The ABCs of yoga

As a relatively new yoga teacher, I find myself going back to the basics. What is yoga? What am I trying to teach? Who are my students? What are the hips doing in triangle pose? And why and how did I start down this path, anyway? I still have the first yoga book I bought, a paperback called “Richard Hittleman’s Yoga: A 28-Day Exercise Plan.” I wrote my name in it, along with the date I bought it at the B. Dalton bookstore in the Asheville mall, 10/2/83. I was 16, a junior in high school. Stressed out about school, my weight and body issues, and boys, probably. I tried to do some of the more accessible-looking poses, along with my Jane Fonda (“feel the burn!”) and Richard Simmons exercises, but a lot of them were intimidating or just not appealing. Some resembled calisthenics from P.E. classes. Triangle, for example, on Page 80, is a simple side bend and a far cry from utthita trikonasana, the precisely aligned extended triangle pose we know and love today. The Hittleman triangle reminds me of the “windmills” we used to do in the gym — feet apart, arms out to the side; bend and twist at the waist, lean over to touch the right hand to the left toes, and vice versa. Or not.

In addition to wondering what I was looking for in yoga and in this book, I wonder for whom this book was designed. Skinny white hippie chicks, like the one in the pictures? (I don’t know if she was a hippie, but the photos look like they’re from the year I was born). Isn’t yoga an Indian tradition? The first page says the book is “for the man or woman who has little time and even less inclination for the grueling ordeals of calisthenics, isometrics and other hardwork routines” and is “a single, simple exercise plan which requires a minimum of effort to attain maximum results.” Agh! How unyogic! To think that something so profound and beneficial would demand so little — it just isn’t true. Though this approach fits into the Western quick-fix mentality, for sure. But it’s not quite right to think of yoga simply as “hard,” either. It’s as “hard” as you want to make it. Life can be hard. Getting on the mat or going to class can be hard, never mind trying to stand on your head. Being human is hard, but also sometimes pretty great, if you put forth some effort and pay attention, but not necessarily in an instant-gratification kind of way. Whether something is difficult is sometimes a matter of attitude and perception. And here’s the thing: Difficulty often masks fear. Fear can be helpful — fight or flight — and it’s good to know when to bail out of a dangerous situation. But getting stuck in fear can be paralyzing and destructive. (Hello, cortisol.) How can you find your edges and limits if you don’t test them (with a neutral level of curiosity and compassion, of course, the sense of equanimity that is the supreme goal of yoga)? Just because something is hard doesn’t mean you should — or shouldn’t — do it. And not all worthwhile things need to be hard. Discerning the difference? That’s yoga.

I bought the Hittleman book nearly 30 years ago, and my practice has gone through many phases, fertile and fallow. Thank god that although I often wandered away, yoga did not. It’s always been there, it will always be there, ready to take me back wherever I am. But I still feel like a beginner most of the time, no matter how much I practice. Which is good — beginner’s mind and all. But it can also be daunting — there is still so much to learn and practice, not just for myself, but also on behalf of my students. Like many people, I was drawn to yoga for the poses, or asanas — the physical practice. I didn’t know three decades ago that asanas are one of the eight limbs of yoga and that they aren’t even the first in terms of priority — they come in at #3, after the yamas and niyamas, or the 10 commandments of yoga. I didn’t know much of anything about the spiritual history of yoga or that the physical postures are a relatively recent development in the practice. But that’s ok. For me, the postures are meditative in themselves. The various components of yoga are like threads of a tapestry. Each has profound meaning and, when woven into a whole piece, they form a solid mat. Besides, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear: We learn what we can when we can.

I think that in the back of my mind I was also looking for a “quick fix” during my teacher training, which took place in 2010. Transformation in 200 hours! For a whole lotta money! You pay your ticket, you take the ride; study and do the work, get your diploma. Boom. That was the promise, or at least my interpretation, of the mission of the program and the studio. But I think that in many cases, transformation can be assessed only in hindsight. That was then, this is now. And who knows when it’s complete, if ever. My triangle pose 30 years ago probably looked like cooked spaghetti. Now, on a good day, it looks like utthita trikonasana. It isn’t perfect, ever, but it has been refined and explored over the years, under numerous teachers and in my own practice. I don’t know where else this path will take me, but I’m glad I got started.

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