I stepped into my first yoga class, (late) more than a dozen years ago wearing tight jean shorts, sporting a Pilates mat and thinking that we were going to mediate the entire time.
Sixty minutes later, (wait, 55 minutes because I was late) I left a sweaty mess, humiliated by how inept I was at practically everything including savasana, and wondered to myself, “What was that?”
A dozen years later I’m still asking the same question.
I suppose it was this desire to understand yoga that kept me coming back. At first, I thought yoga came from Japan or Malaysia or something. I began attending yoga workshops and trainings to learn more and answer the mystery. What was this thing and why did I feel so great when I finished?
When I attended a local teacher’s master class at the gym, I was floored by her ability to illustrate and guide me through yoga’s range and depth of fluid, dynamic postures. I was stunned by how physical it had been and left thinking, “Ah! This is yoga.” This began a careful and dedicated study with this teacher as I learned to be physical and fluid.
A few months later I remember leaving a class taught by a different teacher and thinking, “I don’t know what that was, but it wasn’t yoga. They didn’t even do warrior III!” My myopic vision of yoga continued until a few years later when I decided to help my teacher open a yoga studio.
While researching other studios in the area, I stumbled upon two of the most skilled teachers I believe I will ever know. They led me not only through dynamic, challenging poses with mindful physical alignment cues, but flushed out the practice with a beautiful and touching spiritual theme. I truly felt the connection between my body, mind and spirit. Again I left thinking, “Oh, this is yoga.” I began an even more serious study of yoga, this time with the beauty of the poses embellished by yoga’s rich philosophy and spirituality. I felt like I was getting a handle on what yoga was.
Years later, it was September with fantastic weather in Europe.
Celeste, my dear friend, former wife and fellow teacher, traveled with me by train from Vienna to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. Along the five-hour train ride through Slovenia, the lush countryside slid past our windows as we daydreamed of how incredible it was that we had been invited to teach yoga for six weeks at Croatia’s premier yoga studio. Over the past several years, we’d learned so much about yoga and we were thrilled to share with our new students in Croatia. We spent most of the train ride meticulously planning every detail of our first yoga class.
Unlike the idyllic, endless miles of green fields of Slovenia, Croatia met us with endless miles of chaotic graffiti along the train tracks. We stepped off the train and Croatia greeted us with its split personality. One part Eastern Bloc and another part Euro-chic, our host greeted us at the train station.
She introduced herself, then informed us that we would be teaching our first class in only a few hours, that everyone was very, very excited to meet us and that we should prepare for a large class. We were very nervous, but relaxed a little remembering that we had already created a water-tight lesson during our five hour train ride.
The studio was situated on the second floor of a beautiful, old building with large windows facing the buzz of Zagreb’s main square. And only a few hours after getting off the train, we found ourselves in the studio, packed to the brim with curious people, eager to see the new American teachers who would teach all the classes at the studio for the next 6 weeks. We were eager to show our host and students all the wonderfully mindful principles we’d learned in yoga and wanted to give them a preview of what kind of bliss they would be experiencing over the next several weeks.
We began our session with a somber, yet brief exposition of a philosophical theme followed by a long segment of skillful breathing techniques. Next, we set into tag-team teaching a steady, yet conscious sequence of asanas. We moved through thoughtful sun salutations, some well-chosen, carefully aligned standing poses, deliberate tension relieving poses, a handful of hip-openers and then eased slowly into a long mediation before finally resting in savasana.
As I walked around the jam-packed room directing poses and making adjustments, I’m thinking to myself, “We are knocking them dead! This is some good sh*t! We will probably be recognized by the president of Croatia and be granted automatic Croatian citizenship because of our awesome display of skillful yoga teaching.” We left the studio that night very excited about our next six weeks.
The next day, our host asked us to come over to the studio. She sat us down and told us very soberly that the class we taught the previous night was the perfect example of how not to teach at the studio.
She informed us that “the students were people who had been working very hard all day and the last thing they needed was to come to yoga class so that someone would tell them to breathe.” The word “breathe” hissed out of her mouth with a sneer as if the mere notion of breathing were ridiculous, outdated and disdainful.
Our host announced that she herself almost walked out on the class. Then she handed over a list of poses that she wanted us to teach in every class. This was hard to swallow because she wasn’t a yoga teacher, that’s why she hired us and flew us out to Croatia. She’d even hired a previous instructor to fly to Utah from her home in NYC to watch us teach and who gave us glowing reviews. Before she ended our curt meeting, she said, “Oh, and play these when you teach,” as she tossed us a few CDs of pop and R&B music.
