Last night I started 17 people on a 6-week program of Beginner Yoga. I love teaching beginners, even though they are very fragile and I have to be careful with them for a few weeks until they get over the heebie-jeebies.
I think long and hard about what I talk to them about, what I tell them. I usually spend most of the first class just talking to them, but last night I dispensed with the talk and just led them through a basic little practice.
But next week, after I answer their questions, I am going to have to lay down the law. Give them the rules, the stone tablets with the commandments on them. And this is what I am going to tell them. More or less.
What I like about yoga, and what makes it unique among all the other exercise modalities I do, and have done, is that you have to begin from an introspective place.
This is one of the fundamental rules of yoga.
No matter what my practice may end up looking like; whether I end up a sweaty, panting heap on my mat, or all blissed out, it has to start out with a moment of reverential quiet and introspection. You’re not allowed to do yoga by jumping onto the mat and just going for the burn or whatever. You have to step on the mat and say a prayer. Not necessarily to god, but to something. Something bigger than your measly self and your messed up personality and your fat thighs.
So that is Rule #1: You must get quiet within yourself, and notice your breathing, and commit to yourself, and honor your presence on the mat. Only then can you proceed.
The next rule is non-harming. This rule is so that you will not strive, and crank your body to the point where you could hurt yourself. You are not allowed to hurt yourself. This is not to say that you will not feel discomfort in the practice at times, because you definitely will. But the discomfort is not allowed to grow into sharp pain. In yoga the “no pain, no gain” rule does NOT apply.
The next rule is that you are not allowed to compete with others. You are allowed to be inspired by others, especially by their effort and concentration and dedication to their practice, but you are not allowed to envy your neighbor’s backbend. You are also not allowed to bemoan the fact that your body might never be able to do something because of its age or physical limitations. If you find yourself doing this, you must remember this rule and immediately stop yourself because it’s totally against the rules.
So, if I’m not allowed to hurt myself, or compare myself, what AM I allowed to do?
You must notice your breath and how it changes from moment to moment. This is a very hard thing to do because you’re not used to focusing on your breath; you are used to taking your breath for granted. So to focus on your breath during this activity is very weird and strange and even boring.
You are also supposed to listen inside, to your thoughts. And this is uncomfortable too, because most of the time your thoughts involve comparing yourself to others, or they’re about wondering when this is going to be over because it’s hard and you hate hard, or they’re about the fact that you have nothing to make for dinner when you get home.
And then there will come that day when become so frustrated and fed up with the whole enterprise that you will ask yourself: What’s the point of this, anyway? You can tell yourself that you’re doing it because it is going to make you stronger and more flexible in your body. And that is a fact. Anyone who has practiced for even a short time will realize this very quickly. But strength and flexibility are not the point.
Yoga is a big pain in the ass because unlike some other body practices you can’t “dissociate” while doing it. (That’s probably should be the #1 rule, actually.) So, unlike at the gym where I can jump on the treadmill and watch an episode of Cake Boss or Oprah while doing my intervals, I can’t do that with yoga. I can’t multitask. I can’t pretend I’m not doing what I’m doing. If my mind wanders in yoga, the teacher, or my internal rule-keeper says, “notice your thoughts and bring your attention back to your breath and the sensations inside your body.”
And this will bring you face-to-face with your game: all the dodging and the pretending and the escaping. And this is the point of yoga.
The point of yoga is: Know Thyself. Boy. That’s huge. Most people do not realize how important and what a major turn for the better their lives would take if they could get a little more of THAT!
I think the major cause of most people’s problems is that they have no clue who they are. No clue. They don’t know what they want, or what they want to be when they grow up, or how to make themselves truly happy or how to steer themselves away from unhappiness. And I’m talking about fully grown adults here. Adults who are even attempting to raise children, when they themselves don’t have a clue who they really are inside. All they do is run around like robots. They do what they were taught to do by people who probably didn’t know who they were either, and so we get generation after generation of people propagating the same cluelessness. (It’s quite the clusterfuck out there, people, if you haven’t noticed.)
So now people go to Zumba, or lift weights, or run on elliptical trainers, or train for marathons so that they can lose weight and look great in a bathing suit or fit into a smaller size or whatever. And maybe they really do need to lose weight because their health is in jeopardy, so I’m not saying don’t run or lift weights or do Zumba. Go! Do! But know that if you are sticking earphones into your ears and running around lost in your fantasies, you are getting stronger legs, but you’re not gaining in self-knowledge. To do that you have to listen to yourself. All the miles on the elliptical won’t do you any good if you are eating a whole sleeve of Fig Newtons because you feel empty inside because you don’t know what you are doing with your life, or what makes you happy.
So, bottom line? The point of yoga? Know Thyself. To know who you are in relation to your conditioning. To know what part of the programs you were taught at home, and at school, and at church fit you, and what parts turned out to be viruses that keep crashing your system. To find ways to isolate those viruses so they don’t mess up your life anymore. You may not be able to get rid of them, but you can certainly quarantine them, and most importantly for those people raising children, not pass those buggy programs onto the progeny.
So, to summarize. Here are the commandments of yoga:
1. Get quiet. Set an intention. Say your prayer.
2. Do not hurt yourself.
3. Do not watch your neighbor or envy her backbend or compare yourself with her.
4. Stay present. Do not dissociate or zone out.
5. Listen inside. Listen to your thoughts.
6. Focus on your breath.
And this will bring you to self-knowledge IF you practice incessantly, with reverence, for a long time.