I recently wrapped up an incredible journey I started last Fall — an intensive course on yoga given by Jillian Glikbarg at Vibe Yoga in Redwood City. I went from thinking of yoga as simply a method to help maintain physical and mental health, to understanding yoga as a way of life and a system for helping you recognize your one, true, divine Self. Before you start thinking, “Uh oh, Chris has fallen in with those New Age hippies!” let me be clear about what I mean. (You’ll note that I said “a way of life” and “a system,” not “the way” or “the system.”) Yoga, as currently practiced and popularized in the West, is primarily a physical practice — stretches and poses and breathing. What I learned was that this is only the proverbial tip of the yoga iceberg, and that yogic philosophy goes much deeper than the physical practice. Like any system for living, it encompasses psychology, morality, spirituality, physical practices (that go beyond exercise), and much more.
The Class & How I Got There
The course I took was a Yoga Teacher Training — a class designed to certify (via the Yoga Alliance) yoga teachers through over 200 hours of lecture, practice, and homework (reading, book reports, class construction, practice), followed by written and teaching exams and an apprenticeship. All in all, the 15 students in the class gave up eight and a half entire weekends, including Friday night (plus countless hours in between). I was taking the course not to become a teacher, but just for my own enrichment, so don’t expect to see me teaching in a yoga studio or gym anytime soon. The class was probably equivalent in workload to at least a couple university courses, and pretty much all of the students were taking it on top of full-time jobs. The “professor” was Dr. Jill. Okay, as far as I know, Jill doesn’t hold a doctorate degree, but I’m sure that if any university offers a Ph.D. in Yoga, Jill could easily walk in and take the qualifying exam and defend a thesis without even trying — she’s that good. If you’re new to yoga, go to one of Jill’s classes (she teaches at Vibe and also at Yoga Source in Palo Alto). Just go.
Why would I decide to spend so much time on yoga? I first started practicing yoga about 15 years ago, when the start-up I was working for brought in an instructor every week, probably as a way to help us deal with stress. For most of that time, the class was taught by a seasoned yogi named Shastri, who had very strong opinions on the correct way to do the poses, and wasn’t afraid to let you know. Although he sometimes seemed more like a drill sergeant than a yogi, I learned a lot from Shastri, and had a lot of “Aha” moments, as I discovered something shocking: although I was over 30 years old and an active cyclist and climber, I knew remarkably little about my body, and couldn’t really say I was in touch with how I felt (in the physical sense). After a couple years, I moved, and my yoga practice began to consist mostly of DVDs from Rodney Yee. I used yoga, like most people in the West, as a simple way to get a good workout (for free, at home, and with virtually no equipment), one that included stretching, aerobic, and anaerobic elements. What a deal! But my practice was spotty at best.
A few years back, my wife and I joined the local climbing gym, Planet Granite, in an effort to reinvigorate our exercise regime. PG also offers yoga, and that’s where we happened across Jill. She was the one yoga teacher that both my wife and I really resonated with — a no bullshit teacher who seemed to have a deeper understanding of the underpinnings of yoga. She would sprinkle in dribs and drabs of that deeper understanding, tossing in a mantra here, a meditation there, and teaching techniques like bandhas (specific muscular contractions meant to control energy flow in the body). She clearly knew what she was doing. So last summer, after having become a semi-regular in her class for some time and also after having started a regular meditation practice, when she announced she was doing a teacher training, I was immediately intrigued. The time commitment almost scared me away, but in the end I applied my “Would you regret not doing it?” decision criterion, and took the plunge. I had no idea how deep the water was.
Re-discovering an Ancient Science
As the title of this post alludes, the primary thing I learned about yoga was that it is not just about posing. Whereas the physical practice of moving, stretching and holding certain body positions (called asana in Sanskrit), is a key component, it mostly forms a platform on which to build the rest of yogic practices. In the nearly 200 verses of the primary ancient text on yoga, The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, asana is mentioned only once. The rest of the text outlines a science for self-realization and enlightenment. I call it a science because it is based on hundreds (or possibly thousands) of years of experimentation and observation. Yoga also elaborates multiple models of description and explanation, like the Doshas, Gunas, Vayus, Koshas, and yes, the famous Chakras. This type of system of thought and practice exactly fits the dictionary definition of science:
- science : The observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena.
In this case, the subject of the science is fundamentally what it means to be a human, and how we can be the best human possible. In other words, how we can realize our one, true, divine Self. Heady stuff, and certainly not what I was expecting going in.
At first I was very resistant to the use of Sanskrit, but as we delved into the history and philosophy of yoga, it became clear that its use is important for at least two reasons. First, it recognizes that the system has ancient origins, and second, it also recognizes that the concepts being described do not always have direct correlates in English. On the other hand, I think the use of Sanskrit terms has the unfortunate side effect of making the concepts seem foreign, mysterious, irrelevant, esoteric, or even backward — rendering the deeper wisdom in yoga inaccessible to many people, especially in the West. This is unfortunate because yoga is a full package when it comes to a system for living, and one that has been refined over a very long period of time. It includes a system of ethics, techniques for developing discipline of self, body and breath exercises, meditation and ways to improve concentration, to name just a few of its many elements.
If like me, you’re fond of acronyms and initialisms, here’s one I came up with that sums things up nicely — Yoga is “Your Optimal Guide to Alignment”. Let’s break that down:
- Your — Yoga is ultimately a personal practice. Its goal is to help you realize that you are divine. It also has enough different techniques, styles, and branches that you will necessarily end up having to craft your own path towards that realization.
