teach us. Don’t overestimate our skills or the body’s ability to take care of itself, which we so easily confuse with wanting to feel good/look good/deny the realities of age, injury, and anatomy. Don’t assume we need you to make us feel good or create any type of experience for us whatsoever. We can definitely create our own experience—but only when your authentic (honestly attained, personal) wisdom is there to anchor it. The example of your personal presence will always be a thousand times more instructive than your words.
Deepen your practice and deepen it some more. Commit to your own journey and from that commitment allow love for your students to blossom spontaneously. Then take your seat as an adept and teach us what you know.