Strike a Pose.. there’s nothing to it.

How to Make Yoga More than a Physical Practice…

I’d been teaching yoga for a few years before I began to question myself and the practice… I knew that yoga was the path to my inner self, my beautiful teacher Nicole Aarons had introduced me to the concept of ‘yoga as a mirror’, something I was in relationship with, that helped me to understand my own nature.  I often quote her wisdom when people say they have shied away from their practice… “not getting on the yoga mat is still part of the practice – we can ask ourselves “what we are avoiding, why am I uncomfortable being inside myself today?” it is the self enquiry that is the yoga – not the doing!

I studied to be a yoga teacher whilst having chronic fatigue syndrome and my ability to perform the physical postures was limited – there were days when I could not even manage a sun salute, but at no time did this mean I was unable to practice.  Whilst I often felt inadequate as a trainee teacher, Nicole consistently met me exactly where I was, with yogic wisdom and compassion, gently inviting me to explore the attachments I had to movement, to work with my breath, to be witness to my emotions and thought patterns and to delve into the subtle energy I had in my body that I could utilise in my life.

Whilst I was lucky enough to have been taught how to deliver an integrated practice, once I qualified as a new teacher I was heavily influenced by societies view of yoga, from magazines to workshops, to adverts and of course other teachers.  I wanted to be a ‘good’ yoga teacher and pretty soon I dropped the sacred art of practice and turned to the funky leggings, fancy poses and creative sequences to fit in.

As I taught these physical based practices, I began to see many poses were only achievable if you lived inside a specific proportioned, hypermobile body type.  I wanted to relay my own experience with yoga, to share what I had been taught, as the famous Judith Hanson Lasater quote goes “Yoga is not about touching your toes, it’s about what you learn on the way down.”

At this point I realised if I wasn’t sharing any of the philosophy or energetic qualities of the practice and was focused on what I thought the masses wanted (physical movement) then all students were learning on the way down was whether or not, they could touch their toes.

How could I untangle the action from the intention, when the action is all we see, from #stopdropandyoga Instagram posts, to information in magazines …. how many times have you seen articles entitled ‘which is better yoga or Pilates?’ in other words… ‘what movement practice is better, this one or that?’

In my experience authentic yoga has many more similarities to a martial art than to Pilates or body balance.

In martial arts the dojo is a sacred space, we bow as we enter, we learn the terminology (even when it is in another language), we begin to understand the principles of energy, the way of the Tao.  No one is put off by these elements, people may initially attend to learn how to defend themselves or to get fit, but the class does not get watered down or bend to meet their incorrect expectations, it stays as an intact and complete philosophical, dualistic energy practice.

In the western yoga culture, we are told that yoga is more than stretching, it is a mind-body practice that promises some sort of non-specified enlightenment, but as teachers we are led to believe that offering a complete practice that includes philosophy and a sacred experience will be too much for western students.  This contradictory message has been created by the very capitalist culture that has highjacked it.

Teachers want to teach, they want to share the gifts yoga has given them, they want to reach the people that yoga excludes, so they seek additional learning.  From somatic release to chair yoga to strength drills, these trainings are wonderful, I must admit I have done lots of them!  But I was missing an important point, my training and my own practice was based on philosophy and the subtle energy within my body, so these physical trainings slotted into my understanding as an interesting tool.  I was bamboozled into thinking that anatomy and biomechanical studies were the most beneficial way of also helping my students to deepen their practice.

Thankfully, in my misguided haze I stumbled upon Alexandria Crow, who expertly demonstrated how a workshop on detailed anatomy, was in fact a way of teaching yogic philosophy.  Yes, I gained knowledge of skeletal variance, hypermobility, functional range of movement and how all of these things influence an individual’s yoga practice, but it did way more than that, it put asana in its place as a mechanism to experience yoga (rather than being the yoga), helping me to put the fragmented pieces of teaching back together to create the whole.

In this western yoga world, it can be hard to see the problem with an ‘asana’ only practice, but if we return to the martial arts analogy. how would we view an ‘Aikido’ class that exclusively taught knee walking for mobility, moving from the centre for toned abs and forward falling for mental bravery, complete with a teacher that was addressed as Sensei and bowed to.  It might seem that the bow and word Sensei are culturally inappropriate for the setting, but the issue would lie less with these details and more with the commodification of an ancient practice, that was being reduced to a few physical movements and sold as a way of improving the way we look and feel.

If we really wanted to understand the current yogic climate,  the knee walking would likely be labelled as ‘advanced Aikido’ and there would be images of people performing this movement on magazine covers whilst wearing a snazzy ‘KI is Life’ t-shirt.  If you’ve ever tried knee walking, you will know this movement would instantly exclude most of the population from the ‘advanced’ category cleverly creating the formulaic marketing ploy of scarcity, that could be quickly and easily alleviated by purchasing the slogan t-shirt!

People don’t buy products, they buy benefits and what greater offering for yoga to hold up than enlightenment (in whatever form you may wish to envisage it), no wonder the UK yoga industry is worth £908million a year. But, ask any yoga teacher and they will tell you two things; teaching yoga will not make you a millionaire and practicing yoga without any philosophical or energetic principles will not deliver on its promises. So, who is benefiting, if it isn’t the teachers and it isn’t the students?

The big guys I suppose, whoever they are, the online platforms, the manufacturers of flashy products and exclusive retreat centres.  Its such irony that a full and complete yoga practice can teach all the things that help us to combat consumer culture and instead we are offered a version that literally feeds the beast.

 

All yoga teacher training includes philosophy and covers energetic concepts, although its often relayed as an added bonus – something of great importance, that is a secret elixir to share with the few, rather than the many.  It can be so tempting for teachers to ignore yogic texts and simply read a heartfelt poem at the end of the class, or refer to the ‘flow of prana’ without any other context or instruction, as it feels like a safe way of expressing that yoga is more than movement.  This isn’t wrong, I’ve definitely done it, but it does miss the opportunity to offer more.

Whilst there are students that want to practice yoga because they have heard it is the ‘fitness’ choice of toned bodied celebrities, there are so many more people of all ages, genders, shapes, sizes, ethnicities, backgrounds and with varying health identities that want to attend yoga classes to create a greater sense of connection, to know themselves better, to reduce their stress levels, to increase their energy, to calm their chattering minds.

All students deserve access to the real experience – a class that incorporates a philosophical framework and some reference to the energetic aspects, both of which can now be better understood through recent studies within neuro-science, who knew that ancient wisdom was so .. um wise!

We know that conscious deep breathing and slow mindful movement helps to regulate the nervous system, so this is the ideal place to begin to share energetic and philosophical teachings to act as a filter by which to practice.

As students begin to tune into their own lifeforce (prana), witness their thoughts and consider their values – they will no longer be ‘doing yoga’ but will begin to know, feel and ‘be yoga’.  This connects us to ourselves, to each other, to our communities and to our planet, perhaps this is the promised enlightenment? With over 300million people practicing yoga across the globe, what difference could we all make if we began to practice the purpose beyond the pose?.

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Sayeeda Alam on April 10, 2023 at 12:57 pm

    Great read around subjects that Yoga Teachers need to be discussing more of! Yoga has been successful for as long as it has, hence the need and importance to honor, respect, and bring forth the roots and ancient teachings! Yoga started as a philosophy and therefore should continue to be taught as one! 🙂

    • Cheri on September 18, 2023 at 1:33 pm

      Thank you Sayeeda, appreciate the comment and love you are also teaching and supporting the authentic practice of yoga 🙂

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