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August 11, 2017

Talking about Yoga

In my last blog post I discussed the need to attach purpose to the yogic techniques we learn, to not just have the tool, but to know what to do with it. The purpose of yoga is to know who we are, and how to handle ourselves; personal contentment and happiness allows us to serve the greater good of humanity. The elusiveness of such guidance in yoga class is, in part, because of the attachment to the idea of yoga as exercise. This forms a reluctance on the part of both teacher and student to be involved in discourse-based education: some things just need to be talked about, and there is a lot to talk about.

This isn’t to diminish the importance of physical health and exercise. There is a good reason the path to yoga begins with physical techniques such as posture and breathing. A healthy body is a vital platform for a healthy mind. So yes, whatever condition we are in, it is necessary to be as healthy as possible and yogic techniques are wonderful for doing this. The problem is the physical side of the path to yoga is vastly over-represented. As a teacher who has regularly offered lecture-based classes, I can tell you they are never as well-attended as classes where physical techniques are practiced. I can sympathize with teachers who don’t offer lecture-based classes because they need to be able to pay the bills so they can continue teaching the yoga that they do teach. For the students, I understand they often have never even heard of yoga as something other than just another type of exercise, which is unfortunate because they may very well miss out on the most transformative aspects of the path to yoga.

It is the antithesis of yoga to only be willing to engage with it when jumping around and holding shapes made with the body. A ubiquitous and respectable definition of yoga is “yogah citta vrtti nirodhah,” yoga is stopping the activity of the mind --- which brings to the surface consciousness we are otherwise unaware of. Knowing yourself involves leaving no stone unturned. The subject of this blog post is not meant to be a blame game, but a discussion about yoga not being approached in a well-rounded way. It also must be said that the bar has become so low for what constitutes a “yoga teacher” that the teacher is often unqualified to teach yoga in any other way than just another exercise (and often unqualified to teach yoga at all). A teacher’s registration with Yoga Alliance is no guarantee of competency.

ashtanga yoga pose in progress

If you are a capable yoga teacher, offer lecture classes even if it is just a few times a year, it will not break the bank and eventually more people will show up. If you are a student and you really love yoga, be willing to show up to some lecture-based classes. It will deepen your practice and open the true benefits of yoga to you. For newer students, understand it is natural to first approach yoga on an entirely physical level. It’s an important aspect of yoga and often the intended starting point and an ever-present aspect of your yoga practice, just know to not stop there. Ask your teacher when you feel ready to learn more. Yoga has much more to offer than physical health. If you teach yoga and feel you may not truly be qualified to teach yoga in a well-rounded way, realize lecture-based classes are for you too. A good teacher will be there to help you, not shame you. My textual-studies series and lecture-based classes will return in a few months when my own work load has lightened a bit (your teacher is a student too!).-- Marc-Cristobal Guilarte