The Subtle Shift

18/11/2012 14:09

I have often heard Stephen say this about how people approach their yoga practice. Often the mindset is: “What can I get out of this?” You may believe in the power of energy or not, but I think many of us have experienced how the practice shifts radically depending on your personal motivation: Are you trying to prove something to yourself? Are you trying to “get there” to impress someone? Or are you actually surrendering – quite oblivious of results and outcome ? Can you simply give in to the pleasure of the practice without expecting anything in return?


I have once heard Stephen say that the chemistry of the blood changes, if you practice with ego. It has happened to all of us, I think: After we have experienced the benefits and blissful effects of the practice in a first phase of discovery, we begin to count on them. We begin to grasp and reach for what feels exhilarating and transformative. However, if we come to our mat with a set of expectations, the practice will just not feel the same. Like Stephen often says: The minute you reach for something, it's gone. Just like when you finally find your balance on one leg, the second you think, “Ah, NOW I've got it!”, you fall.

The physiological explanation is that reaching will most likely generate stress in the nervous system, which in turn will cause the mind and breath to be agitated. It is very counterproductive to be in a state of nervous tension when you are trying to balance on one leg or meditate or to hold Kumbhaka or to find headstand. I think we can all agree that this pretty much defeats the whole purpose of yoga.


In the historical Vedic period of Yoga, sacrifice was considered a central ritual. Because the Divine had provided, the practice was to simply offer back. So the question was not “What will I receive?”, but “How can I give back for what I have already received?”.


For the longest time this concept of sacrifice, seemed rather foreign to me. Until I realized that when you make your practice a sacrifice, an act of giving back, you can trick the ego. Karma Yoga can work magic. When you abandon your egotistical purpose, then something within just relaxes. It might be hard to see, because our mat practice is something between seems to be about me, myself and I. True. But for starters, you could ask questions like: What can I give into it? How can I abandon myself to it? How can I make this an offering? How can I do this for someone else other than myself? How can I direct this energy I create into the support of someone else?

I like sometimes dedicating my practice to someone. But even if you don't do that, your practice is also always for others. Whoever you ask, most yoga practitioners will tell you that yoga has changed them. And even if has just helped them deal with their own personal migraine, or insomnia, or high blood pressure, isn't that something that affects their friends and family as well?


A word about teaching, since this is the reason we're here for: You might think that when you become a yoga teacher you no longer have to think about it, because giving seems like a given. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. There are different motivations for giving. Do you give to be seen and applauded? Do you want your students to “get it” just to know that to feel that you did your job well? Or do you give without expecting to see specific results? Is it enough for you to simply support with your energy so your students can be confident and feel safe in the space? The same rules apply: If you let go, you create the space for transformation to happen. If you hold on, you narrow the space and nothing can budge.


Like all things in life, it is challenging to strike a balance. All teachers have moments when they grasp for approval. So teaching (or assisting) becomes just another practice. Like all things in life, our motivation fluctuates. Even here at Yoga Thailand, I go through ups and downs. On some days I find myself answering question after question because I want to feel needed and seen. Then suddenly it hits me that I have lost my awareness and that I am reaching for gratification.


The best days however are those when it's totally not about me. When I feel I am here to hold the space in the background, so Stephen can teach and not worry about anything else. I love adjusting and explaining alignment, but the moments I savor the most are when I am standing at the back of the room in silence. I see 39 pairs of arms lifting for the beginning of the Surya Namaskar and I see it is the wings of their confidence spreading.


At the end of the morning Stephen asks me how I'm doing. I reply that after ten days, I feel more confident, so that I can leave the space, without always talking or having my hands on people. I can just support in a subtle way, my ego is releasing the grip. He whispers in my ear: “Yes, it's beautiful when we can teach without constantly justifying ourselves.” I look up at him and smile: “Well said.”