April 12, 2013

“Yoga is about learning to pay attention. The rest is just decoration.” Reflections on the Yoga Journal Conference in NYC.

It’s a funny thing, the whole idea of packing a weekend full of yoga events.

In a way, it’s the opposite of what yoga’s all about.

When I went to last year’s Yoga Journal conference, it was the first conference I had been to on that scale. I had been to more local and regional yoga and wellness retreats, but always fairly simple ones; small, single studio-based events. My first experience was a bit overwhelming—exhilarating, but exhausting too. So when I began planning for this year’s conference, I decided to approach it a bit differently.

I decided I would be intentional in my choices: what will best serve my needs here, instead of what is the most exciting, most popular teacher, biggest deal, etc.

Sometimes our practices are as much about what we choose not to do as they are about active choices. What happens in the space between is as nourishing as what we choose to fill our time. I arrived early, rather than rushing in on Friday. Spent some time catching up with friends. Planned the weekend to leave enough space in between events so I didn’t return home exhausted. Limited my time in the colorful chaos of the Marketplace. Allowed myself sufficient time to get where I needed to go rather than rushing everywhere.

If the point of the conference is to enrich our yoga practices, it’s worth keeping all eight limbs in mind!

I was reminded of this fact towards the beginning of Beryl Bender Birch’s class. All of the fancy asana tricks, all of the props and see-through pants and whatever cleansing drink is hot this month are irrelevant. As Beryl talked about her years of teaching and all the ups and downs, she mentioned one thing that stayed with me throughout the weekend:

“Yoga is about learning to pay attention. (The rest is just decoration.)”

Sometimes, we become a bit too wrapped up in the decoration.

I arrived early to one class and intentionally did nothing as I waited. I fought the urge to text and Facebook on my phone. I didn’t talk to the woman next to me. I didn’t fidget with things or read or jot notes in my journal. I just sat quietly. And as I did, I heard snippets of conversation nearby. Two women were complaining about “the yoga people.” I assume they meant what we often see as the embodiment of those wrapped up in the decoration.

In the yoga community at elephant, people tend to fall on one side of this issue or the other:

Yoga should be pure, traditional and free from all the silly material trappings.


Yoga is for fun! Enjoy. It’s whatever you want it to be.

The thing is, neither of these is completely right or wrong. It’s the same as when you look at the vast array of churches in America, each convinced the other is going to Hell for the way they are doing things.

Enter: The Yoga Journal Conference.

If you take the right approach, attending one of these large scale conference is a lot like going to a large university: you can find your niche.

For some people, yoga is the asana practice. Period. If that’s where you are, Yoga Journal provides a range of amazing classes in every lineage imaginable with different teachers every year. I love the little tips and adjustments I’ve gotten in asana-focused classes that I can integrate into my home practice and my practice at my local studio. Last weekend, I learned a new approach to working on the bandhas that changed that part of my practice!

If the other seven limbs of yoga are important to you as well, there are classes focused on everything from pranayama to tantra to Ayurveda. If up until now, you’ve been a once-a-week, asana-only practitioner, this could be your chance to dig in deeper. The class I took on the Ayurvedic gunas was interesting, but also practical; I’ve started adding Nadi Shodhana back into my daily practices.

If you are a teacher or interested in the therapeutic benefits of yoga, you may benefit from any of the classes in the tracks oriented specifically for teachers and therapists. The classes I took with Bo Forbes on Gut Wisdom and Neuroscience and Yoga were helpful not only for my personal practice, but for added professional wisdom for my massage therapy practice. (Stay tuned for a more complete post on the subject—and our conversational interview.)

And if, like me, you often find life busy and the whole “stilling of the mind” thing a bit difficult, consider stepping outside your comfort zone with a less physically active practice. Beryl Bender Birch’s yoga nidra class was restorative in a way that I’d never quite experienced before. If you find yourself still buzzing and busy-minded during savasana most days, it might be worth trying a yoga nidra class to really get a taste of pratyahara.

Just like our yoga practices at home or in our home studios, what you take away from a large yoga conference has a lot to do with what you bring to it. Enjoy!


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