Let’s look at the stages one goes through in the process of discovering what yoga is.
Just as anyone who is dealing with a chronic illness or encountering change in their life goes through stages to help them cope with these changes, there is a similar process involved in accepting and incorporating yoga into your life.
I am not suggesting that yoga be compared to chronic illness—yet, it seems to me that many people do come to yoga when they have health problems, as opposed to when they are healthy.
Here are the stages of yoga practice I have observed over my 12 years of teaching:
Whenever confronted with anything new in our lives or something that involves change, we tend to dig our feet in and resist, not knowing what to expect.When you are first introduced to yoga, you are likely to hesitate and counter with, “Who me? I already work out at the gym,” or, I have heard people say, “Nah, I’m not flexible enough—and besides, don’t you have to put your foot behind your head?” Another common retort I often hear is “I’m too busy.”
Well, guess what, we are all too busy…and that’s all the more why we need to do yoga!
I first discovered yoga at the age of 24, while attending a week long yoga retreat in the Bahamas; my reason for being there had more to do with location rather than having an actual interest in yoga.
The routine was fairly rigorous; awakening early, every morning, to attend an hour long meditation session, followed by two hours of vigorous yoga practice, until being served a sparse breakfast. An even more invigorating two hour afternoon practice followed, until another sparse dinner was served.
I prided myself in the fact that I stayed for the whole week, without succumbing to joining my friends at McDonald’s, yet I had no desire to resume the practice after the retreat. I came away from that experience with the impression that yoga involved more lifestyle changes than I was willing to make at the time—what I didn’t realize was that even though I didn’t practice for many years after the retreat, yoga had still made an impression on me and was gently leading me back to that experience full circle.
Yoga is hard to miss! It’s done everywhere, in studios, recreation centers and in the work environment, yet before you “buy it”, you need to see how it will benefit you.
Perhaps all of your friends are doing yoga and have said you should at least “try it”—your curiosity is aroused, yet you’re still not convinced it’s for you. Or, perhaps your doctor has strongly recommended you lose weight, so you decide to put yoga on your mile-long, New Year’s resolution list—you know it’s supposed to be good for you, yet you’re not on your deathbed yet, so you put it off.
In my situation, there were no suggestions from friends or doctors; a very challenging health problem known as tinnitus (ringing in the ears) hit me hard and fast after undergoing surgery. Frustrated with trying to get answers from the numerous doctors I saw, I turned, in desperation, to yoga to escape the relentless and hideous clamor I was hearing.
At first, I didn’t believe that anything would help, yet after a few months of consistent practice, I found relief and a renewed sense of purpose in my life. I also had less of a need to seek answers to the constant questions of “How did this happen?” and “Why me?”
These questions were eventually replaced with, “Hey, this stuff really works! Why did I wait so long?”—when I did my practice, yoga became a peaceful place within amidst the chaotic noise and a powerful method of dealing with stress.
So you’re finally at a yoga class and actually doing those “pretzel” poses that you could never see yourself doing in a million years—and meditating and feeling calm, peaceful and more relaxed than you’ve been in ages—you admit to yourself that you need yoga in your life.
When I first started my home practice, I found many poses, such as Downward Dog and Warrior I and Warrior II, very challenging and resisted doing them for quite awhile, choosing to do easier poses (like Savasana!); I’ve always been self-critical and would chastise myself for not being more flexible or able to hold the poses for any length of time.
As time passed, being in the poses felt more natural. The more I practiced, the more confident I became and the more I enjoyed being in the poses, even the more challenging ones such as Handstand and Shoulderstand.
I vividly recall attempting Handstand for the first time. Of course, I used a convenient corner wall and walked my legs up the wall, flipped them over to the other wall and after doing this routine at least 10,000 times, finally stayed up in the pose. Feeling jubilant and absolutely exhausted, I tried to cheer, yet it’s a bit awkward when you’re upside down!
After years of practice, I started noticing that instead of just being in a pose, I felt at one with the pose.
