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Nearly 20 years ago, I taught creative movement at an arts-focused magnet school within a public school district.
While I was amazed and delighted at the creativity and openness of staff, families, and students, the place I felt the most resistance was when I used the dreaded word: yoga.
One afternoon, after the buses left, the principal walked into my room and said, ”So, I am wondering about how you use yoga in your classes.”
”Well,” I said, wondering what was coming next, “it is part of what I do as mindfulness training. For focus, centeredness, and compassion for self and others.”
Feeling defensive, as I often did when approaching the topic of yoga with nonpracticing folks, I could feel the heat rising around my ears as I busied myself with organizing supplies.
“I had a parent call today, and she said her daughter told her that everyone laid down in your class, and you said to empty your mind. She feels that is cult behavior.” She folded her arms, and my heart sank to my feet. I never told anyone to empty their minds, and I resist any teaching that sounds “cult-like,” so more than anything, my feelings were hurt.
“Oh, wow. We sometimes do a floor meditation, so they can watch their bellies rise and fall with their breath. I never told anyone to empty their minds. Does she think I am brainwashing her kid? For what end?”
Now a little edge crept into my Principal’s voice—a little defensiveness of her own. “I know you are doing your best, and you know that, but parents can be triggered by anything that sounds religious. We just need to be careful. Can you not use the word meditation or yoga? Can we call it stretch and breathe time?”
I nodded, and she left, surely relieved to have that conversation over with. Mind you, this was 20 years ago, and I am happy to hear the word meditation and mindfulness as regular vocabulary in many classrooms, and in fact, throughout our culture now.
And yet, I talk to so many people who say, “Oh, I should do yoga,” or “really? You teach yoga?” while glancing down my body that’s clearly not a dancer’s body and probably considered too old to be a yoga teacher, or “I just can’t do that contortion stuff.”
And yet, this woman above is in a yogic posture. But, you say, she’s just standing there!
The word “yoga” is an ancient Sanskrit word with multiple meanings. The definition we hear the most in the West is union—of breath, movement, intention. On the same continent, nearly 5,000 years ago, the esteemed Yellow Emperor of China recorded the use of Qigong—a union of breath, purposeful movement, and focused intention to create healing in the internal systems.
So many ancient people recorded, shared, and used similar methods to align body, mind, and heart, and many were recorded meticulously—we have the benefit of those records, and use many of those methods today. While yoga, Ayurveda, Qigong, and wushu have a rich and varied history, things got watered down for the average American.
In the West, we love having “a brand,” and teachers and studios want to create a living doing something they love, so a simple way of teaching and learning yoga movement is shared—eager yoginis do a month of learning this fairly simple “routine,” then they start teaching “yoga.”
20 years ago, that was me—training in gym yoga briefly, then teaching at a local gym. No one asked to see my credentials (I didn’t have any) and no one asked if I had training in anatomy, physiology, or safe movement for ligaments and tendons—it was yoga. Yoga is “good for everything” and the active Vinyasa flow yoga I shared was all I knew.
All the people who came to my class had injured shoulders, tight necks, low back pain—and all I knew was the circular up and down movement of Sun Salutations, which we did over and over. Then, a few floor asanas and Savasana.
When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Some in my class complained of more pain. Some came a few times and didn’t return. I never talked about mindfulness, of deep body awareness, of tuning in to what is floating around in our heads or hearts. We never just stood and felt our feet on the earth.
Now, I know there are plenty of wonderful yoga teachers who teach Vinyasa style flow yoga or “yang” yoga with mindful intention, but I have a sneaking feeling based on classes I have taken or others have described that mindless yoga or “general yoga” classes (whatever that is) are still happening—even with the cultural focus of presence, mindful awareness.
Yoga isn’t exercise. Yoga is meditation in action.
My questions during a practice might be, “How can I connect more deeply with my own body sensation? Can I rest and breathe or really feel without thinking or judging? How can I connect more deeply and listen to my own heart? Can I notice where fear resides in my body, and what it feels like? Can I watch thoughts, feelings, opinions, judgments float across the sky of my mind and not get snagged by them? Can I stay in the movement of the breath as I come to the edge of resistance? Can I ask my sweet body what it wants? What is needed for more connection, health, well-being?”
You may notice that all of that compassionate curiosity can happen on a neighborhood walk, while cooking dinner, drinking water, or rocking a child. You are right. We can all do yoga every day in small ways throughout our days, or we can go to a gym or studio, but whatever our choice, please, let’s not make this an “oh, I need to do that,” or “I know my chiropractor said I should do yoga.”
Can we all agree to drop the judgment, the guilt, the self-blame?
Instead, let’s find a union of focused breath. Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I am grateful for my breath. Mindful intention, encouraging our spinning minds to rest on the sensation of the body, and slow easy movements that we bring all our focused attention, and intention. And love. First to ourselves, so we have enough for others.
Can we hold space for ourselves? And when the ego-mind churns things up—as it will—can we question those judgments, opinions, reactions with a little light-heartedness?
It takes a mindful teacher to create a mindful class. A teacher who tunes in themselves with honesty, grace, stillness. Find those teachers who inspire you, who help open your awareness to our interconnectedness.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the beloved Buddhist teacher wrote, “People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle that we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child—our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”
May we all be the teachers and students we wish the world was full of; those who tune in over and over and over to the beat of our hearts, the flow in our brains, the stillness in our bodies. May our classes and our lives be places of gratitude and connection, to ourselves, to each other, and to the world.
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