My Favorite Yoga Class

René Descartes' illustration of mind/body dualism.

My favorite class that I teach right now is a chair yoga class for people dealing with cancer. There is no vinyasa in this class. We don’t even get on the floor for savasana because some students might not be able to get back up afterwards. But that doesn’t matter — they do yoga. They practice at the level that’s appropriate for their bodies and their current level of health. The purpose of their practice is not to master every pose but to find peace in a body that is anything but peaceful. Once again, I am learning more from my students than they are learning from me. I show up and give them a few exercises to do, and in return, they teach me about choosing serenity in the midst of chaos and suffering.

Asana practice is about establishing a relationship between mind, body, and breath. Too often, we see ourselves in a disjointed way. We think the body is one thing, the mind is another, and the soul is yet another thing. We’re not in touch with our bodies, and we don’t have an accurate perception of how we look or what a healthy body looks like. We fail to see ourselves as whole, integrated beings and ignore the fact that what happens to the body affects the brain and shapes our entire experience. And when the body is gone, as far as we know, so is the mind.

Still, this lack of appreciation for the body persists across cultures, and it’s especially problematic in the US. Here, we see ourselves as being separate from nature, better than animals, above it all. Thinking that we are civilized, intellectual beings, we divorce ourselves from the body and spend our lives feeling like that little alien living in the man’s head in Men in Black. So, asana practice is about coming back into the body and inhabiting it in a healthy and joyful way.

The poses don’t matter that much. Each pose has a unique effect on the body, the breath, and the energy level, so it matters in a sense, but we basically choose a practice that produces the effect we want. Some people love hot yoga because it’s exhilarating. Some people crave the soothing atmosphere of a gentle class. Some people need a teacher who will push them hard to improve themselves. Some people need a teacher who will allow them to be vulnerable. That’s all fine, and it’s all yoga.

We learn various poses, breathing techniques, mantras and whatnot. Sometimes we get little glimpses of something bigger than us. That’s a very pleasant experience, but if it doesn’t make your day-to-day life better, then it’s hard to stay with it. Your practice has to be sustainable in order to make a lasting difference in your life. Find a practice that is sustainable — any practice that helps you make peace within yourself. You don’t have to be able to do a handstand. You don’t even have to do asana. Just find a way to make peace, and keep doing it. That’s your yoga.

Yoga Sutra 1.8: Don't Let a Misconception Ruin Your Day
Yoga Sutra 1.4: Keep Your Head On

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