© Emily Johnson
The other day one of my fellow trainees asked how to balance the needs of students in a class when they diverge. Some of her students want to learn about the philosophy behind yoga, and others were weirded out by that. They just want the physical practice.
I think this quandary is grounded in the idea of the two being somehow different or unattached to each other. I believe that if you are teaching yoga well, the philosophy gets in, too, and at best unobtrusively.
At the beginning of training our teacher said that we might find some things just change: how we eat, how we behave with others, how we think about things, all an organic outgrowth of our practice. And many of us have found this to be quite true. Then again, we have studied the philosophy, the Bhagavad Gita, the yoga sutras, all eight limbs.
But we didn’t start there. I’ve often had the suspicion that yoga is just an elaborate way to get you to meditate and do breath work, which is too subtle at first (read: boring) for most of us. It would be like giving a first-grade reader a book by Austen. It’s enough to get into the physical stuff, at first.
One major challenge for a beginning (or any?) teacher must certainly be putting physical experiences into words. That’s what we do, really: we translate the physical to the verbal, and then people translate it back for themselves. Things can get lost in the translation, so we try to keep it simple and send people back into themselves and not out, as can happen when we’re indulging loftier ideas.
The challenge is that we don’t typically verbalize our physical experience. We talk about what happened, and maybe our thoughts and emotions. That’s about as close as we get to sharing our actual visceral experience, and when someone has a particularly sensual or colorful way of speaking, it can be strangely arousing, like they can root around inside you. The best books do this.
It’s a challenge in writing, too. When I’m writing about yoga, I am a rationalist trying to redeem it, preemptively, from those in my life who might think it’s too woo-woo or “out there.” I try to keep it all very close to home. This is to entice people, to convince them. Maybe to explain it to them a little bit. Whereas with people already in a class the goal is to give them something they want, or need, a need just an unexpressed or uncomfortable want, however deeper it seems to be generated. And this, too, can be tricky.
As for yoga being “out there” or somehow esoteric; on the contrary I’ve found yoga to give me more awareness, more grounding in reality than I’ve ever had. It imparts both a will and a way to get beyond wishful thinking and escapism that seems common not only to many so-called spiritual disciplines, but to our culture in general.
Maybe it is all about the breath, which helps you stabilize yourself in the most uncomfortable positions. Keeping breathing through difficult or strange or new movement also trains us to regulate our emotions and soothe ourselves, in a life and time when more and more people are succumbing to stress-induced sickness, both mental and physical.
Yoga is a practice of beginning again, always back at the source, which is just ourselves. Just standing there is a pose, and we do have to learn how to just stand there. Yoga literally means the yoking of the mind to the body. We use the body to quiet the mind, and then learn to use both as tools, as both the means and the measure of things. The breath and the movement bring us into a better acquaintance with our body, inside and out. It shows us that our everyday level of awareness is pretty superficial, and it shows us this by taking us deeper.
Is that all the philosophy you need? I like the idea that you just go along and you get it when you’re ready for it. That includes knowledge, lucky breaks, and challenges too. So sure, yes! And that must include the teacher too. If it comes up for you, it comes up. Some people will zone it out anyway.