“What’s the point of all of this?” a new student asked one evening after a class I was subbing.
A conversation that had begun with a question about alignment in Ardha Matsyendrasana had quickly morphed into something else.
“I mean, is the point of yoga flexibility? Spirituality? Listening to Radiohead?” asked the seeker, with a nod up to the speakers.
Note to self: remove Radiohead from playlist.
All jokes aside, possible answers were everywhere. If you asked someone in the lounge at the yoga studio, he or she might say, “Because it makes me feel better.” Patanjali says (YS 2.48) once yoga is mastered there is freedom from the pairs of opposites (duality). The Bhagavad Gita says yoga is the breaking of contact with pain.
“There are many reasons that people come to yoga. Why are you here?” I asked.
I turned the question back around to him because although he was asking me, it seemed like he was really asking himself. He said he started taking classes just to try it, and liked the idea of increasing flexibility and strength, but there seemed to be a number of different styles emphasizing different themes and he wondered what the end goal was.
“Why do you practice?” he asked.
Initially, I told him, I liked being physically strong, the bliss I felt after practicing, and being able to bend and move my body in new ways. A few years later, I began to notice the practice’s effect on my mind. Now, after years of studying and practicing ParaYoga, it’s about the soul.
“I practice to connect with that part of me that is untouched by suffering,” I said. “To remember that no matter what is happening, at my core there is a light that is always shining.”
The space between us got more still and for a moment I kind of wished I had that social apparatus where I minced words a little bit. Oh well.
“So at different stages people come to yoga for different reasons, and those reasons may change as your practice deepens. What part would you like to learn more about now?”
He said he was interested in learning the philosophy behind the practice, so I suggested that reading The Heart of Yoga was a good place to start.
The exchange left my heart feeling light and inspired. I had a moment of recommitting to meeting people where they are and then guiding them to a taste of where continued practice can lead. Of teaching in a way that leads fellow seekers across the continuum of their practice. And by continuum of practice, I don’t mean from Virabhdrasana II to Tittibhasana. I mean from “because it makes me feel better” to moving toward a mind and body anchored in a state of steadiness whether life is good or whether they are facing challenges.
There is a little “b” for beginner next to my classes on the schedule at the studio, probably because on a physical level my classes are not advanced. What’s great about that little b is that it is an opportunity to take newer students from learning where to place their feet and to how to breathe evenly to shifting their energy using pranayama, bandhas, and meditation. It is such a gift to meet people who just want to move their bodies and to give them that, and then something more. The best part is watching them leave with a small private smile, having gotten in touch with an inner spark with which they really needed to reconnect.
I think as teachers and as practitioners it is extremely important to have moments like the one that started this post. I am grateful for opportunities to take pause and ask what it is all for. And if over the years the answer is not getting less gross and more subtle, then perhaps it’s time to change how you’re practicing. Ask yourself: Is your yoga changing with you?
And if the methodologies we’re using to teach yoga in the West are not evolving and aren’t being used to create an effect on the whole person, body, mind and soul, then it is definitely time to change how we’re teaching. The old ways are no longer working and the systems that are out of balance are crumbling. We have a group of seekers for 90 minutes. If all we give them during that time hits the physical body, it is a missed opportunity.
It’s all well and good to be able to do tittibhasana. It’s more important to know who you are. Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive. We can have knowledge of both. But if practice and teaching is feeding the arm balance side over the Self-knowledge side, it’s time to redo the equation.
Have you been in a class lately that had a lot to do with cool poses, and very little, if anything about the encouragement of the soul? And teachers, how do you fulfill their desire to do a physical practice and at the same time impart the inner spark?