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Lauren Cahn

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Yoga: From Annoyance To Grace in 90 Minutes Flat

Posted: 11/02/09 11:31 AM ET

When it comes to yoga, I've been both teacher and student. When I became a yoga teacher, I thought that I would be enhancing my experience as a student. Likewise, I assumed that my experience as a student would make me a better teacher. What I have found is that wearing both hats (mats?) has left me vaguely uncomfortable with both. But I've also found that in spite of that, it works. Yoga works, in spite of all the annoying teachers and students, myself included.

As a teacher, I find myself virtually unteachable as a student: In another teacher's classroom, I find that I possess almost zero receptivity: my glass is full-up, and anything the teacher tries to pour in splashes all about making an awful mess. I have almost no tolerance for listening to other human beings who are every bit as confused as I am about how to be happy in this life giving me their version of life coaching when I am really there to get a workout. Once I hear that a teacher has had an extramarital affair with a student (and I hear this all too often), I can no longer bring myself to take a class with that teacher for fear that the teacher might discuss the yogic codes of "doing no harm" and "not lying", and "not being greedy", leaving me uncomfortable with the hypocrisy. And because I do not believe that anyone can experience a yoga pose the way I do while I am in the pose, I will not allow any yoga teacher to physically assist me unless I ask for it specifically.

Likewise, having spent years as a yoga student, I am finding the notion of being a yoga teacher becoming increasingly distasteful. I have always wanted to teach the yoga class that I would like to take. However, that has changed over the years. When I started practicing yoga, it was all about the heat. Hot yoga and hotter yoga. The hotter the better. My teaching involved cranking the thermostat and cooking my students into wet noodles. It's what I liked, so I assumed everyone must like it. Later, I found myself gravitating towards a graceful form of yoga, with long, complicated sequences that were quite dancerly and utilized music as inspiration. Again, if I liked it, if I sought it out, then it had to be what everyone else wanted too. Later, I discovered Ashtanga and its orderly sequence of poses, each one performed one at a time, with a "vinyasa" performed before the next pose, the vinyasa serving as a sort of yoga palate cleanser. Predictably, I became an Ashtanga teacher. In the past two years, I have increasingly moved towards a highly individualized version of Ashtanga yoga. Each day I come to the mat, I do so to satisfy the needs of my body on that day. It's almost inevitably vigorous, and it almost always includes many of the poses from the Ashtanga "playbook", but what it consists of specifically, depends on the day.

No surprise here: this is what I am teaching these days.

But it is not just my physical needs as a student that have changed and changed what I give back as a teacher. My emotional and intellectual needs have changed dramatically over the years. In the beginning, I hungered for knowledge about yoga. I discovered yoga at a time in my life when I craved not just another way to move my body but another way to use my mind. I enjoyed hearing teachers recite poetry and folktales that provided metaphors for the physical yoga. I craved philosophical discussions of "truth" and "devotion" and for the teacher to provide a link between the concept and the physical poses we were practicing. I also came to yoga following a time in my life when I had a particular need for finding deeper meaning in life. Yoga gave me something spiritual to think about. Yoga teachers who brought the spirituality and chanting the names of Hindu gods into the class were my favorites at this time.

Yet, somehow, over the years, I lost my love for such stuff and came to discover that the yoga that has the deepest effect on my body and my mind is the yoga that my body performs. As a yoga student, I found that "telling" was not even close to "doing", and that the asana practice contained all of it within itself - the physical, the mental, the emotional, the philosophical. All I had to do was roll out my mat, get on it and move. The rest would come. I didn't need a teacher to tell me what to think and feel.

This has had a profound effect on my teaching. I no longer read to my students from yogic texts or Robert Frost or Wallace Stephens. Instead, I talk to them, as briefly as possible, about noticing what their body feels, and listening. I instruct them on keeping the nostrils open and the mouth shut, but I do not ask them to pant or do sequences of 100 sharp exhale or to hold their breath and think about the urgency of breathing and its connection to our fear of death. Such melodrama embarasses me, and I suppose, or imagine, that it would embarass my students.

I no longer talk about "warriors"; I simply ask my students to do the warrior poses. I no longer feel that it is my place to make them "be" warriors. Instead, I let them do the poses, and hope that they, themselves, experience a feeling of bravery, of strength, or eminence. I no longer sweeten up my voice or Indian-ify it the way so many yoga teachers do (I call it "Yoga Teacher Voice"); I personally find such mimicry to be embarassingly self-conscious. Instead, I speak as myself to my students as themselves. If they wish for me to practice along with them, I do, rather than refuse to as I was taught during my first Yoga Teacher Training. If they look to me as a spiritual leader, I gently tell them that the answers are within themselves: what they experience on the mat in times of difficulty (hard poses, scary poses) can be a metaphor for how they deal with adverse events in their lives and that they might consider focusing on what comes up for them when they are challenged on the mat and see how they might use that off the mat.

Today I took a class with another teacher, and what I noticed as "coming up" for me on the mat was my annoyance with the teacher's mannerisms that reminded me of my own when I was first teaching. She was using Yoga Teacher Voice. It was as if she were attempting to hypnotize us, and and she incorporated a strange, unrecognizable accent that had a flicker of Hindi in it (this teacher is as American as apple pie). Several times during class, she told us what we were (should be?) feeling at that precise moment. Once, she told us that our hearts were "the guiding force" for our intellect. Really?

I cringed.

And what better to do when something makes me cringe than to write about it? So, I sat down to write this piece. Originally, it was going to be a list of ways in which yoga teachers can annoy their students. Then, it was going to be a sort of yoga students' "bill of rights": what yoga teachers must never ever do in class, like talk like an Indian, or force their physical adjustments on people who ask them to beg off, or tell their students what they are feeling when it is impossible for them to know. But as I wrote, as I processed my own annoyance with this teacher, I couldn't help but remember how nice it was to be taught this morning. How truly grateful I was to have been able to go to exactly the class I wanted to go to at precisely the time I wanted to go, within a half hour's distance from my home (which is kind of in the middle of nowhere). How good it felt to let go of being my own teacher for once and to let someone else work against the "motivational gravity" that I sometimes (no, often) find myself fighting against in my self-practice.

And then I was like, "Awww, whatchagonna do? Never ever take a yoga class?"

I absolutely hate those sappy yoga magazine articles in which the writer talks about having overcome her negative feelings and turned them into something positive. They always ring a bit false to me. Yet here I am finding that I don't have it in me to really write something mean and scathing about the yoga teacher who led the (somewhat annoying) class I took this morning (okay, yeah, I know, I did manage to lob a barb here, but only in the most meta of ways). And here I am writing about the fact that I made this shift from negativity towards something more...healthy, I guess. At least less negative. I mean, look, it's not like I've come around to writing about how things that annoy me make me really really happy and that things that I don't like are the bestest things in the world (which brings to mind a yoga teacher I know who recently wrote a note on Facebook about how his newborn baby's waking every two hours makes him feel happy and energized rather than bleary-eyed crazy), but for me, this is something. For me, it seems worth noting.

But what is it? Have I shifted permanently from slightly cranky suburban houswife slash yoga teacher towards enlightened cave-dweller? Nah. Let's get real. It's just moment. A moment of lightness. A moment of tolerance. A moment of recognizing that in this case, what is good is worth braving the annoying part. But mostly, it's a sign that the yoga works. It really does. Even if you don't want it to. Even if you think you won't let it. Even in spite of the silly things that come out of the mouths of yoga teachers. Even in spite of students (like me) getting in their own way. The reality is: the yoga gets in you.

And it works.


 

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