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Power Your Yoga: Creating Space for Exploring the Present—An Interview with Judith Hanson Lasater

in For Teachers, YD News

Judith Hanson Lasater, author of Yogabody: Anatomy, Kinesiology and Asana, Living Your Yoga, and numerous other books, has been a leading presence in the U.S. yoga community for more than 40 years.

In this interview with Eva Norlyk Smith of YogaUOnline.com she talks about why yoga is not so much about poses as it’s about exploration and experience, and some of the challenges yoga teachers face. (This article is excerpted from a longer interview, download the full recorded interview here.)

ENS: We’re so bombarded with images in the media of people in challenging yoga postures, it’s easy to start thinking that yoga is about working your way up to more and more difficult postures. But your stance seems to be that yoga isn’t so much about power poses, as it’s about exploration and experience. Could you talk a bit about that?

JHL: Yes indeed. People don’t have to touch their palms on the floor, they don’t have to get their knees down to the floor in Baddha Konasana.

As yoga practitioners, that’s not what we need to aim for, and as teachers, it’s not our job to make them do these things! Our job to create a space in which they can explore being present, a space that allows them to evoke the best parts of themselves. And as teachers, that is reflected and expressed through our words and our touch and our demeanor, and the spirit and context that we create within the class.

When I, as a teacher, can create an environment in which people are choosing, out of their own power and volition, to move in the direction of wholeness and health, then I’ve succeeded. When we help students choose to move in the direction of health, that is a victory.

We’re all here to make mistakes—to screw things up and to figure it out. We make mistakes on all kinds of levels, and then we try to clean up the mess, try to learn from it. We’re here to explore the things we can’t do, as well as the things we can—with love and attention. And that’s practice, that’s yoga.

ENS: Increasingly, as the health benefits of yoga are becoming more well-known, more people turn to yoga for help with health issues. What is the challenge for yoga teachers in that situation, and how can we rise to meet it?

JHL: One way is to keep learning more about the body and how it works. Another way is to deepen our own practice so we grow more sensitive and aware and compassionate toward ourselves. It’s also important to clearly articulate to yourself, perhaps by writing it down or discussing it with your colleagues, what your ultimate values are in teaching, and to remember those values every time you teach.

I think there is a need for us to evoke compassion and tenderness toward ourselves so we can understand our students as well: Perhaps this is a person who will never get their knees down to the floor in Baddha Konasana. And that’s perfectly okay.

But I also don’t want us to underestimate our students. For example, I was teaching a group of experienced beginners once and we started working on putting our foot behind our head. I mean, in a very nonaggressive way, warming up slowly. And I was amazed at how many of them could get their foot almost behind their head. Of course, they were delighted. And I teased them and said, “Boy, if your mother could see you now!” But the point I’m making is that I noticed that I had put my beginners in a box, and assumed they were capable of only doing X, Y, and Z. So I think there is a judicious use of that awareness in teaching beginners. Don’t hold them back. Don’t push them, but don’t hold them back, either.

ENS: That’s a good point. There is such a fine balance–I think the tendency is to coddle people because you’re afraid they will hurt themselves. But at the same time, I have noticed that if you really challenge people, they just love it.

JHL: How we define the word challenge is extremely important. Taking one breath with total awareness is a challenge for any yoga student. Being able to disconnect from the busy-ness of the mind and deeply enter the state of Savasana—that’s a challenge for many people too. So what does challenge mean?

Challenging doesn’t mean pushing. It means inviting the student to explore their own freedom and their own growth in their own time and in their own way.

The other thing I like to say is that I very much want to challenge people’s thinking about who they think they are— their assumptions about themselves and others. Strange as it sounds, the practice of yoga is about being willing to be slightly uncomfortable. I mean, the first Dog pose is uncomfortable for most people. It doesn’t mean that we want to push the pose or hold it for too long, but I’m not sure we can grow and be comfortable at the same time. The word challenge is really quite rich for exploration.

ENS: And as you said, a skilled yoga teacher helps people learn how to create the space that allows them to do that, whether it’s the laboratory of their yoga practice—or extending further to life in general?

JHL: I don’t see a difference; I cannot separate them any longer. What I believe yoga ultimately becomes at some point is who we are, not what we do. From that place, profound changes can occur.

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Judith Hanson Lasater has been teaching yoga since 1971. In addition to being a yoga teacher, she is a physical therapist and also holds a doctorate in East West Psychology. Judith is president of the California Yoga Teachers Association and is a founder of Yoga Journal. She is the author of eight books, including Yogabody: Anatomy, Kinesiology, and Asana; A Year of Living Your Yoga; Relax and Renew; and Yoga for Pregnancy.