This can best be described as total surrender or letting go into the pose, into the moment and feeling at peace with myself and the universe. This, to me, is yoga.
At this stage, you are most likely attending a class or classes at least one to two times per week and/or have established a regular home practice.
You have also most likely learned (or are still learning) about the philosophy of yoga and are trying to apply some of the principles, such as non-attachment, contentment with what is, being present in the here and now—and living fully in the moment.
For some, this is as far as they want to take their practice, yet others wish to pursue teaching and this is the path I chose.
I was regularly attending yoga classes at an ashram for a number of years, in addition to working a full time nursing job that was very stressful—the decision to leave nursing was an option I considered for some time, yet leaving a steady income was a hard thing to do.
When it was suggested by a teacher at the ashram that I take their month long teacher training, I jumped at the chance. Spending an entire month at the ashram immersed in yogic philosophy, meditation, pranayama and chanting was indeed a life transforming experience.
This time, I was ready to make and embrace the changes required for a more authentic lifestyle, that was congruent with the philosophical concepts I had learned during my training.
By the time I completed the training, I was eager to get out into the real world and share what I had learned with my students, yet I still needed to learn how to impart this information.
There is a saying, “teaching is an art” and I truly believe that how you teach is just as instrumental in the learning process as what you teach.
A Great New Insight
Throughout seven incredible years of teaching, I have learned many things from many different teachers and one in particular stands out in my mind.
A few years ago, during a yoga therapy teacher training, taught by Kaustaub Desikachar, grandson of yoga master, Krishnamacharya, I learned yet another definition of yoga, in spite of what I thought yoga was.
At this point, I had been practicing yoga for six years and teaching for over a year; I was curious to find out more about specific poses for specific ailments my students presented me with and when I asked Kaustaub about this, he laughingly replied, “So you think yoga is just about asana?”
Hearing this question blew me away, as most of my practice up to that time was focused on asana and I was about to experience yet another opportunity for growth and learning.
“Apparently not,” I faltered, turning redder than the shirt he wore and he further explained that helping change a client’s mindset is the most important tool in healing an illness, rather than using specific asanas. He also added that when a person changes their habits, they heal. He explained the difference between curing and healing; curing as relating to disease and healing as referring to the person.
It was at that moment, as he held my gaze, that I realized the true meaning of the mind-body connection and the wisdom of what he was saying.
In the Western medicine tradition, clients are often viewed as the disease, rather seen as the person underneath the disease. Perhaps our illnesses persist and we don’t get “cured,” because we lack this vital sense of connection to each other—and acceptance of who we truly are as individuals.
Yoga will always validate your perception of yourself and this is the essence of what yoga is…healing.
Donna Brown first discovered yoga in ’75 at the tender age of 24 when she attended a yoga retreat in the Bahamas. At that age she says she was too young to appreciate or commit to a regular yoga practice, until years later when encountering health problems, she began practicing yoga in earnest. In ’96, after developing tinnitus, a constant, annoying and challenging ringing in the ears, she found relief in her yoga practice and in meditation, and has been an avid yoga practitioner ever since. Donna is also a musician, avid runner, hiker, climber, skier, and all around outdoor enthusiast.
After numerous visits to and taking yoga classes offered at Shoshoni, a yogic community and ashram in Rollinsville, she decided she wanted to pursue teaching, and gained her teaching certification there in ’02. Since then, Donna has taught classes in corporations, athletic clubs, skilled nursing facilities, and currently teaches classes in a church. She is also a yoga therapist and works with clients with a variety of health problems, and has witnessed first hand the amazing healing power of yoga in her clients and her personal life. Donna enjoys teaching and is constantly inspired by her students and their stories of healing through their yoga practice. In her article written about “What Yoga Is” she makes humorous comparisons of developing a regular yoga practice to the stages a person goes through when learning they have a particular chronic health problem.
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Yoga in America:
In the Words of Some of its Most Ardent Teachers
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