Sunday, January 27, 2013

Yoga Evolution

My fascination with India cannot be separated from my love of yoga. It was born out of the practice that has changed my life in infinite ways, so even though I didn't come to India with the specific aim of practicing yoga in the way we so often think of it in the west, it was always bound to be part of the program.

I started my yoga practice as a purely physical one. I walked into a class at my gym one day with no idea my life would take a radical turn. Mostly my intention was to get some exercise and maybe socialize a little. Not long after showing up on a regular basis, something began to shift. The physical component was great, but the mantra music was intriguing me. The teacher's spiritual words were resonating with something deep within. I was opening up in ways I didn't even know I'd previously been closed to. There was a shift.

I remember my first introduction to meditation, a Kundalini yoga workshop with renowned teacher Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa. As often happens, it would be a little while before I'd incorporate that into my personal practice since those sorts of things need time to percolate and take hold when the time is just right. Then I was making my home away from home at the local Sivananda yoga studio, attending weekly satsangs where meditation and mantra were the focus, not asana. I received my mantra initiation and took a spiritual name. Jessica still existed, but Gauri had also been officially baptized, as it was, in this new and intoxicating ocean that I was just dipping my feet into. Teacher training soon followed and in the years since, many a yoga retreat and an increasing attraction to and emphasis on chanting mantras at ecstatic kirtan gatherings, large and small.

With all this, I began to think of myself as sort of a separate class of American yogi when stacked side by side with many of those I regularly practice asana with. I love my sweaty, juicy power vinyasa flow, but to go really deep I need and want the spiritual high that I experience only through the chanting and philosophical study. That should have tipped me off to the reality that I was on an ego trip, which is exactly what I'm trying not to do through my practice. Yoga is all about sublimating the ego, erasing any separation between self and Self, self and other. Allowing myself to think my practice was at all different, better or any other form of distinction goes against the whole premise. We're all on our own unique paths as we journey through life. The same holds true for our approach to yoga. Who am I to judge or qualify another's practice in any way? And in comparing myself I was separating myself.

Fast forward to the present day. I've been in India for close to a month. My yoga practice has changed substantially here, as has my concept of what a yogi is or does. The trend here is not to file into the coolest studio in the most stylish yoga outfit and contort your physical body into impressively challenging postures, something that I, and I'm sure many of you, can absolutely identify with. Really, there is no yoga trend here. Unless your in a place like Rishikesh, Mysore or another very popular yoga city frequented by foreigners, chances are you won't see or here much about yoga. Locals will be fascinated to find that you practice, let alone teach. And those that are in the know spend years studying and develop largely solitary practices focused on the subtle bodies and the mind, using the physical body only as a vehicle to approach them.

While I may have had some general intellectual appreciation for this true essence of yoga previously, and perhaps even allowed myself to believe I was practicing in this way, I see know how precious little I know and how I've only just skimmed the surface of potential for  my practice. The depth and breadth of yoga is immense, endless really. What I have tasted in India while being guided to sit very, very still with my hands in a particular mudra for extended periods of time has provoked such strong physical, mental and emotional responses in me that it has taken my breath away. The respect and reverence I have toward those who have been guiding me, knowing how long and hard they themselves have studied and practiced before coming to the point where they feel ready and worthy to teach me gives me a whole new perspective on what it means to be a yoga teacher. What I spent a month getting certified to do they have invested years in. And though I also know that much of what I have to offer as a teacher comes from the experiences I've garnered through my personal practice as much as what I've been taught, the extent of their study is enough to humble me.

With this trip I set out to have my horizons expanded and hopefully awaken something within myself I hadn't been able to stir previously. As I encounter these individuals who spend days in meditation, testing and experimenting with their very bodies and minds, humbly shying away from showy asanas in favor of subtle effect, I am growing. I am being shown what it is my heart really aspires to with my yoga practice: true spiritual development. Because I like to keep my body healthy and enjoy the physical effects of asana, I choose that for exercise. But my yoga practice is becoming something else, and it is something really beautiful. I am tremendously grateful to have had my eyes opened in this way and am excited to swim deeper into this ocean.

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