Join Judith Hanson Lasater for an online course on YogaUOnline.com: Structuring Your Beginning Class: Yoga Sequences for Beginners

Free Yoga Download: Judith Hanson Lasater on Overcoming Common Yoga Teaching Challenges

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35 comments… add one

  • Garuda

    Ambition certainly kills presence. Restorative practice is the closest thing I have taught to actual yoga. When the striving and straining ceases, the students can finally become receptive

  • VQ2

    “Ambition certainly kills presence …”

    and it does so in a gradual, insidious manner. We humans are in a constant state of entropy … and young people may feel it less, but we are physically deteriorating …

    Of course, androids and space people on the other hand, I would like to hear about THOSE …

  • Garuda

    Go to an Anusara event for spaced out alienators.

  • Thank you for sharing this wonderful interview! As a teacher and long-time practitioner myself, I wish other teachers would take Judith’s advice instead of putting so much emphasis on the very difficult postures that offer little benefit. There is so much more to yoga that arm balances and headstands!

  • Angela Rhodes

    Can I have your permission to share the above comic on the Finger Lakes Yoga Festival Facebook page? We are a non-profit organization. Thank you.

  • Thanks so much for posting this interview by Judith. I love her compassionate, commonsense approach to practice. Forty years of practice shine through in this interview. Judith speaks as one who knows at a profound level what Yoga (upper case “Y”) is about.

  • Love this. Great to hear from a teacher who speaks from true depth of experience.

  • For the couch potatoe

    Actually, statements like “ambition kills presence” are rather cliche. Having goals and objectives, and working intelligently towards them is beneficial. Anyone who accomplishes anything truly worthwhile knows this. Within yoga practice, working towards a goal in a pose teaches patience and awareness of the body. Achieving a pose like Baddhakonasana has many benefits such as opening the hips, opening energetic channels and flow, etc. This goes for other poses as well. Sorry, but Lasater, and her contemporaries, seem to miss this…

  • Pssst! I’ll let you in on a secret. We don’t call them goals in yoga, we call them intentions. Because it’s okay to have an intention but not a goal or something.

  • psst

    wuts’s the difference between a goal and intention? Do you know? I’m actually kind of glad to have goals. I make them in my yoga. I also call them goals. I have done this for many years with my yoga and don’t feel any need to change. BTW, who is the “we…in yoga” you are referring to? I am very involved in yoga, but don’t feel a need to make up a special language for it that is different from what normal everyday folks also speak. In fact, there was a group of folks doing that recently–called themselves the “kula”. You may have heard of them.

  • Irony is a lost art.

  • psst

    cheers! MNT’s! one never knows around here. I stand corrected.

  • Stewart J. Lawrence

    Yes, and that’s certainly part of the problem, too. Because with things like “goals and objectives” come things like mission, purpose, standards, certification, accountability, full transparency and personal and social responsibility – also things “we don’t have in yoga” – not in large supply. And one of the reasons we have the yoga we have.

  • VQ2

    That’s another way of saying that yoga has all of the “freedom” it wants, but doesn’t have to have any of the “responsibility” …
    and that accounts for the state that yoga is in …

  • Garuda

    Activity is the opposite of receptivity.

  • I love what Bernie Clark says about Yin yoga. Go for the Goldilock’s principal in your yoga, ” not to hard, not to soft, just right”.

  • LMFAO

    What happens if I have an intention in yoga and err and call it a goal? Do the yoga police come and arrest me? Thanks so much! Here all this time I was calling my intentions goals. BTW, who is the “we” you are referring to? Are you some special group with your own vocabulary? Do you have a secret handshake too?

  • Stewart J. Lawrence

    LMFAO – LMFAO.

  • Stewart J. Lawrence

    I have always respected Judith Lasater but I was surprised by how little she actually had to say here. In this excerpt at least, she didn’t speak to so many of the growth challenges that the industry is actually facing, especially with the influx of so many teachers with such little training , and so many new kinds of students. I will have to listen to the audio version. It could be that teachers who have been around so long are somewhat ossified in their view of things. Having watched a number of teachers evolve over a decade, I see how little they actually try to renew and diversify themselves by withdrawing from the yoga world entirely for a period, going on true sabatticals, or participating in the kinds of professional development and diversifying activities that are the hallmarks of people seeking better, more well-rounded development. Yoga always claims more for itself – a kind of exceptionalism – than it really should, and it ends up narrowing yoga into such a rarefied sub-culture.

  • Garuda

    Comments like: “Yoga always claims more for itself – a kind of exceptionalism – than it really should, and it ends up narrowing yoga into such a rarefied sub-culture.”
    Really show an ignorance of what it means to practice.
    To understand what the definition of Yoga is, is not the same as the realization of Moksha. It never was and it never will be. No matter how many innovations one might try.
    JL is spot on in her assessment of being receptive in practice, whatever the position of the body. That is why she uses Savasana as an example of how so many struggle in that pose to be completely receptive.
    The business of yoga is a distraction to the practice sent to this thread by a hack writer who has yet to define his own practice, so he projects his mental garbage onto this thread instead of getting back to work in support of the Right Wing Agenda.(MONEY)

  • Stewart J. Lawrence

    No idea what you’re talking about. I have my own practice – and love it. Savanasa is hardly the best place for movement into yogic acceptance. It’s merely a place to gather and cool the energies from he asana practice. It’s then that we might move into deeper meditation.

