Think back to your first yoga class.
Do you remember the nerves? Did your mat feel more like a life raft than a practice space? Did you strain your ears to hear every single word the teacher said, trying your best to follow them to the letter? Did you strain to make your body into the same exact shapes as the people surrounding you?
Let’s focus a little on the last one.
I came to yoga knowing next to nothing, other than a vague sense it might help me stretch my shoulders and low back. I took my teacher’s word for gospel without a second thought. If the teacher said something, I would try my best to follow and imitate everyone else — strains, struggles and grunts be damned.
As we develop a practice on our mats (hopefully) we realize there isn’t a “one size fits all” approach to yoga. One of the joys of yoga is nobody hands out a gold medal or keeps score. It remains a practice, not a competition.
Lately as I lead classes I’ve told students to listen to their bodies and turn inward. The words that come out of my mouth are only suggestions — not rigid demands. If a wiggle, counterpose or movement that doesn’t even have a proper name is calling to them in the moment, it’s totally cool to honor it — they’re not going to offend me.
On the other hand, I feel a little self-conscious pushing this approach too far when I take a class since it’s somewhat unfair to the teacher.
That said, two weeks ago I had an experience of spontaneous movement that was nothing short of transcendent. Perhaps this is because I’d been thumbing through my 200-hour manual and re-read the passage on Amrit Desai’s yoga experience — don’t worry what happened to me was not nearly that transformative. (Nor did the entire class stop what they were doing to watch me.)
Instead, I closed my eyes and listened while my teacher led up through a graceful Kripalu-inspired sequence. At certain stages I decided to rest longer in child’s pose. I skipped a pose or two to focus on alternate nostril breathing. It led me to a place when the teacher offered a pose that my body said a firm “NO”. Instead I sat back on my heels. As I leaned back my knee made a sound of deep release as I subconsciously guided myself into supta vajrasana — a pose I don’t normally attempt.
Afterward I felt so deeply at ease that all I could manage to do was express gratitude to the teacher and rush home to write down some scattered thoughts — is there a way to helps others find the same place I had?
If only it was so simple, right?
Body awareness takes time and is different for every student, saying nothing of our society which trains us to conform above all else.
As teachers all we can do is continue to foster the idea, watering that deep-rooted seed of awareness.
Mike Cardillo, RYT-200, lives and teaches yoga in Connecticut. He believes yoga is more than simply making shapes with your body.
He can be reached at yogawithmikeCT [at] gmail.com or found at Facebook.com/yogawithmikeCT