Dear Yoga Teacher,
Please stay humble. With your title comes great responsibility. And, the tender sprouts that are your students look up to you. The scales of power and authority are inherently stacked in your favor. So, please do not take advantage of that. You may have acquired more “knowledge” than your students. But an effective teacher must REMAIN a student...of yoga and of life because the learning NEVER ends. You may hold the title of teacher, but you have not ARRIVED at greatness or mastery. You have chosen a path of SERVICE - to lead, to guide, and to EMPOWER others.
Please do not dangle your knowledge over your students like some sweet fruit that they have yet to taste. Do not speak of yoga as if it were some special club to which only a few who practice long enough and hard enough belong. And, please don’t subscribe to the hierarchal structure of power (deeply rooted in yoga’s history) that continues to perpetuate the misuse and abuse of that same power. And if your version of the history and tradition of yoga doesn’t include its sordid past, then you aren’t honoring the truth of yoga. No allegiance or loyalty should blind us to the systemic, physical and sexual abuse that still pervades yoga, its teachings and its practice. And let’s agree that no one who abuses that power is beyond reproach.
And, please dear teacher, admit that SO MUCH of what you learn from books, from experts, and from the world wide web is up for interpretation and debate. And be brave enough to welcome that discourse! Seek the opinion of others who see things differently than you. Stay CURIOUS and open to changing your mind. Remember there is no ONE way, RIGHT way, or SPECIAL way to “do” yoga. There are many different paths of yoga, and many different roads that can lead one to his or her direct experience of the SELF.
Gently guide your students on the INWARD path. Teach them that they do not have to look outside of themselves for authority and expertise. Encourage them to trust the inherent wisdom within that’s eager to shine the bright light of AWARENESS on all things. Implore them to question people like yourself - people in positions of power. Do not speak of TRUTH as if you were the bestower. Truth is not some object to be found, or the “right” answer to some question we seek. Truth is what IS my friend. It is not up for debate.
And, I know you mean well. I know you’ve worked hard to get those numbers and letters behind your name. But, remember it’s not about YOU. Let’s not forget that the same embodied wisdom you have acquired is also available and accessible to your students, the very moment they CHOOSE to look inside themselves and learn from their own direct experience.
So, please dear teacher...share YOUR yoga humbly. Encourage your students not to BELIEVE anything, but to see for themselves what’s true. Teach them to honor their own experience, and to think critically. Help them to integrate and assimilate those teachings that resonate, and give them the freedom to discard what doesn’t. And, most importantly INSPIRE them. Live your yoga in such a way that you inspire them to REALIZE for themselves the true, fundamental nature of the SELF.
Yours in humility,
1. Deepen Your Understanding of Self
Let’s face it…there’s only so much you can learn from a yoga class, a dvd, or on-line instruction. Sure there’s plenty of value in having someone else guide you in your practice, but if you never look inside yourself for direction then you miss an invaluable opportunity to tap into your own inherent wisdom. The practice of yoga is meant to be a loving process of inquiry into the Self, not a one size fits all fitness program. With an in-depth understanding of the principles behind the postures, breath work, and other yogic techniques, you can cater your practice to meet your specific needs and present circumstances. As you learn to meet yourself where you are, utilizing your body’s sophisticated bio-feedback mechanisms, you gain the confidence necessary to rely upon your own inner guidance for authority. Yoga is a process of coming home to yourself, and as a teacher you can help inspire others to do the same.
2. Restore Your Health
Modern science is finally catching up to what eastern medicine has been saying for millennia - yoga is incredibly good for your health. Whether you’re approaching your practice from a physical, spiritual or mental stand point, the benefits are innumerable. In addition to some of the more common benefits such as an increase in strength, flexibility and balance, yoga can also serve as a powerful therapeutic tool for healing. Dr. Timothy McCall has compiled an impressive list of research studies documenting the efficacy of yoga in the following 75 health conditions. The body is incredibly wise, and like nature, will always seek balance or equilibrium. We as individuals however, get in the way of that intrinsic order by making choices that aren’t always in service of our health and wellbeing. And often times, these poor choices show up as automatic responses or habitual, unconscious patterns in our lives. The practice of yoga helps to bring these unconscious tendencies to light so that we can exercise our muscle of discernment wisely. As a teacher, you can help empower others to take back their health and restore their natural state of being through this powerful, transformative practice.
