Yogi Assignment: The Student’s Journey
It’s been hard for me to find the space to begin writing this month’s #YogiAssignment blog. If I had to put my finger on why I would say that the reason is because I have been relishing the paradigm of being a student. The six weeks that I spent in India felt like a seismic shift. Even though I’ve been going to study in Mysore nearly every year for the past 20 years, this trip felt all brand new. Last season was the only time that I didn’t return to India to practice with my teacher. It was a choice I made to spend time with father around his passing, and I am so grateful that I was able to be there for my family and for myself during such a difficult period. Grief and grieving are game-changers for life, or at least, they have been for me. Never before have I felt the delicacy of life in all its tender ephemerality so poignantly in each moment. Never before have I realized the relative shortness of our lives here on Earth. In youth and naiveté I felt like I had all the time in the world. But now it feels like time, as we measure it here on this plane of existence, is both finite and limited. Each breath is precious and we are not guaranteed of the next.
It was only two years since I had been in Mysore. While certainly there were changes, perhaps the biggest change was in my heart?
In the Ashtanga Yoga method there are six series of poses that increase in complexity and difficulty. One asana is more challenging than the next, and some are utterly impossible. When I first started practicing I remember dreamily looking at advanced practitioners wishing that one day I would be able to include those poses in my practice. For many years I worked hard at getting stronger and each time I went to India I hoped that I would learn a few more poses. I was, you could say, ambitious about my asana practice. If you know me at all, you’ll know that I have not only been ambitious about yoga poses. I set high standards of achievement for myself. I’m an author who dreams of one day getting on the NYT best-seller list. I’m the founder of Omstars and I dream of bringing the tools of traditional yoga to people all over the word. But my biggest ambition is for the world—I dream of a world where every human being practices yoga because I sincerely believe that would make the world a more peaceful place. Many days I wake up with the question of how I can contribute to bringing that dream into fruition. But, this time while I was in India, I kind of let it all go.
Instead of striving and working, I spent many hours sleeping and resting. It sounds indulgent, but truly after such deep yoga practice I needed to lie down and let my body recuperate. Instead of arriving with an agenda of getting new poses, all I wanted was a space to practice and be a student. The ironic thing is that in this space of non-attachment to new poses I learned two of the most impossible poses int he Fifth Series imaginable! Instead of making a plan of different projects to get done, I just sat around a lot. I read novels, watched silly animal videos (when the internet and power were on), drank lots of coconuts, and took videos of cows. It was uncharacteristic of me.
Don’t think it was all unstructured vacation. The practice itself had the element of striving, which in yoga language is called Tapas, Discipline. Tim and I set our alarms for 1:30 AM so we could be at the shala at 3 AM. My practice lasted from about 3 – 6 AM. I would often get back home just before sunrise, eat breakfast, shower and then get back into bed. Yes, I went back to bed after practice. In general I don’t nap and don’t like napping. I prefer to get a full eight or nine hours of sleep each night and let that be enough for the whole day. But, there is simply no way to get a full eight hours of sleep at night if you have to wake up at 1:30 AM. And, the practice itself was really hard. I’m not complaining. In fact, the element of challenge is why I travel half way across the world to practice. There are things that I will only do in the presence of my teacher. If left alone in my practice I will slowly be gentler and kinder to myself until I remove all elements that are not to my liking. We all do it. For example, it is very easy in self-practice to make the breaths in the poses you find difficult pass quickly. Just time yourself next time you’re in Navasana or Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana and you’ll see what I mean. While this might appear to be “self-love” it is actually classic avoidance of struggle and aversion from pain.
At home, though, it’s unrealistic to hold oneself to a high standard of practice when just getting on the mat itself is a struggle. Do not beat yourself up for those short Navasana breaths or for the days when you only do Sun Salutations. When you’re practicing at home, your Tapas is just getting on the mat for as little as five minutes a day. But when you’re with your teacher, put all your heart and all your soul into the practice. Surrender yourself fully to the experience. It is after all why you’re there. It really helps that your practice is the only thing you have to do each day. I know personally I often shorten my practice at home because I have a thought in the back of my mind regarding my list of things to do later in the day. I wonder if I should go deeply in backbends because I have to teach later. Or I question whether I should cut the practice short so I can prepare for a business meeting. This is life. But this is also why it is so important to make time to devote yourself wholeheartedly to the student’s journey.
This month’s #YogiAssignment is just that— the student’s journey. Wherever you are along the path, I want you to take time to recommit yourself to the practice as a student. You may have fallen a bit off daily practice or lost the spark of inspiration. You may be going full throttle ahead with a clearly defined path. You be languishing in injury, grief or heartache. Regardless, it is always useful to hit the refresh button on the student’s mindset. To be a yoga student is not defined by how many poses you do or how many yoga courses you take. To be a yoga student is best defined by what’s in your heart. To every teacher, I can recommend this—always be a student. To every student, I can recommend this—make yourself receptive to the teaching and allow your heart to be soft and pliable under your teacher’s guidance. If you have learned a thousand techniques, be prepared to unlearn them all. I can only encourage you to dive deeply into this ancient tradition. There is depth beyond measure in the kernels of the lineage. Make your heart receptive to the teaching, become the fertile ground that the seed of yoga will flourish in. Be willing at any moment to give everything up, to be a beginner, to toss your pride and ego aside. Never stop seeking. And of course, keep practicing.
Note: I hope you’ll join me in Miami as we welcome my teacher Paramaguru Shri R. Sharath Jois. He will be teaching for six days, including both the Primary and Intermediate Series. Full details here—http://miamilifecenter.com/paramaguru-sharath-tour/
And of course, I’d love to see you in class. Please check my schedule page to find out where I’m teaching. We just opened registration for a One Week Mysore Retreat in Miami with me this August. The course is limited to 30 students. Details here (scroll down)—http://miamilifecenter.com/workshop-events/