Sunday, May 10, 2015

Overcoming Obstacles

This week it felt like something was missing without having one of the Yamas or Niyamas to focus my energy on. I have really enjoyed the process of exploring how those key principles of yoga can translate into every day life.

Ultimately, the goal is to integrate them into your life to the point that you can practice all ten of them without having to think about it. I am a long way from having that level of balance and discipline in my life, but it is certainly something to work toward. In the meantime, I would like to periodically revisit them to see if I can reach a deeper level of understanding.

This week's reading focused on the concept of obstacles, which have been described as rocks lying on the path traveled by someone who has set off on the yoga journey. There are nine obstacles within the yoga practice. These obstacles can extend to other areas of your life as well:

Vyadhi - Illness, which could be physical or mental. 

Styana - Lethargy, lacking energy to do things. This can be a result of what we eat, our environment (i.e. the weather) or the natural cycles of our mind.

Samsaya - Doubt, a regular and persistent feeling of uncertainty.

Pramada - Acting with haste, carelessly. This can especially happen when we are trying to reach our goal too quickly.

Alasya - Exhaustion, lack of enthusiasm for our practice. This can happen after practicing for some time. It can be related to the feeling of doubt (Samsaya).

Avirati - Distraction of the mind or the senses, which takes our focus away from our practice.

Bhrantidarsana - Arrogance, a feeling that we have reached the highest point in our practice. This is an illusion that may occur when you experience a feeling of calm for a period of time.

Alabdhabhumikatva - This is the opposite of Bhrantidarsana. It refers to a recognition that no matter how much progress we have made, there is still so much left to learn. Often this feeling can overwhelm us and make it impossible to take another step.

A person may experience some or all of these obstacles along the way. Right now, I think the most common obstacle for me is Samsaya (Doubt). Even though I have chosen this path and I am excited about the potential that yoga brings to my life, I still find myself wondering whether I am good enough to succeed at this practice. 

Every time I start to have a certain degree of confidence in my abilities as a yoga teacher, I learn more information that causes me to question everything. Today in class we talked a lot about teaching to special populations. Many of the girls in my class are planning to teach yoga as therapy for victims of trauma or people recovering from addiction. There are even opportunities to teach yoga in homeless shelters. 

While all of these experiences can provide an opportunity for people to heal through the practice of yoga, they also bring with them great responsibility as a teacher. While the idea of teaching yoga in a studio environment can be daunting enough, there are even more things to consider when teaching to special populations. 

We learned today that many people who have been through trauma in their life have a heightened sense of awareness of their surroundings. Even the lighting or noise level in the room can affect their experience in class. We also learned to be very careful of the language we use in class, as well as giving any physical adjustments to students. Some of the students may have no prior experience in an exercise class so they may not be aware of the basic structure and common courtesy, such as not talking during class.  

In some cases, we would be going into a teaching situation where we know in advance that there are special needs. If you were teaching in a domestic violence shelter, for example, you might have at least some idea about the background and experiences of the students.

But our teachers also reminded us that many special needs students could come to our classes at the studio. In that case, we may or may not even know that the student has special needs. While some people come to yoga class for exercise, there are a lot of students who are coming for other reasons, even on the recommendation of a therapist.

Apparently, it is very common for people with eating disorders to come to yoga classes. This could be because they are addicted to exercise as part of their disease or it could be a way to reconnect with their body as part of their recovery. While that makes perfect sense, it is probably not something I would have been prepared for if my teacher had not mentioned it.

After the discussion today, I started to feel a little intimidated about teaching yoga. The students in my class are vulnerable and they are placing their trust in me. The last thing I would want to do is offend a student, or even worse to cause them harm by something that I said during class.

I could easily convince myself that it is too risky to even try teaching and it would be easier just to remain a student of yoga. After all, if I never teach a real yoga class then I will know for certain that I will never say the wrong thing to a student. 