    The fact that we might talk about savasana in any other way is because we have already accepted the circumscribed spiritual context of the 1 hour yoga factory “class.” Maybe you and Judith should examine your own profound internalization of the industry’s current business imperatives.

    Namaste.

  • psst

    Spot on Stewart! Could not agree more. I do my practice well and lay down and relax. It’s automatic. I don’t sit around and cogitate on how to relax. It’s a by-product of doing yoga well (yes, I do it well). Not too complicated really.
    As a corollary to your other comment above: Lasater and the rest of the “yoga mafia” are not opposed to standards–as long as they’re the ones defining them and we’re the ones who are subject to them. Sort of a bourgeoisie/proletariat dynamic (we’re the proles, btw). They don’t want real objective standards because they might be subject to them themselves. They want a small group who look out for each other and controls yoga (all about the Benjamins, btw). Make it sound like Savasana is terribly difficult, tell people they haven’t “arrived”–that will take many years of servitude. And don’t be ambitious to accomplish anything with yoga (we wanna be the ones doing that). Keep your comments coming. I like your straightforward approach and that you aren’t afraid to speak it.

  • Garuda

    When you have been teaching as long as Ms. Lasater, then your opinion of yoga will matter. Until that time, you just sound like a bitter Hack who pisses on that which is beyond his narrowly defined opinion. I have seen you defined as Misogynist Stewart, I dont find that entirely accurate. I think ‘Chauvinist’ would suffice.

  • psst

    receptive to what??? Make it real mysterious I guess. Tell people they’re not being receptive (can’t prove it one way or the other and it’s totally subjective). Good way to frustrate someone. A bit like saying “try to be yourself”. A quasi buddhist/american itch you can’t scratch.
    And who is to be the judge of whether you’re “being receptive”? Maybe by following your ambitions you’re being receptive to the forces that are motivating you. Furthermore, maybe I don’t really want to be receptive to what JL thinks I should be receptive to. Is she the gold standard? Although she denigrates “ambition”, she’s quite ambitious herself. She writes books, cherishes her apparent stature as “the grand dame” of yoga, promotes herself. That’s not ambition?
    Anyway, what you’re trying to be “receptive” to is right there.

  • Garuda

    Yoga Citta Vritti Nirodaha

  • Stewart J. Lawrence

    Garuda, I rarely ever say anything like this in print. But you are one fucking superfluous moron. Truly.

  • psst

    I second that motion, Stewart!

  • Garuda

    Thanks Stewart. Coming from you, that is a compliment. Truly

  • Really enjoyed the article. Sometimes you gotta laught or cuss your way through it but in the end when you feel like you’ve hit a moment where you got off repeat and felt something new or spontaneous it makes it all worth it. When your relationship with yourself changes it’s a good day!

  • psst

    Unimpressed garuda…

  • Garuda

    Right. Exactly. Dipshits like you are never impressed with ANYTHING. So you ask enormously ignorant questions like. “Receptive to what?”

  • wondering

    receptive to questions, differing opinions, other points of view, new ideas…something all good teachers across the board understand.

  • psst

    In general, when I’m practicing I focus on my practice. BTW, Garuda: have you considered anger management? If you are setting yourself out as a “yogi”, I expect most folks will run. Check Stewart’s comment above. Very accurate assessment…

  • I have been practicing Yoga for years now and everyone will always have their own interpretation with the practice some say it is a science for me it is my own personal spiritual devotion. What some of us forget or maybe not know is that Yoga is not confined or limited in a Yoga mat or within the asanas. I find it sad sometimes when people do Yoga for the sake of bandwagon or being exclusive, for the sake of improving their poses some compete .Yoga’s one princinple is to diminish the ego. If we are doing Yoga to feed our ego then it negates the core principle of Yoga. Apologies if I say this but the banter I have read in the thread is quite amusing as well. If we really know what Yoga is we simply let issues go and dont get attach to our other people’s opinion we simply let them be. We must laugh at these things, to a certain extent it is trivial. We need to educate people- true- on the essence of Yoga but before we learn or teach anything we need to be listen first.

    This is only my thought. We have a lot of outlets today if we want to know more about Yoga. Even youtube is a very good teacher if you use it wisely.

  • Sheila

    I feel so supported to hear many of the words I’ve said to my students echoed by such a great teacher. “Yoga is not a competitive sport, even with yourself” is a quote heard often in my class. Ultimately, as we all know, yoga is yoking mind, body and breath.

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