Over the years I’ve discovered that as teachers we have to make a choice of what kind of intensity to cultivate in our yoga classes: internal or external intensity. We cannot have both.
You can choose to focus on external intensity with very strong poses and faster pace with the purpose of challenging the body, releasing the endorphins in response to physical accomplishments and clearing the mind from pure exhaustion. This is less of an introspective practice and more of a purification practice. At the end your students would feel happy, sweaty and cleansed. They would also be physically tired.
You can choose to focus on internal intensity and forego difficult or challenging poses for slower movement, deeper breath and more introspection. Here asana takes on a secondary supportive role for the deep inner work either through pranayama, meditation or chanting. This is an inquisitive type of practice that challenges you to face yourself and your shortcomings and do the work of trying to change your patterns of thought and behavior. At the end your students would feel reflective, self-aware and, hopefully, a bit more clear about where they are in life and where they are heading.
I like to think of it as a spectrum.
The middle point of the spectrum would be a practice with low intensity, where you do a bit of asana, a bit of breath awareness, a bit of meditation, may be emphasizing one element more than the others, for the purpose of simply moving the body, deepening the breath and improving focus. This kind of practice doesn’t require a lot of physical or mental investment and works well for introductory or maintenance purposes. At the end the students would feel loosened up and content.
I find that it’s very hard or even impossible to combine the external and internal intensity in one yoga practice. It would be rather exhaustive for the student both physically and mentally. Since most students need considerable energy for other tasks in their lives, those practices are better left for retreats and yoga-dedicated days (if needed at all).
Perhaps not surprisingly, this view of practice intensity corresponds nicely with the Age Model. According to viniyoga tradition, our aging process is represented by the movement of the sun throughout the day. Sunrise represents childhood, midday represents adult life, and sunset represents old age. There are specific yoga practices (and levels of intensity) that are appropriate for each stage of life.
From the traditional point of view, students in a sunrise stage of life (teenagers and young adults) need to focus on stronger asana to help develop the growing bodies, teach discipline and encourage the body awareness. During this time the physical intensity of the practice needs to be high.
Students in a mid-day stage of life (the “householder” stage, roughly 25-70 years old) need more focus on the breath and other energy management practices to support them in their busy lives that likely include careers, children, aging parents and households. During this time our yoga practice needs to help us cultivate physical, physiological, mental and emotional resilience. It cannot drain our energy, but needs to support and enhance it, hence the intensity of the practice is usually lower.
Students in a sunset stage of life (“renunciate” stage, roughly 70-80 years old and beyond) need to focus on physical maintenance and spiritual introspection to gradually turn away from the external material world and start preparing for the eventual graceful exit. This approach can be nicely summarized as “deal with the body, heal the mind.” During this time the focus is placed on internal intensity and needs to include meditation, prayer and spiritual reflection.
It’s up to you to decide where on this spectrum your own yoga practice needs to be, and what you choose to offer to your students. It doesn’t mean, of course, that older people shouldn’t challenge themselves physically, or that younger people won’t benefit from introspection. Rather than a hard rule, it is an invitation to take a bird’s eye view of what you offer as a yoga teacher and see how it fits into your students’ lives, and whether or not it supports them at their current stage.
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