As I’ve begun my journey as a new yoga teacher over the past year, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the essence or heart of yoga. What is it exactly about yoga that makes me passionate both as a student and now a teacher?
It’s difficult of course to talk about THE heart of yoga, since yoga means many different things to many different people. One of the most noticeable aspects of the modern-day yoga community here in the States is the incredible diversity of reasons why people come to a yoga class. If you were to conduct a poll of people entering any given yoga studio and ask “Why did you come today?”, I think you would be amazed at the variety of responses.
Some are coming simply for a good workout. Some are coming for a personal oasis during the day – a chance to get away from the job, the to do list, the day-to-day grind. Some are coming to recover from injuries and wounds, both physical and psychological. And some come seeking the more spiritual aspects of the yoga tradition – to discover their true selves and perhaps find a little bliss along the way.
I think it’s quite a positive thing that many people are coming to a yoga practice from so many different perspectives. I think it actually speaks to (if you will excuse the pun) the flexibility of yoga in meeting a wide-range of needs of the modern person. Not bad for a tradition that’s been around for several millennia.
As I go into this question of the heart of a yoga practice, I realize that I can only really speak for myself and from my own experiences along the path. I am also a firm believer in the maxim “One Truth, Many Paths” – that there is a multitude of ways to express the same perennial truth. I realize that my words are, at best , mere fingers pointing at the moon.
Even though I can only speak of the heart of my yoga practice, I still think these thoughts may be helpful to someone at the beginning of their yoga path or someone interested in seeing things from a different perspective.
So, I come to this question: when I am teaching a yoga class to a group of students, what am I really trying to get across, what am I really hoping to share with them?
The heart of what I hope to cultivate in a yoga class – whether as teacher or student – is essentially an inner experience. It isn’t so important to me that I or anyone else perfects any one particular posture. I don’t think there is anything magical about an asana in and of itself – as if doing a perfect Virabhadrasana II is the mysterious ticket to everlasting nirvana. I think some people were born to do the uber-flexible advanced postures of yoga – but many of us aren’t.
I’m also not particularly interested in advancing a particular belief system. I think yoga’s current appeal in the West in terms of spiritual matters is that it offers a way of relating to spirituality – of connecting to the sacred, to the divine, to God – that isn’t about believing one particular way or subscribing to a specific dogma.
I believe yoga’s true gift (though it obviously doesn’t belong exclusively to yoga) is an inner experience of transformed awareness. In other words, yoga provides a radically new way of feeling our connection to the world and a transformed way of experiencing ourselves.
As we relax, expand, and open both the body and mind throughout the course of a yoga class, we clear a space within ourselves that is ordinarily cluttered by all the anxieties, fears, tensions, and doubts of our fast-paced lives. Within this cleared, open space, something else, something deeper, something more profound finally has the chance to speak.
If we are bold enough to listen, we find that it is our true selves – a self not exclusively rooted, however, to the narrow confines of me and mine, my story and my wants. This open, expanded self doesn’t necessarily reject what we feel we need and want in life, but it puts it all in a fresh, expanded perspective. I personally don’t subscribe to the notion that a spiritual practice is meant to help us transcend our earthly existence, as if there is something wrong with being a living, breathing human being on planet earth. In fact, my experience has been that a yoga practice helps us reconnect to the splendor of just being who we are, in a gorgeously interdependent world of plants, animals, sunshine, mountains, and all the wonders of life.
This newfound connection to life, brought about by the transformation of our consciousness, offers not just a solution to our modern sense of alienation and dissatisfaction, but also offers a blueprint for relating in a more ethical and responsible way to our fellow human beings and our ecological environment.
At this point, you may be asking: isn’t this a tall order for an hour-long asana class, often scheduled between one student’s business meeting and another’s commute to pick the kids up from school? Well, in my opinion, the heart of yoga doesn’t reside within the walls of any one yoga studio, nor does it always involve a yoga mat. Yoga is a transformative way of living one’s life, right here and now, whether you are attempting a headstand or folding the laundry, whether in deep meditation or looking into the eyes of your loved one.
I hope these thoughts bring some new inspiration and insight to your practice, whether you are just beginning or have been at it for many, many years. Yoga can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people, so I share this not to convince you of the “right” way to do yoga, but to hopefully inspire you to find the heart of your yoga practice.