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.