Or I can just recognize that there is always a risk of saying the wrong thing to someone, whether it is in a yoga class or in an elevator at the mall. People come from a variety of backgrounds and everyone has a different life experience. You never know how another person may react.

All I can do is try to be alert to the potential needs of my students, teach my class to the best of my ability and learn from any mistakes that I make along the way. That is the only way to grow and become a better yoga teacher. And a better person. 

Monday, May 4, 2015

Seeking Divinity

This week was dedicated to the practice of Isvarapranidhana, which means to recognize that there is some divine force that is larger than ourselves and is guiding and directing the course of our lives. The literal translation of Isvarapranidhana is to lay all of your actions at the feet of God.

When I first started teacher training a few months ago, I remember having a negative reaction every time our instructors brought up the idea that yoga would connect us to God. I have been told that a lot of people who practice yoga casually have a similar reaction to the concept.

I can't speak for everyone, but for me I always think of yoga as bringing lightness to my life and the concept of God brought a sense of heaviness, guilt and obligation that I did not want to associate with my yoga practice. As I continued with my training and learned about the meaning of God as it exists in yoga philosophy (as well as Hinduism and Buddhism) I started to be more open to the idea that yoga could connect me to God.

In fact, the God that I learned about in yoga training is much more consistent with my concept of what God should be. Even before I started training, I often found myself referring to things like mother nature, the universe and karma as opposed to God. If someone was going through a hard time, instead of saying a prayer for them, I would tell them that I would send them good karma.

As I make this transition, I find myself in a place where I have two ideas of God. One is the traditional religious sense where God is the father of Jesus. I have always been told that God is a powerful being who is capable of love and forgiveness. Yet, I have never felt connected to that God. He brings with him all of the baggage of organized religion. And all of the rules, expectations and conditions under which we need to live our lives to experience that love and forgiveness.

My new idea of God is more consistent with my practice of yoga. God is a divine force that placed the seed of Brahman into the universe and created everything in it. In my new concept, God isn't a person. It is divine energy. And that energy exists in every person and everything on earth because we were all created from that one seed of Brahman.

The practice of yoga recognizes that God isn't a distant being to be worshiped. The divine exists in each of us. And through the practice of yoga, we seek to strengthen our connection with the divine, which helps us to strengthen our connection with our true self. Rather than placing the focus externally to find the forgiveness, unconditional love and acceptance we are seeking, we find it within us.

That is the beauty of yoga. And as I continue my practice, I believe that my traditional view of God that developed through years of participating in organized religion will start to fade away and I will recognize that the God we worshiped for all of those years in church is really just a different manifestation of the same light that I am seeking my yoga practice. Yoga simply cuts out the middle man (i.e. the church) and allows me to communicate directly with the divine energy.

This week was a perfect one to practice Isvarapranidhana because I happened to be experiencing a major change in my life. My job is being eliminated at work and I found myself at a crossroads. I could either choose to take another job at the same company, or I could leave and seek out a new opportunity that would be more consistent with who I am and how I want to live my life.

One of the things that got me through the week was to take a moment each day to connect with the divine energy of the universe and show gratitude. The other was a more traditional prayer that has been used by many people during challenging times in their lives. It is the serenity prayer:  God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

I have never used this prayer in the past, but I found it really helped me this week. When I think of that prayer with the term "God" reflecting my new definition that comes from my yoga training, it is a beautiful sentiment. It recognizes the higher power in the universe while at the same time acknowledging the role of the individual to take action to improve their life.

In the end, I decided not to take another job with my company and instead to take a leap of faith and trust that I will be able to find something better out there. I am planning to take the summer off to teach yoga and hopefully start to explore other opportunities to share my skills and be a positive force in the universe.

If any of you practiced Isvarapranidhana this week, I would love to hear from you in the comments section.

As for me, I have come to the end of my weekly practice of the Yamas and Niyamas. Believe it or not, we have completed all ten of them! This week, our assignment is to read about the concept of obstacles in yoga philosophy and consider how they might impact our yoga practice. I will be back next week to share my experience.