I was recently introduced to someone who was looking for a yoga instructor. They, like most people, had seen others in various yoga poses and understood that the physical practice would do them some good in regards to their body issues: sore back, tight shoulders, etc. The friend that was with this person spoke up to say, “Yea, I think you’ll like it. I was doing Bikram yoga for a while. It’s a great workout!” I smiled and nodded. The the person I was introduced to said, “I’m sure there’s more to it than just stretching, and I’m interested.” Again, I smiled and nodded.
Having been in public education for 25 years, we’re fond of saying, “I can’t believe they’re giving us another thing on our plate, and not taking anything away!” All that stuff on our plates as school teachers are things like planning curriculum, grading papers, attending meetings and professional development, helping parents and other teachers and administrators, proctoring tests, and numerous other duties and tasks that more than take up the hours in the teaching day, and beyond. It seems that each year, teachers are expected to do something else, another “heaping pile” of something on the plate of life. I would not be surprised if it’s the same in other professions. Burnout happens, sometimes more quickly for some than for others. When I’ve questioned those teachers who have been at it a long time about how they’re able to juggle all the demands and usually keep their sanity, they offer few words of wisdom. They’ve found a way to not necessarily decrease the amount of “heaping piles” on their plate, but instead have changed their plate.
This is how I think of yoga when someone says, “I’m sure there’s more to it than just stretching.” Can someone attend asana classes JUST for exercise? Absolutely. Is there more to be garnered? Absolutely. In my experience, I’ve changed my plate because I’ve chosen yoga as a spiritual path. Does this mean that I never get angry or sad or cry? Nope. Does it mean I’m blissed out every day and my life is exactly the way my ego wants it to be? Nope. Does it offer me tools and techniques to navigate more artfully around and through obstacles and challenges? Yes. I still have those “heaping piles” on my plate, but because I’ve changed my plate, the piles are often more manageable.
There are many schools of yoga, and I don’t tout myself as an expert, only a student. And I haven’t majored in or studied extensively world religions or read every form of scripture, so my experience and practice might be limited. What I can share, because I understand it and have practiced it and have garnered the peace and contentment so desperately sought after, is what I’ve studied and practiced. I would label what I’ve been taught as “classic yoga”.
The postures are used to move the body so that it can sit quietly. There are many benefits to moving the body, and often that is what brings students to yoga. Sitting with eyes closed, focused on the breath, is usually what is practiced as beginning mediation. Meditation is encouraged in order for the student to notice their thoughts. It is their thoughts that spring to the forefront of their minds and cause them to flip off someone in traffic, to yell insults to their assistant at work, to voice frustrated comments to the clerk at the store for having to wait in line, to spend more money than they have in order to buy things to impress others. And once a student begins to see their thoughts, and perhaps how unproductive they might be in keeping them in a state of contentment, then the practice becomes how to change those knee-jerk reactions. Over time, shorter for some areas of life, longer for others, the student begins to be less reactive, thus spending less time in annoyance and angst, and they start to see they are happier (what every human searches for) if they recognize that some of their thoughts aren’t helpful. It is a science, and life lived is the laboratory.
This is a very short, very simplified explanation that I’ve used when people have asked, “What is yoga?” If I were to launch into scripture about enlightenment, their eyes would glaze over and that would be the end of their exploration of yoga. Practitioners reading this will stutter about all the things I’ve left out, like pranayama, Karma, mediation in motion, the Yamas and Niyamas, etc. All of “those things” are part of what goes into making up the material of the plate upon which sits all the “heaping piles” of life. Maybe we change a few habits, and so the edges of our plates become higher so not so much stuff drips over. Maybe we become more accepting of ourselves and others, and the material of the plate absorbs some of the piles, so they aren’t so high. Perhaps the piles begin to cool because the plate dissipates the heat, yet doesn’t burn our hands.
Does this happen quickly? I would say that after even one asana class at a reputable studio, many students will “feel” the difference in their body, leave class a little more peaceful, and that’s enough to have them return. Once they begin to conduct their own experiments using the tools of yoga, and observe the results in their lives, then they turn into practitioners, perhaps even sharing with others what they know. Kind of like asking a veteran school teacher how they’ve managed to stay in education so long with all the demands, all the “heaping piles”, and having them answer, “I’ve changed my plate.”
Some of these tools I’ve written poems about and can be read in Yogis All: A Journey of Transformation, Volume I, available on my website: www.myjoyenterprises.com
How have you changed your plate? What are your favorite tools of yoga?