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Practicing Radical Presence: The Art of Teaching Yoga – An Interview with Judith Hanson Lasater – Part 1

in YD News, Yoga Therapy

Judith Hanson Lasater has taught yoga since 1971, and is widely regarded as a teacher of teachers. In this interview, she sat down with Eva Norlyk Smith from Yogatherapyweb.com to share some of her reflections on yoga, how it’s changed, and the art of teaching in prelude to her upcoming webinar: The Art of Being—Yoga As a PsychoSpiritual Practice.

Eva Norlyk Smith: You started practicing yoga in 1970, and became a teacher shortly after. How has the world of yoga changed since you first got involved?

Judith Hanson Lasater: In about every possible way. When I first started studying yoga in 1970, it was exotic. It was heavily connected to India. There were very few people doing it.  It was associated with alternative lifestyles.

Virtually all that has changed. Yoga has become American. It pervades gyms, hospitals and schools; you might say that there’s been an Americanization of yoga. The direct and profound and deep connection that yoga had with Indian teachers and the philosophy of India as a way of living, a way of eating, a way of thinking, a way of choosing your values has completely changed. Now someone will go to a yoga class and then have a hamburger and then go to a bar. It’s not that those things are bad, but that’s not the way it was when we started.

ENS: Yes, I’ve seen articles on everything from Wall Street tycoons using yoga to deal with the stress of turbulent markets to drug addicts hitting the yoga mat to burn out the stress of dealing with addiction. So yes, you can say the span of yoga is very wide in terms of its applications.

JHL: And it’s really gotten diluted, in a lot of ways, from its traditional teachings. Traditionally, when you studied yoga in India, you understood the context of yoga as part of a broader spiritual practice. You understood the Yamas and the Niyamas and asana in the context of Patanjali’s 8-limbs of yoga, and as part of a greater journey.

Now, only one part of yoga has been pulled out; the focus is almost exclusively on asanas. We somehow approach the practice of asanas, as if it were separate from the whole. It’s like saying, “I just need to eat one food and I’ll be healthy.” The hallmark of good nutrition is variety. The hallmark of the practice of yoga is, firstly to appreciate asana in the context of specific technique and, secondly, understanding the techniques of yoga in the context of the wider historical and philosophical context of yoga. That has totally been lost by the vast majority of people.

There’s an expression that I heard in Texas when I was growing up, which is, “A mile wide and an inch deep.” Yoga, today mainly means asanas—and often not just asanas, but a certain kind of fast and hard practice of asanas. So the practice of yoga, unfortunately, has become “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

ENS: Interesting. You could say, however, that there are pluses and minuses to the way yoga has developed. Too narrow focus on a spiritual practice can also lead to rigidity; or at least something that is not as flexible as the approach to yoga we see at most studios today.

Judith Hanson Lasater: Well, you still find a lot of difference in opinion, and people believing very, very strongly that their way is right. To me, it boils down to the difference between belief and faith. Belief is about hooking onto a group of ideas or thoughts and using that to protect you against experience. Faith, on the other hand, is jumping off the edge of the cliff.

So yoga is a practice of observation and faith. It involves continual observation of the thoughts, of the breath, of the body, and reflecting on the results of the choices we make. And it involves faith; we have to trust the unknown and go there anyway. So it’s a very radical practice.
There’s rigidity when human beings cling to belief in the false hope that they give security and meaning to life. But yoga is quite the opposite. The more beliefs we cling to, the less connected we are to life itself. This practice is about being naked and porous and letting life soak into us, inundate us, overwhelm us almost.

To me, the yogi is not withdrawn from life even if he’s in a cave or she’s in a cave. The true yogi feels life intensely and immediately and fully and is unafraid to root in the present moment. Belief keeps you from doing that, because you’re busy defending and protecting your beliefs. You cannot both be protected and open.

–that concludes Part 1. Stay tuned for Part 2 coming tomorrow!–

Sign up for Judith Hanson Lasater’s upcoming webinar on The Art of Being—Yoga As a PsychoSpiritual Practice October 25th.

Register before the 24th and get a FREE audio download of a previously recorded 3-part teleclass with Judith on the Yoga Sutras; a $27 value.


Eva Norlyk Smith, Ph.D., CYT-500 is a health writer, yoga therapist and founder of Yogatherapyweb.com and Yoga Spirit Online Trainings.

Learn more about Judith Hanson Lasater at www.judithlasater.com and www.restorativeyogateachers.com.



18 comments… add one
  • funny. another yogini I know says practically the same thing. hmmmm…..but she’s not famous.

  • Thanks for posting this interview. Judith has devoted her life to Yoga (as opposed to lower case “yoga”—asana only) for most of her life. As a student of hers since the mid-1980s, I can vouch for her integrity, and the commitment she’s made to integrating all aspects of Yoga into her life. I’m happy to see her on YogaDork!

