What are we teaching?

This is a question I have come back to time and time again since I started down the teaching yoga path. What are we really teaching when we say we teach yoga? This question often creeps up on me during those times of self-doubt, where I feel like I’m getting bogged down in too much detail. When I feel my teaching starts becoming finicky and dry from too much emphasis on technical alignment, or I find my sequences becoming unnecessarily busy or complex. When I feel that I’ve placed too much emphasis on the pose rather than on the person.

I sense this is a common trap that many of us fall into both as yoga teachers and yoga practitioners. This idea that the pose is somehow king. That yoga and physical posturing are one and the same thing. I would argue that it’s possible to do an entire physical asana practice that doesn’t contain an ounce of yoga in it if there isn’t at least some effort to maintain, breath, presence and sensitivity. I also know (and have met) many people who I think are more ‘yogic’ than I’ll ever be and have yet to set foot on a sticky mat.

There are two great quotes I think of often when I ponder the question about what we are teaching. The first is from a wonderful yoga therapist in the States called Judith Hanson Lasater – she says “Yoga is not about touching your toes, but about what you learn about yourself on the way down there.” Another great quote comes from Bernie Clark, “We don’t use our body to get into a pose, we use the pose to get into our body.”

What both of these quotes suggest is that the physical practice is merely a means towards accessing something far bigger and deeper than just our physical body. The poses are not themselves the yoga, but if we’re lucky they might lead us to it. Yoga therefore is not a noun – it’s not something you ‘do’, but something you ‘become’. Yoga is an experience. I think this is an important distinction to make because it fundamentally shifts the emphasis of our teaching.

Rather than teaching people how to twist, balance on their hands, fold forwards or backbend as a means to an end, we’re teaching these things merely as an aid to self-discovery, as a tool for helping people to explore themselves more deeply. Now when I teach and emphasise alignment in class, it’s less about trying to get people into a physical pose and more about using attention to alignment as an aid to building greater focus and attention. Research now clearly shows how important the simple ability to stay present and attentive plays in how happy and meaningful we perceive our lives to be.  This is also one of the reasons why I still shy away from an Instagram account – don’t get me wrong there’s some beautiful asana photography out there and it’s lovely to look at, but I worry that people start to equate this with yoga. That it opens up a space for people to see their yoga as something that you ‘do’, something that you compare yourself against others and value purely from the aesthetic level.

When I think about what I want to teach, what I want students to walk away from having learnt, I know it’s
essentially many of the same skills that I am still working on daily to cultivate in myself. Qualities such as compassion, patience, self-friendliness, discernment, resilience and the never-ending work of remaining skillfully present amidst all of life’s twists and turns. These are the kinds of skills that really mean something.

Your ability to handstand or to touch your head to your shins will ebb and flow with the capricious and endlessly changing nature of our physical bodies. When we couch our sense of self-worth based on physical feats of prowess we’re on a slippery slope to frustration, disappointment and disillusion. The body will age, the body will fail us at some point – this is a game we can not win. We must look therefore to our teachers and ourselves to find something deeper within this practice, something enduring and worth the rigors and discipline required of our work on the mat. Then, rather than seeing the pose as an end point, we can value the poses as a beginning – an entry-point into exploring and uncovering the very best versions of ourselves.