by Amy Nobles Dolan
First published on Yoga with Spirit
A note to you, dear friends,
We are all students in life and hopefully always will be. Some of you, like me, are yoga teachers and may even be teaching yoga philosophy as part of a yoga teacher training program. But even if your job description doesn’t have the word teacher in the title, trust me, you are a teacher, too. By living your yoga in your daily life, you are teaching others about the possibilities and potential that this practice promises. Much of this promise comes from Yoga Philosophy, which can have a profound effect on your practice and your life. Whatever kind of teacher you are, I hope this post inspires you to explore yoga philosophy more deeply.
The best question I've ever asked could be yours too
While in college and grad school I never thought that asking questions was my strong suit. In fact, I was always a little in awe of the students who dominated my classroom discussions with their quick thinking, clear opinions and incisive questions. My questions always cropped up hours or days after class, after I’d had time to process what I’d heard and read. This changed when I stumbled upon yoga. While I still may not be the quickest questioner in the room, with regards to yoga I’ve never not had a question to explore.
Perhaps the best question I have ever asked, at least in terms of its impact on my life, was a really simple one after my third or fourth yoga class.
“How can I feel the way I feel when I’m in yoga class when I’m not in yoga class?”
It’s not well-worded. It does not reveal a keen intellect or sharp wit. In fact, the question itself reveals how little I knew about yoga at the time. Its power came from an almost desperate desire to know the answer.
My question inspired a life-changing trip to the bookstore where I purchased a stack of yoga books which I then devoured in five- or ten-minute increments when my three small children were happily playing with one another rather than bickering or needing a snack or a diaper change. Every single one of those books mentioned yoga philosophy, something I didn’t even know existed.
Yoga philosophy is less about ideas and more about living
Mind you, I’d not had great experiences with philosophy classes in my years of higher education. Somehow, not a single one of my professors had ever been able to make me see the real-world applications of all these things that other people, ages ago, had thought about. On the other hand, I immediately understood that yoga philosophy (which was ages and ages old – 2500 years!) was less about ideas and more about living. From the very beginning, it was clear to me that yoga philosophy was something I wanted to think about. More importantly, it was something I wanted to do – all of the time.
Yoga philosophy starts on your yoga mat
While my hope in beginning to grapple with yoga philosophy was to change the way I was feeling when I wasn’t on my mat, I quickly found it was easier to work with its principles during yoga classes.
1) I noticed how gentle I was with myself when I couldn’t do what the teacher described and realized that I was practicing non-violence.
2) I noticed that sometimes I would try a scary thing and sometimes I wouldn’t even though I really wanted to be able to do it. I realized that I was practicing truthfulness when I honored my very real physical limitations.
3) I noticed myself resisting the urge to leave the room to go to the bathroom and realized I was practicing non-stealing by not wanting to disturb my classmates.
4) I figured out that if I did too many of those awfully hard low-push-ups I was not able to pick up my one-year-old and I began practicing moderation.
5) Instead of obsessing over all the postures I’d failed at during class, I noticed that my knee jerk reaction had become “Maybe next time!” and recognized this as an act of non-possessiveness.
6) I noticed that I didn’t feel as energized or flexible if I’d eaten a bunch of junk food with my kids the day before class. Without a lot of thought, I started to change my eating habits a little bit and realized I was practicing purity.
7) Rather than focusing on all that I’d not been able to do, I began to feel proud of myself for all that I’d managed to do during my practice and knew right away that I was practicing contentment.
8) I added a second class to my weekly schedule (something only weeks ago I’d said was absolutely impossible in my busy life) and discovered that self-discipline can make the “impossible” possible.
9) I watched my alignment, my breath and my focus with keen, kind attention for 90-minutes at a time and realized that this was self-study.
10) I did what my teacher said, even though it often was hard and it often made me shake with effort and I often didn’t want to, because I knew it was good for me. In this willingness to go with the flow, I saw the beginnings of surrender.
Keep practicing and yoga philosophy will flow off your mat and into your life
Seeing yoga philosophy brought to life in my brand new yoga practice inspired more reflection and more study. I read. I questioned. I emailed my teacher. I practiced. But most importantly, I started to observe and to notice and to reflect on my thoughts, words and deeds in my life with the same clear-eyed, compassion that I sensed on my yoga mat.
Granted, I noticed a great deal that I wanted to change. But rather than beating myself up, I found that my sharp-tongued, inner critic had transformed into a sort of kind and loving grandma. “Oh. This is really hard for you,” she would murmur. “Don’t you fret. You’ll get another chance to try again tomorrow.” And I would take a deep breath, apologize to my kid or my husband or the person I’d cut in front of in the grocery store because I was in a panicked hurry if I needed to, and move on.
I realized I was starting to live my yoga. It was clear to me that this would not be possible if I was not practicing, and I rededicated myself to getting on my mat. (I added another class a week, actually.)
We need to check in periodically to make sure of our intentions
Somewhere along the way, I also realized that it was possible for my practice to slip away from my intention. Off and on over the years, I have noticed that I get so determined to “get” a new posture, that I am not focusing on anything but developing the strength, flexibility and courage that the desired posture requires. The way I feel as I roll up my mat is 100% dependent on whether or not I’ve made progress toward whatever I am chasing at the time.
In this state, I realize that I am no longer practicing yoga philosophy on my mat. Almost 20 years of noticing has also taught me that when I’ve slipped away from the highest intention of my physical yoga practice, the way I’m thinking and behaving in my life also subtly shifts. I’m more judgmental. I’m more rushed. I’m more focused on the magnitude of my to do list and less focused on how I feel as I do each thing on it. I notice a return of my sharp-tongued inner critic. Worse yet, I notice a return of my own sharp tongue with people I genuinely love.
Rather than throwing up my hands in disgust, I gently do what yoga has taught me to do. I ask myself some questions. “What’s got you so upset?” “What can you do to create more calm?” “How can you slow down?” I find that I carry this gentle questioning state of mind onto my yoga mat, asking myself “What can you do in your physical practice to make it more about self-care?”
And, in an instant, my practice snaps back into alignment with yoga philosophy. Perhaps not as quickly, but still certainly, my life does too. Once again it feels like I yearned it would when I asked the best question I have ever asked – “How can I feel the way I feel when I’m on my yoga mat when I’m not on my yoga mat?”
Whether your practice is brand new or well-established, a deep dive into yoga philosophy is always transformative – on and off your yoga mat. My new online Yoga Philosophy Master Class is an easy, powerful way to take the plunge at your own pace and no matter how “impossibly” busy your schedule seems. If you’re running a yoga teacher training program, this course could be just the thing to re-invigorate your own study or even to add to your curriculum.