The following is an excerpt from Teaching People, Not Poses: 12 Principles for Teaching Yoga With Integrity by Jay Fields. Stay tuned for the giveaway!
You gotta’ practice. Period.
That’s kinda it.
But I’ll expound a bit.
I remember a few years ago going to a class with a teacher I had never met. When we were talking before class I commented on how it’s nice sometimes to go to a class and to have someone else hold space for you. He agreed, and added that he could count on one hand the number of times he had practiced at home on his own. In that moment I knew I would never go to his class again. I even considered walking out right then and there.
You might think that was a jerky judgment to make, but I don’t. Why would I practice with someone who has no practice of his own? That would be like having an actor who plays a doctor on TV prescribe a course of treatment for me; he knows the words from a script he’s read, but he really has no idea what he’s talking about from his own depth of knowledge or experience.
I want to be upfront: I’m not perfect about practicing everyday. I go through funks when I don’t practice for a couple of days at a time. And there were times early in my teaching, particularly the year after my divorce, when the last thing I wanted was to be on my mat in my own company with no one else around. I would go weeks and weeks without practicing then.
I will also be the first person to admit that these times when I don’t practice are not my best days—as a person or as a teacher. These are days that I am either uncomfortable in or disconnected from my body. I’m usually avoiding having a specific feeling. Scratch that. I’m always avoiding having a specific feeling. Avoiding an uncomfortable feeling is really the only reason I don’t practice.
Whether it’s sadness or anger or fear or judgment or just that general anxiety that if I take the time to practice that I won’t be able to get to all the important stuff on my to do list for the day—I don’t practice because I’m avoiding myself, not the actual poses.
By the way, that last excuse is one of the biggest loads of bull I continually try to feed myself. Really? What on my to do list is possibly more important than taking the time to anchor myself in my own presence? Without that presence, I’m really not actually living my life, no matter how much I get done. Instead I’m being run by thoughts, patterns and habituated ways of being. And without a felt connection to myself, I can’t truly connect to or be present with anyone else. This is an obstacle for teaching, not to mention for genuine relating of any sort.
That’s not to say that if I practice in the morning I remain a beacon of presence for the entirety of the day. Hardly. But it does deepen the rut of knowing how to get my mind to shut up, which is a good rut to deepen. And it does give me more conscious awareness of what’s happening emotionally and energetically behind the thoughts that I’m thinking, which helps me to feel more grounded (even if it’s grounded in a funk). It also helps me to actually feel my body, which is imperative in terms of being in touch with what I need—and with what my students need.
I’ve discovered in the last year in particular that I’m far less tolerant of the emotional shut down, the energetic dullness and the physical tightness I feel from not practicing than I am of all the potentially uncomfortable feelings I could meet by going to my mat. I consider this a turning point, and I have noticed a difference in my teaching; even if I can only take 15 minutes on my mat in the morning, I feel I have more integrity to offer because of it.
And this is what practicing is all about: integrity. Your integrity as a person and as a teacher, and the integrity that your teaching has to offer the yoga community. Without going to your mat day after day, you can’t know the poses from the inside out. More importantly, you can’t possibly know yourself from the inside out. And if you don’t know the poses or your self in this way, how can you even begin to share the poses with others, or know others in the poses?
Practice is not about being perfect. It’s about being yourself. It’s about getting past your lines of defense to find the soft, chewy, sweet center. It’s about being able to be with yourself when you’re in the pits and when you’re off the wall giddy. It’s about growing your sensitivity for what it feels like to be in your body. It’s about noticing what you do to try to escape, and what works to settle in. It’s about gaining a broad spectrum of experience as a human being in a body, so you can connect more with other human beings in their full experience of themselves in a body.
I think one of the hardest things for me as a teacher to remember about my personal yoga practice is that it’s just that: personal.
Right now it’s two hours until I teach my class and I haven’t practiced yet this morning. I can feel how I want to go to my mat so that I can get centered for the sake of my students and to figure out some sort of sequence, as opposed to just using the time to get what I need for myself and trusting that me simply being present will inform the best possible class.
So let’s start there: your practice is not for your teaching. It’s for you. It’s not for fixing yourself or figuring out how to be a better teacher or even for accomplishing a certain pose. It’s for being you.
All the other stuff like being a more informed teacher and becoming more adept at handstand will just happen if you practice. Becoming yourself through your practice, though, takes creating intentional space for yourself.
That said, one of the biggest obstacles to practicing at home is feeling like it has to look a certain way; you get centered and peaceful and then perform a warm-up, a series of standing poses, some seated poses and twists, pranayama, meditation…you know, well-rounded.
Some days that is great—as a teacher it’s good to have a well-rounded practice and to really be familiar with the poses. And yet, if the intention is to practice being a present human being, the practice doesn’t always look like “yoga.”
Some days my practice looks like taking a cup of tea to my mat and sipping while I read poetry. Some days it looks like curling up under my yoga blanket and crying and snotting all over my mat. Some days it looks like cranking tunes and going back and forth between poses and booty shaking. And some days it looks like a very purposeful sequence of dialed-in postures followed by a long meditation.
The thing is, there can be just as much unconsciousness in practicing the same way every morning as there can be in not practicing at all. It’s so easy to come to your mat and to just go through the motions without ever truly feeling the fullness of the present moment.
Why do you practice?
How can you tell the difference between when you’re practicing for yourself and when you’re practicing for the sake of your students?
What is one rule you have for yourself around practicing? Break it!
Jay Fields is a yoga teacher and writer with over 14 years of experience teaching nationally and internationally. With an undergraduate degree in Kinesiology and a master’s degree in Transformative Education, her approach to yoga is as intelligent as it is relational.
For more information on Jay’s book and the corresponding teleseries beginning June 11, please visit www.graceandgrityoga.com.