3. Tap into Your True Nature
Yoga addresses one of the more fundamental questions of our human existence which is simply, “Who am I?”. So much of our waking life is spent engaged with the external world (friends, families, work) that we tend to ignore or overlook the simple act of just being. Yoga implores us to go inside and witness our experience of being alive in a human body. Engaging our inner world in this way offers a felt sense of presence that isn’t as readily accessible otherwise. Focusing on our breath and the more subtle aspects of being, we learn to slow down and stay present to our experiences. Where the mind can hijack us and take us elsewhere in time and space, our breath and body can keep us connected to the precious, yet fleeting, present moment. Through the practice of yoga we sharpen our awareness like a tool in an effort to directly experience our true nature, our highest and best selves. Self-realization is the primary goal of a yoga practice, and as a teacher, you can help shape the world by lighting the path for others.
4. Find Your Tribe
There’s something magical that happens when a group of individuals comes together to share in a powerful journey of self-transformation. YTT programs generate the sacred space necessary for authentic human connection - space for individuals to be seen, heard and impacted by others. Co-creating a conscious community built on mutual respect and shared values gives rise to a powerful sense of belonging. In an experiential learning environment we give ourselves and others permission to not know what we don’t already know. Curiosity is paramount and direct insights happen without expectation or judgment. YTT programs make learning fun, and make forging friendships easy.
5. Share Your Love with Others
The following quote speaks beautifully as to why individuals choose to teach anything - love.
“if you’ve ever loved, you’re already a teacher” - unknown
When we experience fullness, truth or beauty in life, I find there is a natural inclination to want to share that experience with others. When we give of ourselves in this way (from love) it never takes away from our experience, it only enhances it. I think the role of the teacher exists in all of us, we simply have to find that with which we love so much that we are compelled to share it with others. I found that love in yoga. What was once an act of self-care, or an “infinite refuge of self-love” turned into an expression of love for others once I became a teacher. It’s one small way I can make a positive impact in the world around me. The value that I find in practicing yoga is priceless, and sharing that passion with others brings more meaning to my life than I could ever imagine.
What is it about a new calendar year that seems to hold so much potential for beginnings? Whether it’s a new diet, a new exercise program, or even a new outlook on life, January seems to be the most obvious starting point for people looking to initiate healthy change in their lives. But, why January? Are people more inclined to keep their resolutions or reach their goals if they begin their earnest efforts at the start of the year? According to recent statistics, the answer is no. In fact, less than half of people who make new year’s resolutions actually keep them past the first 6 months. So, why all the fuss every new year?? Well I’m no expert, but I think it has something to do with our mind-set. In each turning of the calendar year, our psyches get a chance to hit RESET, to wash the proverbial slate clean and start fresh. But is this astrologically insignificant, rather arbitrary moment in time necessary to achieve what I like to call a ‘beginner’s mind’? I don’t think so, and I think our beloved Yoga authority, Patanjali would agree.
In the first Yoga Sutra - “Atha Yoga Anushasanam”, he invites us to step into the beginner’s mind-set by drawing our attention to NOW. He calls on us to begin the discipline or practice of yoga in this present moment - atha. Patanjali understood the illusory nature of time and how the present moment is all that we really have at our disposal. He explains how the mind can easily hijack the present moment and rob us of it’s inherent potential by drawing us into the future or the past. In our yoga practice we learn to use the breath and body as a means of staying connected to this precious resource, nowness. By turning our attention inward, focusing on our breath, or moving ‘mindfully’, we learn to harness or “yoke” the mind into staying in the present moment.
This is the practice of yoga - stepping into the present moment with awareness and allowing the multi-dimensional parts of ourselves to work together in harmony. In being completely and fully present, we access inherent wisdom in ourselves not available otherwise. According to Loren Cruden,
“Nowness is where all participation begins and ends and is renewed in each turning of the wheel. Nowness is the path and the destination, and so you are always and already here.”
