It’s a crazy time of year, which is why we’re happy (somewhat relieved, even!) to share this interview with Judith Hanson Lasater from Yoga U Online who will be hosting her free holiday talk coming up on Monday, December 15th covering “Yoga Past, Present, Future – Challenges and Opportunities.”
The face of yoga is changing rapidly in today’s society. What does it mean to practice yoga in a modern Western context? Are we getting boxed into thinking that yoga is about mastering difficult posture and having a large following on Instagram?
In this interview with Yoga U Online, Judith Hanson Lasater talks about finding the balance between pushing and challenging yourself in your practice, and allowing yourself the space to explore your own freedom and growth in your own time and in your own way.
Yoga U Online: The media is full of pictures of yogis in incredibly challenging yoga postures, and it’s easy to start thinking that yoga is about mastering difficult postures. Are we sometimes forgetting that yoga isn’t just about practicing power poses, but as much about exploration and experience?
Judith Hanson Lasater: Yes, it’s easy to forget that as yoga practitioners, being able to touch the palms to the floor in Uttanasana or get the knees down to the floor in Baddha Konasana is not what we need to aim for. And as teachers, it’s easy to forget that our job is not to make them do these things!
Our job as teachers is to create a space in which students 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.
But I also don’t want us to underestimate our students—or ourselves as practitioners for that matter. 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.
Yoga U Online: That’s a good point. There is such a fine balance–I think the tendency is to coddle yourself—or for teachers, their students, because you’re afraid of injuries. But at the same time, challenging yourself in your practice is a lot of fun—and most yoga students tend to prefer to be challenged to move a little beyond what they think they can do.
Judith Hanson Lasater: 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.
Yoga U Online: And as you said, yoga can help us create the space that allows that exploration in the laboratory of our practice—and even extending further to life in general?
Judith Hanson Lasater: 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.
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 one of the original founders 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 live online this Monday, December 15 for a free Open Line Holiday talk on Yoga U Online: “Yoga Past, Present, Future.” You can register here. This is a highly interactive class, so bring your comments, questions and reflections!