- Optimal — Not only is yoga trying to help you be your best, optimal self, but yoga itself is the result of the work of all the yogis that came before, who experimented, theorized, and refined the practices.
- Guide — As I mentioned above, yoga is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Your path will be different than anyone else’s. You don’t have to be alone on this journey, though, and in fact ideally you should have the guidance of a teacher who is further along his or her path than you. They can help you avoid pitfalls and point out opportunities that you’d otherwise be unaware of.
- Alignment — Alignment of what? Many things — your spine, your intentions, your path to your Self. Yoga helps keep all of these aligned.
Yoga, The SWEET Life, & Jesus the Taoist Yogi
If you’ve read this blog, you may be familiar with a concept my wife and I call the SWEET life. The idea is to simply become aware of and track, on a daily basis, how well you Sleep, Work, Eat, Exercise the body and mind, and connecT with others. By doing this tracking, you are more likely to make decisions that align with your core values. Yoga is like the fully generalized version of the SWEET life framework. Within yoga, there is a concept called the niyamas (our attitudes towards ourselves). One of the five niyamas is discipline, which Desikachar describes in his commentary on the Yoga Sutra of Pantanjali as, “The removal of impurities in our physical and mental systems through the maintenance of such correct habits as sleep, exercise, nutrition, work and relaxation.” The resemblance of this to the SWEET life framework is a reflection that my wife and I had hit upon the same truth the yogis had documented thousands of years ago.
But this niyama is only one of the five (the others being cleanliness, contentment, self-study, and devotion). And the niyamas are only one of the eight components of yoga, each of which also goes very deep (for example, asana is one of the eight). Yoga is quite a comprehensive system.
One insight I had from studying all this was that it feels like all of this wisdom is discovered over and over throughout history. As I studied yoga, I found that a lot of the fundamental truths of yogic philosophy can also be found in other systems of living, like Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity and Judaism, and countless others. I also noticed that most of these philosophical or religious systems were developed from around 1500 BCE until maybe a few hundred years after Jesus. If I had the time, I think it would be interesting to understand why it was that time period that led to such a proliferation of systems for living. (If you know of a book that may discuss this topic, can you send me a pointer?)
My “Final” Sequence
All philosophy aside, the course also taught me the fundamentals of asana practice, how the different poses are classified by spinal orientation and energetic effects, the importance of counter-posing, and the concept of vinyasa krama, or intelligent sequencing of poses, along with the use of mind maps to help build a sequence in a principled way. There are many elements to a yoga sequence that, as a yoga student, you may not even be aware of. In addition to the poses, these include: a theme, narrative (the spoken words as the teacher moves through the class), a primary class of poses including a peak pose, breathing techniques, targeted energetic effect (calming, energizing, integration, etc.), style of savasana (resting at end), as well as possibly the use of mantras or meditation. I also learned some basics of anatomy and physiology, contraindications for poses, the use of alternate poses and hands-on adjustments, and generally just learned a lot more poses. I feel I now know enough to modify my daily practice to meet my needs. In other words, I’m at that “advanced beginner” stage where I know enough to be dangerous, or feel like I can teach my friends. 😉
I also drew a lot of stick figures. Some yoga teachers use sequences of stick figures to help them plan out the flow of a sequence, or communicate a sequence to others — a sort of blueprint for the sequence. Of course, teaching the class never ends up happening exactly as planned, but it’s a helpful guide to have, much like a lesson plan. For the last weekend of the class, we all got to teach a “final” hour-long sequence of our own design to a public class. The theme of my class was something I’ve talked about a lot recently — Cultivating Equanimity. Although I didn’t record my class, you can get a taste of what it was like by checking out my mind map and stick figures.
A Daily Practice
Perhaps most importantly, as a result of the class, I’ve begun a daily practice consisting of asana and meditation, which I’ve been able to maintain for the last 5 months. Maintaining a daily practice of any kind beyond showering and brushing and flossing my teeth has eluded me for most of my life, so I’m particularly gratified with this outcome. What’s so important about a daily practice? On the surface, moving the body and resting the mind are two things we all need to be healthy, and they need to happen on a daily basis. At a deeper level, though, I’ve come to realize: you are what you practice. If you run around in a frenzy all day, by definition, your life is a frenzy, and your natural response to any situation will be a frenetic one. Likewise, if you spend your time thinking about the future, you never live your life in the present. What you practice, every day, every hour, every minute — that’s who you are. By including regular interludes of calm, focus, and disciplined pursuit of physical and mental health, I can naturally and constantly embody those attributes in the rest of my life. I have a lot more to say about this concept, so look for another blog post on this topic soon.
My thanks go first and foremost to my wife, who, despite the poor timing of the class with respect to what was going on in the rest of our lives, remained understanding and supportive throughout. My deep gratitude goes to my teacher, Jill, whose dedication to the training and the students was truly unbelievable, even after she sustained a very serious (non-yoga) injury. My sangha (community of classmates) was amazing — I love you guys, and have learned something from every one of you. You are some of the most genuine, caring, down-to-earth, and downright authentic (and divine!) people I’ve ever met. Finally, thanks to Vibe Yoga, and its owner, Rebecca Bara. Your generosity in holding the space for the class went above and beyond.