Yoga Doubts

yogaAfter more than half a year in the Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco’s Advanced Studies/Teacher Training program, I am beginning to feel like I am starting to break the surface in my education on yoga. I have tried to work hard at my study of philosophy, anatomy and teaching skills, practice asana and pranayama regularly (almost every day), and be as engaged with the yoga community here in SF as much as I can, while still making sure my other commitments are fulfilled. I am a big believer in education and ever since reading Adrienne Rich’s convocation speech from 1977, I have followed the tenet that you are learning only if you are putting in your due diligence. In this influential and heartfelt speech, she wrote:

The first thing I want to say to you who are students, is that you cannot afford to think of being here to receive an education: you will do much better to think of being here to claim one. One of the dictionary definitions of the verb “to claim” is: to take as the rightful owner; to assert in the face of possible contradiction. “To receive” is to come into possession of: to act as receptacle or container for; to accept as authoritative or true. 

I never tire of reading and re-reading this masterpiece and look to it when I need inspiration. I needed some inspiration this morning.

One thing I have learned in the process of Iyengar Teacher Training is that yoga is not all dancing elephants and cool warriors born of dreadlocks. Now, for those of you who do not know me, please believe that I did not think this to begin with – I came into the process with open eyes and a (somewhat) firm background in this discipline of yoga. And, yes, it is a discipline. You do need to claim this education, perhaps even more so than the two degrees I already claimed; you have to commit yourself in a way that is much more intensely personal and often times conflicted than getting a college degree. I mean, this is my inner Self I am working on, right?

So why the doubts?

Well, there are several reasons, but perhaps the most troubling for me is the competitiveness that exists in our community. It has made me wonder if this is really my path after all. Don’t get me wrong, there is also a lot of support out there. But one of the reasons I started to do yoga regularly is that it was a safe space to explore my spirituality, sans judgement or dogma. It was a place that I cold feel good about my body no matter if I was curvy or bow-legged or not as bendy as the yogi next to me. It was my safe space in this all too harsh world of criticism and back-biting. So here I am, working on my Self and finding that this place I had hoped was my solace is filled with people who are just as ego-driven as the folks “out there.” That makes me doubt my own capability, my own ego, my own reasons for this practice of yoga.

I love my teachers and my practice. I am grateful to the teachings and the space to discuss and work on the most meaningful and beautiful aspects of existence. I am blessed that my husband is engaged and committed to this discipline, too. I am lucky to be a part of this community of dedicated yogis. I suppose I must take the good with the bad and focus on my own work, but it would be a much more satisfying process if we were indeed all in it together.

Quiet That Monkey Mind!

Learning To Let Go: An Exploration of Moving From the Outside In

“Illuminated emancipation, freedom, unalloyed and untainted bliss await you, but you have to choose to embark on the Inward Journey to discover it.” (B.K.S.Iyengar)

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I have been practicing yoga off and on for about eight and a half years now and have explored a range of styles. Anusara, Ashtanga, Bikram, Hatha, Iyengar, Kundalini, Para-Yoga, Power Yoga, and Vinyasa are all familiar to me to varied extents. The mat became my friend soon after moving in with my now husband, then boyfriend, Jeremy. He had suffered a few minor injuries and was looking for something to help ease pain in his neck and back. We took our first class together while visiting his father on Lopez Island in the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington State.

Though I could not pinpoint the exact reason why, something kept me coming back to my mat over and over and over again. When I found myself straying from one yogic path, another path would make itself known to me. Unlike other activities I have taken up in the past, yoga has been a mainstay. About two years ago, I started taking classes in the Iyengar tradition in San Francisco. Through this particular form of practice I found a community that started to help me understand why I was so deeply drawn to yoga. I began to gravitate toward certain teachers, to push myself to take a 200-hour Teacher Training at a local studio, then to commit myself to the two year, 500-hour Advanced Studies program at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco (IYISF) – the first of its kind in the United States, established in 1974.

For our final project in Asana I at IYISF, our teacher asked us to write a piece reflecting on a moment when we caught a glimpse of what Patanjali, the compiler of the Yoga Sutras (aphorisms on the practice of yoga), called citta vritti nirodhah. This sutra is often translated as the cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness. Through this practice of yoga, we are seeking to still the thoughts and patterns created by our mind, our ego and our intellect. For a beginner, this may seem like a thankless task.

Personally, my most recent moments of inward movement within my asana practice have come during Salamba Sirsasana (supported headstand). It is a challenging pose for me for so many reasons – not the least is balancing on my head! But it is also a pose for quiet reflection and using the body to still the mind. When I fold my mat in the middle of the room and set up my forearms parallel to each other, taking care to keep my shoulders up the entire time, I find myself letting go of the to-do lists I have been writing in my head, my worries over whether or not I will make my bonus this year, my pestering thoughts about the extra five or ten pounds I would always like to shed, because as soon as I take those trains of thought back up, I lose my pose.

This leads right into her second question of how I would share this experience with a beginner. Obviously a true beginner to yoga is not going to be lifting into headstand in the middle of the room; indeed they may not even be able to kick up to the wall. But I think the experience is truly there in all the poses, even ones that some people would consider to be less advanced. If I am standing in Prasarita Padottonasana (wide-legged forward fold), a pose taught to beginning students before headstand, I have to maintain many actions to keep my balance. I must keep my legs straight and strong without locking my knees, maintaining balance between the two sides of my body and my place in space. I also have to be patient, taking care to extend my spine, lift my chest and sternum and lengthen my neck without straining to do so. If I practice svadhyaya, study that leads to knowledge of the self, I know that I must continue to assess and reassess my pose, because if I falter I will no longer be in the pose, I will be off dancing with my vritti.

In all honesty, I still consider myself a beginner at this yoga practice. Although I head with burning zeal into more advanced classes, workshops and other trainings, I will likely remain a beginner in this lifetime.  I have to constantly remind myself to remain present, to be patient, yet reflective, and to continue to do the donkey work. If I ever take up the task of teaching beginning yogis, I will gently remind them that it is a constant struggle, but a worthy one. I take solace in the fact that I now have my community and my teachers to help lead me along this inward path (and with that pesky headstand, too).