April 20, 2014

The Yoga I Learned in India. ~ Teresa Bigelow

Danielle Atchinson/ Pixoto

I’m sitting cross-legged on the floor of the yoga hall, looking up at the unapologetic face of the head yogi at Arhanta Yoga Ashram in Khajuraho, India.

A silence that is rare to our philosophy discussions permeates the group of teacher trainees as we process the impact of Yogi Ram’s last sentence: “None of you are really doing yoga right now.”

Excuse me?

It’s the last week of a 25 day, 200-hour teacher training for classical Hatha yoga and I would soon discover what he meant by this statement.

At the present moment, my hands are gripping the cushion beneath me and my eyebrows are furrowed in equal parts confusion and frustration. “That’s ridiculous,”says my ego. Though no one voices it just yet, I can hear the surrounding egos joining me in disapproval.

Is he serious?

I have practiced yoga intermittently during 15 years of dance training and fervently for the last two. I can bend my body into pretzel shapes, touch my feet to my head and gracefully press into advanced arm balances—yet I’ve traveled all the way to India to hear I’m not doing yoga right?

Actually, that’s exactly the reason I’m in India. I just don’t know it yet.

As I sit fuming on the floor of the ashram, I’m not hearing anything I don’t want to hear. I’ve tuned out anything that doesn’t reverberate with the personal story to which I’ve unknowingly attached my confidence and self-validation.

Six weeks prior, I had stepped off the plane in Mumbai, ready to embrace the organized chaos described to me over and over by well-traveled friends.

Words uttered by previous yoga teachers and concepts read in books and articles echoed in my mind—affirmations for a quieter mind, for an opened heart chakra, for the key to happiness, for union with the divine through the asana variation that is “available to me today.”

But when I arrived in India, I found myself in a terrifyingly harsh reality—one where hippie-dippie yoga speak is replaced with austerity. This was a place where heart chakras don’t actually open, happiness brings me pain and love as I know it isn’t real.

Arhanta Yoga Ashram doesn’t look too frightening as our caravan of taxis approaches the ashram grounds on the first day.

Birds are chirping, pathways are lined with flowers and a light breeze tickles sun-drenched trees. The accommodation is modest, but comfortable with bright white walls and pastel colors. The instructors are friendly and professional, their knowledge and experience immediately evident.

It isn’t the ashram itself that’s terrifying for its students, who are overwhelmingly from the U.S., Canada and Europe. It’s the no-frills approach to an ancient practice to which the West has added an abundance of bells and whistles.

Largely ignoring seven of the eight limbs of yoga outlined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, we’ve spun asana, the physical component of yoga, into a dazzling lifestyle for middle to upper-class men and women.

With designer clothes, television shows, magazines and Power Yoga classes, U.S. consumers pumped billions of dollars into the industry last year and in exchange we receive a diluted version of spirituality. Maybe that’s enough for some people, but at Arhanta, we’re exploring the roots of yoga and it becomes obvious that my idealized concept of the practice doesn’t quite match up with the real deal.

And that’s where things get a little scary.

And scary they are the day Yogi Ram admits to us that we aren’t really practicing yoga. At this point, I’m just coming to terms with the considerably less flowery—and therefore rather disheartening—classical yogic truths that have been set before me as part of my training.

I can accept all the “Yam” chants, green light visualizations and heart-opening workshops in the world will not cause my heart chakra to budge until I fully detach myself from the chatter of my mind and energy-polluting thoughts.

Despite years reveling in society’s glorified culture of love, I can see truth in the theory that the only true love is universal love, or compassion for all living beings, reducing romantic love, friendship and even motherly love to highly-cherished attachments.

I’m feeling empowered with the knowledge that rather than perpetually chasing happiness, I should seek balanced emotions and peace in my life, while honing an ability to poke holes in my inevitable darkness, allowing light to shine through.

But this unpalatable idea that I have perhaps worked so diligently at something for so many years (hell, I flew half way across the world for it!) and have not succeeded at it—not even once—is going too far.

It’s not until I manage to keep my eyes tightly shut for the entire 90-minute asana practice on our second to last day of class that I begin to understand what makes a truly advanced yoga practitioner.

There are no fancy asanas today, no demonstrations of new variations.  We’ve returned to the basics.

With reluctance, I let go of all logic and mental activity, allowing my breath, muscle memory and the energies flowing through my body to ease my muscles into each asana. What I can and cannot do becomes irrelevant.

The instructor’s soothing voice fades in and out and as we hold each posture for three to four minutes longer than usual, I feel my consciousness separating from this bendy thing called my body. I’m watching familiar arms and legs twist and stretch and move in all directions like a puppet—but my mind is no longer the puppeteer.

At the end of a long, juicy yoga nidra, I come back into my body and I feel myself expand like a balloon—fresh prana, the Sanskirt word for “life force,” circulating in my cells. It’s a glorious glimpse of how yoga is supposed to feel.

Once the wheels of my mind begin to turn again, the one-dimensionality of my practice becomes excruciatingly obvious.

The idea that the true purpose of yoga is vastly misunderstood by most Western practitioners is certainly not a new discussion and it’s the main reason I traveled to India for my training, but to actually know this truth is different than just reading it, hearing and intellectually understanding it.

I needed to experience real yoga—the type my teacher knew I hadn’t—in order for it to seep into my consciousness where it could become my own truth.

I’m not one to believe that the modernization of yoga is a complete atrocity, but I’ll certainly approach my practice from a new perspective on authenticity.

Yoga in its completeness is a journey to the peaceful, blissful existence that is hidden deep with us.

The physical practice of asana, specifically, is about steadying the mind by means of steadying the body in preparation for meditation, a pathway to our innermost being.

This doesn’t mean, “How far can I go?” It means, “How comfortable can I get? How still can I be?” It’s about finding enduring comfort in a posture, burrowing into a meditative state and surrendering to complete stillness—sometimes for hours.

Most of us may never arrive at that level of purity in our practice—at least not consistently. Perhaps where we really advance in yoga isn’t on the mat at all, but in the harsh realities and ego-biting truths of finding peace within chaos, comfort within discomfort and in hearing (and accepting) what we’d rather not listen to.

That’s the practice of allowing life itself to become the best yoga teacher we’ll ever have—a teacher that will force us to come face-to-face with our own conditioning, our expectations and our likes and dislikes and to see them for the illusions that they really are.


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Apprentice Editor: Bronwyn Petry / Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Danielle Atchinson / Pixoto

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Teresa Bigelow