By Vanessa Fleming, Summersalt Yoga teacher
In this in-depth two part essay our teacher Vanessa is talking about the misnomer of yoga.
I was having a conversation with a friend about a year ago. She told me she was leaving yoga. She was done with it. She was in the midst of completing her yoga teacher training, and she said it was a mistake to partake in the training. “I haven’t even practiced in 2 months. That’s not a good thing for someone who is in teacher training.” I agreed. She needed to get back to her practice.
When she revealed why she was frustrated with yoga, she finally admitted, “Because [her teacher] is leaving, the studio is changing, and this practice that saved me from myself and brought me a community when I had lost everyone else, is now leaving me too.”
I didn’t try to sway her or change her mind. I just listened. I wanted to tell her what I had told a student just a few hours before, “Yoga isn’t about how wonderfully you do a pose or how great it makes you feel. It’s about how you handle the feelings when it isn’t alright, or it isn’t working out.” Equanimity.
But I didn’t say this. It wasn’t about my wants or desires to keep someone in the practice. It wasn’t about my own feelings (read: ego) of failing as a teacher, by not having her understand that things change but the practice will always be there. It was about her, and how she felt the sudden abandonment. Her yolk, her union…was gone. She was left with that separation and egg whites in two different containers.
Her reaction and feelings did bring light to something that I’ve been struggling with in the westernization of yoga for sometime. Mind you, I’m a western yogi. I went to my first yoga class in 2002 at my gym and thought it was, like, the most totally awesome thing ever. I was a dancer and a cheerleader in my younger days, so here was a practice that I could show off my flexibility. How fun! Oh, you’re going to praise me for how well I executed Bird of Paradise on my first try? Thanks! I’m sold!
That dance with yoga in that capacity continued for a few years, till 2007. It was then that my doctor prescribed yoga to me after I went to see him for some chest pains. “You don’t have a heart murmur, there isn’t something physically wrong with you. You are stressed and anxious. Go to yoga.” I was mega confused. What the hell did yoga have to do with me getting less anxious? That’s where I went to do the flexy-bendy stuff!
So I went to a different yoga class. One that wasn’t about all the flexy-bendy stuff. One that had these things called “philosophy” and “breathwork.” We didn’t do a bunch of flexy-bendy stuff. But we held warrior 2 for 8 breaths. And somewhere around breath 4, I thought I was going to die. And then I didn’t die. And that’s when I knew, maybe there was something more than flexy-bendy. Time to pay attention.
It wasn’t until somewhere around 2010 that I shed my first tear on the mat, in Savasana.
And it was then that I slowly started to make the connection that yoga is going to sometimes bring up some deep, dark stuff that resides in us, in all of us. That’s when I knew, I wanted to make this part of my life and share this with others. To this day, that teacher still doesn’t know the effect she had on me and my future. I only wish to see her again so I can thank her.
6 years later after that moment, and 5 years into being a teacher, I feel myself almost cringe at two things I hear most often:
“Yoga can make you feel great / strong.”
Enter…the misnomer of yoga.
While both of these statements can very much be true, but how so? I feel it’s a disservice to not back up these statements with concrete discussions and practice around it. Today’s society loves the quick fix. We love the fastest way to get to something. We thrive on finding the shortcuts. Look at your iPhone. It’s full of bugs that you don’t know about because all of the apps were haphazardly built just to get it out to the market.
But I digress.
Unfortunately, this has developed a society of impatient pill poppers that have no idea what connection to the body is. If a pill can put a band-aid on it, what do you need to sew up the wound for?
I do love that the yoga and meditation movement is maybe starting to change that, but it’s a long road still. When we as teachers or practitioners use these statements, we are generalizing the practice. We are not serving what is actually very deep, with many layers.
Yoga isn’t a one-stop shop, where all your worries and aches and pains just magically disappear after 1 week, or 2 months, or 3 years.
Yoga also isn’t about asana (pose). The asana is the tool. It’s not the goal. But just like asana, meditation is a tool. Also, pranayama (breath) is a tool. Mindfulness is a tool. All of these things, and many more, is what starts the pathway towards a yoga practice.
to be continued