I've been practicing for about eleven years now, teaching for over five and I am continuously learning and growing both through and with my yoga practice. Every accomplishment or setback I have seems to teach me something new about my body, my perspective, what Yoga is and what it means to teach it. To me, Yoga is the framework that supports a profound life. It is so much more than poses alone.
Most people get started with yoga through the asanas, there is a certain appeal to them for health reasons (relaxing, becoming more flexible) or even simply out of curiosity for the hype. It really doesn't matter why you start practicing yoga, what matters is whether or not you grow through your experiences in class. This has become one of my first intentions as a yoga instructor: to support students' growth through the yogic tradition. It is more than just poses- it's teaching people awareness, which is the first step in living well. Through the daily sequence of poses, breathing, relaxation and meditation we want to raise our awareness. This is simple: what are you doing? How does this make you feel/react? I say it is simple but that is a bit of a lie, for most people it isn't simple. When someone starts coming to class for the first time it is hard to not pay more attention to the teacher or the people around you than you do to your own self. I remember being a beginner and struggling with this. I also remember when I started to gain enough confidence to move away from this. This moving away was a turning inward- trusting that what I felt was just as important as what I was being told. My ability to do this was one part knowing the poses well enough to not watch the teacher and a second part getting better at focusing my hyper-active mind.
It is so important to know that this awareness takes time to build and is primarily built through the practice of focus. Throughout class I am prompting students over and over (and over and over) to set their focus on something: their breath, specific body parts, a point on the wall in front of them. Again, this is no easy challenge but every time I see someone fall out of a pose it is because their eyes are darting around the room. Focus helps to shut the mind and ego up so that you can pay attention (raise awareness) to the more subtle details of the body and breath. We cannot have awareness without the ability to focus and we cannot have any degree of control over our lives without awareness.
Upon reflection, I am always amazed by how much I have grown through my practice of Yoga, but what is more amazing to me is the knowledge of how much more I have left to grow. "Amazed," isn't synonymous with "impressed" either, but used to get the point across that when I began practicing I had absolutely no idea how much I would be able to use Yoga as a way to grow. I believe that the more we know, the more we know that we don't know- there is power to this wisdom. I find this especially true for anything regarding the body and mind, after all we grow and change on an almost daily basis and as such our practices must grow and evolve too. Currently, I am working through a hip and lower back problem and this has opened the door to yet another shift in my perspective of my yoga practice. I cannot sit cross-legged, do you know what that means for an instructor?! So yes, just as soon as I thought I knew how to have the best practice, I had to rebuild my "best practice" to accommodate my body today. I could get upset about how few asanas I can currently do, or how simplistic my practice has become, or I could see the depth of perspective I have brought to each pose that I can do. Because my body is currently so sensitive, I can very clearly see and feel how each pose is affecting me, raising my awareness further.
The reality is if you are practicing and not paying attention (low focus, low awareness) the opportunity for injury is significantly higher. One thing that is absolute when discussing yoga is longevity, for both benefits and detriments. I try to explain to people, especially beginners, that the benefits of practicing yoga are hard to experience if you only do it rarely or for short periods. Of course, any class is going to be great and make you feel great, but if you want to understand why this tradition has been effective for thousands of years there must be commitment. It's incredible to me how far I have evolved by practicing mostly the same poses over and over again. But back to the idea of injury and strengths over time... If you practice yoga regularly well, the benefits will astound you. Likewise, if you practice yoga regularly without focus and awareness, the injuries will also astound you. When the focus of the class is in "nailing the pose" you are going to be so focused on knotting your body into the position described to you that you might fail to notice that your body cannot physically get into that position right now. Yoga is an act of the Soul, not the ego. This example is applied to every single pose, not just the more advanced ones. If you do warrior 1 every day and you are focused on looking like the instructor you might fail to notice what your hips or knees are trying to tell you, then one day, years down the line, you don't understand why you have knee problems. I, the instructor, cannot tell you how to move every part of your body because I am not your body, I can guide the pose then tell you to check in and feel. The more you feel the more easily you can create the perfect pose for yourself. That being said, another one of my intentions as a yoga instructor is to teach people how to feel at peace within their bodies. I love nothing more than when every student in my class is slightly different within the pose because they are honoring their own needs over my directions. Just as it is with the injuries, so to the benefits- if you do a pose regularly and honor the confines of your physical body, the results over time will amaze you. you absolutely cannot force your body to do things, does that mean that it isn't capable of doing what you want? No. But it does mean that it will take an unknown amount of time to achieve the results you are looking for... Yet as I write that I question my point made, because the point is not to get "results" unless these results are to feel healthy, strong and in love with your body.
I get it, it is so tempting to challenge yourself to "nail" a certain pose and that can be apart of the yogic path, but that should not be the point. One of my intentions as a yoga teacher that applies to this query is to teach people to trust in the process. Make your intention to keep focused on only one point throughout practice, or to keep a beautifully fluid breath for all of practice, or to be aware of your body for all of practice. Do not make it your intention to do that crazy pose you see people doing. Trust that if you keep your intention on breath, focus, body, that the incredible pose will manifest itself, eventually. Yoga is a practice of time and patience, nothing comes quickly. Traditionally speaking, the whole point of getting into challenging poses is to master the mind and the ability to keep the body so calm and relaxed that it is capable of anything- it is not about manipulating muscles and joints into abstract forms. Personally, my flow/vinyasa/ashtanga practice has become one that I am good at because of my ability to be with my breath and my body, creating my own body's version of a beautiful flow. If I am distracted it is not beautiful, it does not flow and it might hurt later. Trust that when you nail the essential things that the rest of life manifests itself beautifully. It's about building the right foundation, setting the compass and then letting the rest happen knowing that it can do nothing but align itself to what you have already intended. Try it out in your next class: commit to the basics of breath and focus and absolutely nothing more and see how beautiful and meaningful that class becomes.
Chelsea M Latham
When I was a kid my mom would occasionally refer to me as a Reverend, because I had the need to speak so passionately about just about everything. Little did she know that some day I would build a business upon sharing the wisdom that I am so passionate about. So here you go, here are some bits and bobs of thoughts strung together for your enjoyment.