  • I think that’s why I was so drawn to Kundalini Yoga… and eventually had to go through TT. There’s so much emphasis on the spiritual aspect… through meditation, as well as the postures … I felt like, “Wow, this is it!!”

  • JeffreyD

    Interesting interview.

    Yoga isn’t a proselytizing religion, so her negativity towards “American” yoga seems misplaced. It’s a good&trendy way to stretch and build muscular endurance and exercise the core, and most people aren’t interested in yoga being anything more.

    70s counter-culture pseudo-Indian philosophizing is a separate thing. If she wants to promote it, she should talk about the benefits in more concrete terms. “This practice is about being naked and porous and letting life soak into us, inundate us, overwhelm us” sounds like a parody.

    Perhaps this comes up in part 2.

  • Interesting and we can all learn a lot from Judith. I understand that it might seem as though the majority of people are mainly concerned with asana only – however, this is the type of press that yoga is getting and is portrayed in the media. I am a “new” teacher and teacher training last year. Included in my training were the yamas, niyamas, 8 limbs of yoga, the Bhagavad Gita, and many more spiritual concepts and texts. Maybe at gyms, people are only concerned with asana, but at the studios I practice and teach, yoga is much more than asana and this is how I try to live my yoga. I have been practicing yoga for 10 years and when I first started, I did it for the asana. But I believe once someone is “hooked” on yoga, they learn more and more and naturally want to go deeper, including learning the spiritual aspects and the 8 limbs. It is a good thing that yoga has become so popular. The more people getting into asana, the more people who might follow the spiritual path to living a more authentic life.

  • Andrea

    When I first began my yoga studies, I started in a small rural town in the early 90s where yoga was not yet “in”. I was a teenager, the only student in a class where most of the other people were in midlife.

    My teacher was incredibly kind to me. She loaned me books on yoga philosophy and asana, comforted me as I released from some of the pressures of teenage life, and coached me in the ways of a vegetarian diet that healed some very long time health problems for me including frequent colds, acid reflux, and being very under weight.

    There was a spirit there that deeply touched me. I felt more connected to myself, more able to be loving, and that I was connected to all people, that my actions mattered deeply. Doing asanas, with the intent of ahimsa, felt like a wellspring of insight, providing inner peace.

    I had never seen a yoga model at that point, and had been in a class where the most proficient yogis were in their 60s.

    The experience was non-competitive, and deeply healing.

    Years later, when I trained to become a yoga teacher, I often felt conflicted and upset about practicing in a room where the focus on mastering the physical asanas felt paramount. The formal message was that asana was not important but amid the trendiness, but by the way different students were treated, and the overall hype, it felt that asana certainly WAS.

    There seemed to be a hopefulness that the trendiness of yoga would pass on some of the deeper values, that people would “look deeper on their own” but I often felt that people were being scarred by the experience and were not receiving the immediate non-violent message that had been so powerful to me.

    My goal now as a teacher is to try to pass on some of what my teachers have passed on to me, and to try to introduce key concepts such as ahimsa and non-competition into classes. Luckily one of those teachers is Judith! What people need most in the world is kindness, and to connect with an inner sense of well being that no one can take away from them. Also, intense asana is not always healthy and can be exhausting and damaging. Students need the inner strength to know when to say no and find an approach that works for them. If they can do this while practicing asanas, how wonderful.

    Why else would I want to teach yoga?

    • Jill

      That is exquisitely stated! You are a wise yigini indeed!

  • Emily

    The beauty of yoga, to me at least, is that it is intensely personal. Take what you want, and leave the rest!

  • “You cannot both be protected and open.” This is so true, but difficult to work on for some of us…
    So much to learn from Judith, thank you for sharing this interview.

  • Andrea

    nice sentiment, emily!

  • Andrea

    I would like to add to my original post that I am still very lucky to have had the community and yoga teacher training that I had. It was one of adventure, learning, inspiration, and friendship. It is nice to have a chance, however, to voice my hesitation with regards to the modern yoga world!

  • finally got to read this (part 1) and want to read part 2 soon –

    i myself haven’t had any problem, not concentrating on the indian spiritual structure, and being able to apply what i receive from a gentle practice ( increased awareness and a sense of being “more here, now” ) and applying the similar spiritual values i grew up with

    i just don’t see a necessary conflict

    and personally, the practice of yoga (little or big “y”) seems to reveal the same things to differing peoples in different cultures and times

    the value isn’t in the old texts (though helpful) but within myself

    maybe i’ll change my mind in part 2? 😉

    nice interview, and first familiarity beyond a few short articles, on ms lasater ; her reputation regarding restorative yoga has always appealed to me, beyond that, have to learn more 😉


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