I remember in my early days as a yoga teacher I would get indignant when I heard people talking strictly about asana. “This is not real yoga! Yoga is so much more then asana!” – I exclaimed, feeling like a vanguard of the authentic yoga. I still believe that yoga is much more then asana, but I also know that both self-righteousness and indignation are actually obstacles on the yogic path The question is – how wide is the gap between what yoga was meant to be and what people’s expectations are when they come to a yoga class? Can we bridge that gap somehow?
For the insight on what it’s supposed to be, let’s turn to Patanjali. Right off the bat he tells us that yoga is about mastery over the vortex of the mind. Then, he says, when the dust settles, you can see yourself for who you really are, your True Self. Sounds great! I imagine now entering my yoga class (I used to teach classes as big as 60 students) and asking them: “Who would like to work toward discovering your True Self today?” I doubt that many hands would go up. Somebody would probably say: ”Can we just stretch our hamstrings?”
Most new students that come to my yoga classes are looking for something physical – plain stretching or pain relief; some come to manage stress and some to “get out of the head”. Every now and again I will hear something about “being more grounded” or “feeling more connected”. Does it mean that all those people are missing out on the true meaning of yoga? Not necessarily.
One of the best yoga models used to describe the human system is Panchamaya model. It states that if we are planning to be vibrant, healthy human beings, we need to consider all the components that make up our systems: physical structure, physiological processes, the content of our minds, our ideas and attitudes toward our surroundings and our sense of longing for connection to something greater then ourselves.
Here is how those 5 dimensions (or 5 bodies) are described in a yoga classic called The Taittiriya Upanishad:
“Human being consist of a material body build from the food they eat. Those who care for this body are nourished by the universe itself”
“Inside there is another body made of life energy. It fills the physical body and takes it’s shape. Those who treat this vital force as divine experience excellent health and longevity because this energy is the source of physical life”
“Within the vital force is yet another body, this one made of thought energy. Those who understand and control the mental body are no longer afflicted by fear.”
“Deeper still lies another body comprised of intellect. Those who establish their awareness here free themselves from unhealthy thoughts and actions, and develop self-control necessary to achieve their goals.”
“Hidden inside is yet a subtler body, composed of pure joy. It is experienced as happiness, delight and bliss.”
Yoga is a unique discipline that had developed specific tools for addressing issues on each one of these dimensions. You don’t take Pepto-bismol to treat a headache – in the same way the selection of yogic tools needs to be appropriate for the issue that we are dealing with. Our job as yoga teachers is to continuously refine our skills and understanding of each one of those levels and apply our knowledge in a way that is appropriate for the student. Private yoga sessions give us quite a bit more flexibility in addressing the individual student’s needs. We have an opportunity to ask questions to better understand the client’s health and well-being at each one of those dimensions, and simultaneously make our own observations of their current state. Based on that information we design a yoga practice that is appropriate for that particular client at that moment and moves her in the direction of self-transformation.
Each dimension can serve as a doorway into the next one. You might begin your journey with the physical awareness; once that deepens you might be able to tune into your energy and physiology; then become aware of the activities of your mind and then glimpse a connection to something greater then yourself. This is a gradual process that cannot be rushed. Each student will arrive at the next layer when she is ready; or may be she never will. All we can do is to show the student that the depth is there; whether or not she decides to dive in is not up to us.
There is such thing as “curse of knowledge”, though. Once we know something, it is really hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Engulfed in complexity and depth of the yoga tradition we forget that yoga is only a small part of our students’ lives. They go on about their regular business and they need the yoga practice to support them in their life, not rule it. I remember one of my clients, a new mom, who at age 40 was overwhelmed by motherhood and severe hormonal shifts it brought along. Fresh out of my therapist training, I was trying to get an idea of where she was on every level of the Panchamya model, asking her multiple questions about this and that. Finally she paused and said: ”Can we just move and breathe? That’s all I really need right now” Wow! That was a wake up call for me. I was so consumed by my new role and my new knowledge, that I completely missed out on what was right in front of me.
When I became a mother, I could understand exactly what she meant. Sleep deprived and overwhelmed with responsibility, enlightenment in any shape or form was the last thing on my mind. And it still is. Nowadays all I want from my yoga practice is body without pain, decent level of energy, somewhat focused mind and some sort of inner peace. Does it mean that I am not doing “the real yoga”? It is real to me.
And one last thing. I must admit I get slightly annoyed if I take a yoga class and right off the bat the teacher commands: “Get settled. Close your eyes. Connect to the Divine.” Ha? I am sorry, I am not an electric appliance that only needs to plug into an outlet to get connected. I need a bit more work to arrive at that feeling. Of course, an experienced yoga teacher can build a practice that will help you feel more connected within the space of one yoga class, but that requires skill and careful planning.
My point is this: We need to get off the high horse of what we know and what yoga “should” be and spend more time listening to what the student wants. As we address her immediate needs, other doors will open and her interest will grow. Or it won’t, and that’s OK, too. Teaching yoga is about the student, not the teacher. And when it comes to yoga classes, I know that it is possible to teach out of the place of deeper awareness, whether or not you are explicitly talking about yoga’s ultimate goals.