Yoga has a depth that defies full understanding. Through many millennia the different traditions and schools have branched and merged and reformed, each bringing with it new knowledge, a rediscovery of long ago lost techniques or a different expression of what was already known. Within this beautiful diversity lies a dissonance waiting to be uncovered by the yoga student, whether the student is a teacher, a master or guru.
A small part of this dissonance was revealed to me this weekend, this article is one of my many steps to unraveling and reconciling many contradictory truths.
It began during teacher training where we discussed misalignments – in teacher training we learn a correct expression of a posture, as well as modifications to help those unable to come to full expression of the posture experience the benefits. We were discussing half-way lift ardha uttanasana and I asked innocently enough whether a flat spine with hands to the floor was a fuller expression of this posture than a flat back parallel to your mat with hands on your shins.
I did not expect the answer I received, or the discussion to follow. I am deeply grateful to my coach for exploring such a difficult topic, it has had a profound impact on my yoga journey.
There is no full expression
What is full expression? To say that one version of a posture is a fuller expression than another applies a value judgment – that one is better than another. Perhaps, that a person practicing one way has a deeper practice than someone else practicing another way. Yet we are all made differently.
We are different body types – height, weight, musculature and bone structure. We all have different life circumstances – injuries, surgeries and patterns of habitual movement. Our body changes from day to day – what is stiff or strong, limber or sore is dependent on a thousand factors from what we did to what we ate and how we’re feeling. And we all bring different intentions to class, whether it’s an intense physical workout, mental stillness, a spiritual connection or even the intention to let an intention find you.
Against the backdrop of differences the words in italic above lose their meaning. Their is no misalignment, correct expression or full expression. Modifications by their nature modify in the context of misalignments and fuller expression.
What serves one person in a class may not serve another, or even the same person later in the day. The notion of full expression is both relative and inherently flawed.
If there is no full expression, is teaching possible?
If you’ve ever been to a yoga class the teacher will lead you through a series of postures. They will instruct you how to get into them, perhaps deepen them and ensure a safe release. They will sequence them in a specific order to create a desired effect in their students, perhaps relying on the order to safely navigate a student into more physically challenging poses.
Yet if their is no full or correct expression their instruction could just as easily help as harm. If there is no destination in mind when moving the body then their words might as well just be a song you put on in the background while moving your body however you like.
As a teacher, how do you know when to offer an adjustment, how to arrange your class or even whether to cue? If the safety of a pose is on shifting sands how can you help with alignment? Without fully knowing all of yoga, anatomy, psychology and the depth of all spirituality how can you stand as a guide directing another human being? And even if you had all this knowledge, but couldn’t think and feel and be another person, how can you teach to them?
You might as well stand at the front of class and say, “Do yoga”. Or “don’t do yoga”, because perhaps not doing yoga is your yoga for this present moment.
Growth is rejection of self, but you must accept yourself
You are exactly where you are meant to be, and who you are meant to be. Right now, in this moment. The Western culture quickly follows this Eastern philosophy with an exhortation to grow. Deeper, stronger, more centered. Yet in this exhortation is an anguished cry that you are not enough right now. You are not who you are meant to be because you can grow, and in the future be more of who you are. Growth inherently rejects what it has grown from, changes it, molds it into something new.
If we embrace our enoughness in this moment, surely we should also embrace a future where we remain the same? And if we reject a future where we haven’t changed tomorrow, next week or next year, then how can we say we have truly embraced ourselves in this moment.
Yet if we reject a future where we have changed, then we also reject our enoughness in that future. Perhaps acceptance is an and also rather than an or. Can we be enough in this moment, and also enough if we stay this way forever, and also enough if we change tomorrow?
Deepening your practice
When I started yoga I struggled. I was inflexible and lacking strength to hold many postures. Hot triangle, trikonasana, was a challenge and dwelling in it for more than 10 seconds an extreme challenge. Over the years I grew stronger and more flexible. Today I look forward to hot triangle, and relish the times when a teacher leaves us in it for a minute or more. I feel good about this change in me, a deepening – or differing – in my practice. Yet I know that within that is a value judgment sifting better from enough. I also know that my understanding and respect for my body has grown with the deepening in my practice.
I value this growth.
I value where I started, and that I started.
Honestly, if I didn’t continue to grow in my practice I would be disappointed. I have already judged myself as not enough if I stay the same forever. I don’t have a model for growing and accepting myself as the same in perpetuity. I haven’t discovered how to rest these two seemingly contradictory notions alongside each other.
For me, growth comes from accepting myself in this moment and nurturing myself to be more of who I am in the next moment.
Teaching in dissonance
How can I teach a class where everyone arrives with a different body, mind and soul? With different capabilities and limitations, different intentions and presence? Where there is no full expression?
I acknowledge myself as a teacher in that moment. I accept that my own limitations may at time serve others as well as my capabilities. I draw awareness to my own intention, and open myself to deeply see others in the class. I hold space as a guide even as I realize that the space may better serve someone than my guiding. In that moment, on that day, for that person.
I teach to an expression I feel serves those in class. An expression that will resonate more fully as I open myself to those in class.
I will be, and give others a space to be.