Yogis can be so fancy. When someone tells you they are a yoga teacher, you automatically think they are pure and also badass, bending like a pretzel and balancing on the tip of their finger, for example. I am surrounded by able-bodied, athletic yoga bodies constantly.
It can be intimidating to teach these flexible, strong people (also enjoyable when certain unnamed male students remove their shirts because they are so sweaty; not to be creepy or anything). It can also be aggravating when your friend who mostly drinks cocktails, skis and rides his motorcycle can perform lifted lotus without effort.
We practice ashtanga this morning for two hours, after which I have breakfast with Shanti. “How’s it going?” he asks.
“Fine,” I automatically say. I take a bite of orange and think a moment. “Except I can’t do very many fancy asanas.” I have inwardly rotated hips at the moment (because progression is always possible), and many fancy poses require the opposite.
Some of the best things I’ve learned from Shanti come in story form. He is not much given to dispensing direct advice.
“Several months ago a guy arrived for class at the Auckland studio,” Shanti says. “I could tell he was going to be able to perform all the poses I gave him, and that he had some arrogance about that.” (Shanti can pick out people’s qualities quickly.) He shifts his legs the other way in half-lotus.
“I gave the practice and he was physically able to perform all the asanas well. Then it came time for pranayama breathing exercises. I instructed the exercises precisely. The guy began the breaths, and then stopped. I gave the instructions again. Again, he began and stopped.
We finished the rounds of breath work and sat for about 20 minutes in meditation. After about fifteen, he became restless, shuffling around. After class, he saw a flyer and asked, ‘Would I be qualified for the advanced class?’ I said, ‘Physically – yes. Mentally – no.
Later I learned he ran a studio in town. He never came back to class.”
Yoga is about so much more than poses. Basically, physical asanas prepare the body to settle so that you can enter meditation in a relaxed state. Breath work and quieting the mind are the areas in which you can really grow and transfigure your thoughts, actions and situation.
Much of this work has to be done in a relaxed way, as well. You have to let go – a lot. You have to perform yoga in a way that’s natural to you. For example, in February after my Level I Teacher Training, I asked Shanti for a Sanskrit name, just for fun really. He said, “What are you working on?”
“Being tougher,” I said. “Mentally and physically.”
“OK,” he said, and went off to the beach.
The name he gave me, Asha Devi, means goddess of spiritual aspiration. Many months later, he mentions what I’d told him back in February. “Being soft is a good thing,” he says. “Sometimes you work with what you naturally are. You don’t always have to go around changing things.”
At some point, I have to decide. Do I care more about appearance or substance? Doing beautiful and powerful asana is lovely, but if I were to treat the poses as the end goal, I would miss out on the real treasure within the ancient yoga teachings and techniques.
I still want to do an awesome lifted lotus. But I guess finding some peace might be a little more desirable. So, I echo my beautiful friend Mandie, whose mantra this month is “I love and approve of myself.” Make it your mantra too!