I Learned on My Yoga Mat.
I get asked a fair amount how I learned so much about yoga. Often, I’m asked this question by a student or by a fellow seeker on the yoga path. Often, they are looking for some direction, a specific step they can take to deepen their own knowledge of the practice, so they probe deeper. Was it my teacher training program? Was it a book or books that I read? Was it from studying with a variety of teachers in workshops? Was it from the exchanges I have with other “yoga folks” in the web communities (Elephant.com, YogaJournal.com) in which I’m active?
My response to all of these ideas is the same — “Yes!” Yes, talk or email with other people who are interested in the practice. Yes, expose yourself to as many teachers as you can. Yes, read, re-read and keep on reading about yoga. Yes, consider enrolling in teacher training – even if you have no intention of becoming a teacher, there is no better way to take your own practice to a deeper level. However, everything I’ve learned from all of these activities together is infinitesimal in comparison to what I’ve learned from simply practicing.
Do you remember that famous book by Robert Fulghum? All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten? He writes, “Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate-school mountain, but there in the sandpile at Sunday school.” And he goes on to make his now famous list of what he learned. “Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you. Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some. …” And he’s right. It’s all in there. Everything you really need to know about how to live and what to do.
The same can be said about yoga. While we gain an awful lot of knowledge from books and teachers and trainings and workshops, we need something more. Our yoga itself inspires a craving to know and understand more. What we’re yearning for is wisdom. And wisdom is not found on the mountain tops of teacher-training programs or yoga retreats or weekend workshops. Rather, it’s right there in the “sandpile” of your mat. We gain wisdom from experience. We gain experience from practice.
If I thought I could clearly convey my meaning to the folks asking me for direction or specific steps to take their practices to a deeper level, I would simply answer, “Practice.” Just unroll your mat every day. Even if it’s for just 15 minutes a day, get on your mat and move and breathe. And pay attention while you’re practicing. Over time, you will learn more from practicing than you could ever learn from all the teachers and books in the world. You will learn from experience about the powerful, transformative nature of yoga. You will learn personally about the process of growing and evolving. You will learn intimately about meeting challenges and navigating successes. Practice can teach you everything you really need to know.
I can hear you now. “But …”. And, to an extent you’re right. We can gain a great deal from learning from others’ experiences of this practice. Because yoga is so ancient and well documented, we can learn from the experiences of the hundreds and thousands of people who have traveled this path ahead of us.
Learning the tangled history of yoga can provide a little perspective to the practice we’re experiencing each day. Studying yoga’s philosophies can add framework and even language to ideas that bubble up within us as we practice. Working closely with a teacher or teachers helps us understand that yoga is deeply personal. As we share our experiences of the postures and the life skills we begin to see that yoga works in mysterious, varied ways. While we may never experience exactly what our teachers do, and they may never have our experiences, sharing them with one another adds to our mutual understanding of yoga. It helps us truly comprehend that yoga gives each of us the challenges and epiphanies we need to grow – both on and off the mat.
Though we may have learned everything we really need to know about life in kindergarten, for most of us, it’s not until we continue on in our education and in our life experiences that we have the perspective and framework to truly understand what we’ve learned. Similarly, while we can (and will) learn everything we really need to know about yoga on our mats, studying, reading, talking and training will add nuance and clarity to our understanding of what yoga really is. And once we begin to sense the enormous possibilities of the practice, we will know one thing for certain – our practice and our study will never, ever be done.
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