When we harness the energy of NOW, guidance becomes an ‘and now’ experience, rather than ‘what next’. We no longer need the context of a new year, a new month, or even a new day to make choices that serve our highest and best selves. The present moment is filled with mystery, surprise, and most importantly - choice. Like the dawning of each new day, every new breath we take presents us with an opportunity to begin living our best lives. So the next time you find yourself looking to the Gregorian Calendar, your watch, or any outside authority for guidance, look no further than yourself. Harness the power of NOW and the inherent wisdom within.
Amidst the growing controversy as to whether we should continue to honor Christopher Columbus with a federal holiday bearing his name, I can't help but wonder if we would be having this conversation if Columbus had approached his expeditions a little differently, perhaps from a yogic perspective. Rather than being “singularly focused on his mission to find riches and conquer new lands”, imagine if he and his team of explorers had stayed open to the myriad of possibilities available when we surrender to what we cannot control and let go of the idea that we have all of the answers. Rather than imposing his will and order upon the Indigenous Peoples, perhaps a healthy, mutually beneficial relationship could have emerged instead.
Cultivating a healthy relationship with one’s self and others is at the core of a yogic philosophy. In order to enjoy being in relationship with others, we must first learn to be in ‘right’ relationship with ourselves. This requires cultivating a non-judgmental self-awareness, or “witness consciousness” - the ability to slow down long enough to simply witness our own experience. Suspending the need to judge or label the present moment, we learn to meet ourselves where we are with compassion and grace.
We can approach our asana practice in this way by accepting what is rather than forcing what’s not. Rather than imposing the will of the mind on the body we can use the practice to uncover the innate intelligence already there. Using the breath as a guide we can illuminate those parts of ourselves where we might be resisting or obstructing the natural equilibrium present in our body and various internal operating systems.
Let’s take the example of the breath and explore it a little further. The process of taking air into and expelling it from the lungs is the result of the innate wisdom of our body and the symbiotic relationship it has with its environment. The efficiency of our breathing depends on our body’s capacity to adapt and change shape. Despite the fact that an inhale might feel like we are exerting effort to pull air into our lungs, that's not exactly what’s happening. According to Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews, co-authors of the classic book Yoga Anatomy,
“The energy expended in breathing produces a shape change that lowers the pressure in the chest cavity and permits the air to be pushed into the body by the weight of the planet’s atmosphere. In other words, you create the space, and the universe fills it.”
I use that analogy a lot when I teach balancing postures in yoga. Often in tree pose, I witness students attempt mastery over their body by holding in their breath only to temporarily achieve the look of the pose. After a dramatic exhalation they topple over to one side. In this case, the mind is very eager to achieve the result, yet the breath desires freedom to flow in and out effortlessly through the vessel of the body. It's my experience that when I approach my asana practice with patience and acceptance my body is much more likely to deliver the desired expression.
Sadly, we can't change history, but we do have the capacity to change the future. You might start by asking if the relationship you have with yourself is one of respect and love. Can you meet yourself where you are, honoring that every day is different? Can you let go of the idea that you’ve got it all figured out and cultivate the strength and humility to surrender to that which you cannot control?
Try this short exercise in cultivating the witness from wherever you are now, and notice the effects on your body, your mind and your spirit.
Come to a comfortable seat and begin to prepare your mind to disengage with the external world. Turning your attention inward, begin to notice your breath. You may even place one hand on your heart and one hand on your belly. Resisting the urge to control or change your breath, simply notice your experience. Take inventory of the quality, depth and sound of your breath. Cozy up to your breath like you would a dear friend you haven’t seen in quite some time. Get so curious about the physiological changes associated with your breath that you notice your breath begin to lengthen and deepen. You might hone your attention so much that you notice the elusive pause between your exhale and inhale. Rather than grasping for your breath, you might patiently wait for your next inhale to arrive like a gift from beyond. Stay here for a few moments and enjoy the effects of being present to the miraculous act of breathing.