We were crushed. Devastated.
We thought we had a handle on yoga and could share some of the magic of yoga with these students. We felt we had practiced yoga and trained and therefore had acquired some sort of keen insight into yoga, its capacity for mindfulness and dynamism and therefore had something to offer our Croatian friends.
That’s why they flew us over there, right? Not simply to hurl them through poses. One could buy a DVD for that.
It was clear that they were not interested in yoga’s mindfulness, its breathing and calming techniques or its beautiful history or philosophy.
They wanted raw physicality.
As I looked around the studio I saw a room full of supermodels and athletes, all with seemingly perfect physical features and muscular, toned bodies. This physical ability made them overly confident in the ability to safely explore intense yoga poses. The studio was only a few months old and the practice of yoga was relatively new to all but one or two of these eager students. My plan was to use the next six weeks to slowly reveal and practice the principles of alignment, mindfulness and breath to ease them into the deeper asanas so that they could build strength and physical integrity with the poses and avoid injuries; the studio owners had a different plan.
Their plan was simple: Fast. Furious. Intense.
One night I found myself living out a surreal moment.
I was teaching the advanced class scheduled on Tuesday from 8:30-10 pm, advanced because some of these students had studied yoga for as much as four months and they were ready for intense and technical poses like scorpion handstand and drop backs.
The class was steaming hot from breath and sweat and was bursting at the seams, packed with gorgeous, athletic, sweaty bodies wearing scant clothing, all of them cranking through poses. The lights were off and the room was bursting with strobes of colors from the Jumbotron-esque marquee flashing ads outside the window in the busy square. The place felt more like a dance club than a yoga studio. The hip-hop music was thumping so loud that I had to literally scream as loud as I could just to hear myself. The scene went something like this:
Stereo: (boom, boom, boom) It’s gettin’ hot in here . . .
Me: UUUUP DOG!!!!
Stereo: (boom, boom, boom) Let’s take off all our clothes
Me: DOOOOWN DOG!!!
Me: (at regular speaking volume, completely inaudible under the music) How in the hell did I get myself into this situation?!
Months later, at home, I was bemoaning the atrocities of this experience to one of my teachers.
I complained how appalling it was that they called what we did yoga. I was expecting to get a sympathetic pat on the back, but instead my teacher thought for a moment, then suggested that after a decade of civil war, perhaps fast and furious was exactly the kind of yoga that those people needed.
I stood there for a moment . . .slack-jawed . . . as my brain almost hemorrhaged from the notion that yoga could be bigger than what I’d thought it was. Wait, it can still be yoga even with hip-hop music, scant-clad supermodels and dance club lighting? It doesn’t have to be Sanskrit words, deft breathing techniques and meticulous physical alignment cues?
Lucky, my brain didn’t explode. I survived. And ever since, my definition of yoga has been growing larger and larger.
As I continue to learn about what yoga is, I realize that yoga is everything I thought it was, but is exponentially much more as well. The discovery that yoga is so much bigger than “calm yoga voice” instructing people into mindful poses has actually freed me to explore, practice and present yoga with broader brushstrokes, sometimes moving playfully outside of the lines.
So I suppose the karmic wheel made its full turn the day I decided to host my first GLOWGA workshop. GLOWGA is where I invite the class to paint themselves in glow-in-the-dark paint, to turn off the lights and practice in complete and utter darkness, all the while cranking the music as we get down and practice finding the light even in life’s darkest moments. It’s enlightening, spiritually moving and gobs and gobs of fun.
Apparently, my Croatian friends had quite a bit to teach me about the definition of yoga. Yoga is bigger than yoga. The more I learn about and practice yoga the more my definition of it needs to expand to fit all of its possibilities. My current working definition of yoga is:
yo·ga noun \ˈyō-gə\
The process of learning who I am by the practice of listening.
Anything smaller than this broad definition, in my mind, seems to diminish yoga’s full capacity. I’m sure I’ll have to distill this definition yet more, but for the moment, it suffices. So, it seems to me that one could practice yoga while walking their dog, meditating, having a conversation with someone, making love, running or doing anything. One teacher once told me, the asana is what we do and yoga is how we do it. I like that.
Editor: Thaddeus Haas
Like elephant yoga on Facebook