For fifteen years, I have studied some aspect of yoga philosophy. Since 2002, I formed consistent ongoing relationships with several influential yoga teachers. As my values evolved, yoga revealed useful paths forward and my teachers changed. Setting a personal course for practice is challenging and rewarding, but finding an appropriate teacher is necessary.
My initial understanding of yoga stemmed from a common construct that asana was central and essential to the practice. The metric with which I first measured my progress on the yoga path was the ability to perform the poses better and better. How does one perform a yoga pose better? Is there a trustworthy way to deduce the rights and wrongs of asana? Where should these standards come from?
My teacher Tom Alden defines yoga as the practice of spiritual wellness. After two years of study with him, I understand that spiritual wellness involves observing our experience and responding well from the calm and uncluttered part of our being. The undercurrent of all consciousness, our essential nature, is peace, kindness and intelligence. This essential nature is spirit. These days, having been influenced by my teacher Barbara Benagh, asana practice is a laboratory to conduct and repeat conscious observation. The asana organizes our ongoing inquiry while providing useful insight. Yoga practice allows us to inquire with calm curiosity while compassionately responding to these insights, whatever they may be.
A curious and disciplined student can find a teacher that will effectively assist in honing the skill of practice. Practice is repetition. Repetition reveals experiences that evolve to be trustworthy and comfortable. Over time, an effective teacher helps a student access the universal intelligence that is our essential nature. This wellspring of intelligence merges between student and teacher in the transmission of yoga philosophy. Wisdom is passed on. A student can take this wisdom and experience its truth in practice. Effective practice encourages further learning. This inspiration allows the teachings to flourish. One can teach when some element of yoga experience is grounded in the assured undercurrent of one’s essential nature, leading to meaningful and useful outcomes.
What does all that mean? Teaching requires practice and practice takes time. One can’t teach an essential practice without awareness of essential nature.
After completing my first 200-hour training in 2003, I had about sixteen months of asana and some recreational pranayama experience. I set out to teach without a cohesive relationship with a core teacher of my own. Memorizing what I remembered from other teachers, reading the pose books and participating in classes with visiting master teachers, I wanted all the answers sixteen months in. The alternative was ignorance and that was uncomfortable.
Like one might collect precious objects and artifacts to display in closed glass cases, one might curate knowledge of yoga poses. "Where should the back foot be? Where should my shin be? What should I feel? What is right? Please don’t say I’m wrong.”
Through this challenge, I learned that my ability to perform poses and pay for a teacher training wouldn’t guarantee me a seat in quietly observing the truth of my ongoing reality. In fact, I was unable to sit still. I couldn't be with myself in stillness. My experience was not grounded in universal peace, intelligence, and kindness. The fear of failure, internal chatter, and self-defeating comparison to others, distracted me. With two years of practice under my belt, I was a credentialed yoga teacher who couldn’t teach.
In gathering other people’s yoga truths, I forgot to integrate my own sensitivity with mental activity. Being busy and business-minded robbed me of the process of stabilizing in the awareness of my physical self. The search for quick answers never allowed me to turn my attention inward. I performed without sensitive intelligence and lived life with little self-compassion. Learning this was the key to unlocking the potential of yoga in my life. A decade later, I began arriving at a definition of yoga and a methodology for practice that, at its best, is an ongoing aspiration for spiritual wellness.
I share this because I see this all the time. All information given by teachers is purely hearsay until we can consciously stabilize in our own experience and learn our own truth. So many students practice the yoga truths of others. In an effort to stay stable in whatever yoga information has been conveyed, practice stays at the level of hearsay, becomes static and loses potency. Evolution is stifled in favor of comfortable consistency. The relationship to practice becomes antagonistic as students become disenchanted. The demands of teaching innovation outweigh the necessity for clarity of values and tuning to essence. The magic of practice is lost. Practice stops.
Among teacher friends, it’s often said that the more one learns, the more one realizes how much they don’t know. I resonate and no longer lament this truth. The books can convey information. Continue reading. Our teachers can encourage us to compassionately accept our ignorance and guide us in practice. One will always need a teacher. Our own practice reveals our truths. We must maintain our practice. In practice, information is filtered through our intelligent and compassionate nature. We are able to meet our reality with greater clarity of purpose, trustworthy techniques for proceeding, and an aspiration for improvement. We won’t know everything, ever, but we can know our truth more confidently day by day.
How do we face the unknown? We face it together. Follow your path. Take a turn here or there. Get lost a little. I’m here to walk with you.
Let me ask you this:
Who is your yoga teacher? How have they influenced you? How is your practice evolving? What have you been taught? What is yoga?