Pre-Covid I was teaching yoga twice a week to a dedicated group of regulars. When the health club that hosted my classes closed due to the pandemic I took my first real break from teaching since I started in 2009. The gym re-opened with new safety protocols last June, but I chose not to return in order to safeguard vulnerable members of my family. And although I considered it, I never felt called to transition to online classes. So, my class at In Balance last month was my first time teaching in 16 months. I was both excited and nervous as I prepared to return to the front of the class. It felt great to be back. But it also felt surprisingly DIFFERENT.
Like most of us, I want to be liked, respected, and possibly even admired on occasion. I learned about Yoga and how to teach it from the best (Thank you, Bhavani!), and have always felt confident regarding what I have to share in the classroom. And after more than a decade, I feel like I’m pretty good at it. When I recently returned to teaching I knew my knowledge base was intact, but I was surprised and intrigued by how very vulnerable I felt. Exposed. You see, somewhere along the way, during all of those months tucked in with my loving husband and dog, safe from prying eyes, I had removed my mask…that mask we all wear to project the image we have of ourselves…the mask we don to hide our insecurities, to impress others, to gain acceptance. We wear them so long and so constantly that we begin to fool ourselves. As I returned to the familiar role of “Yoga Teacher” I realized that I had forgotten to put my mask back on! In fact it seems that I might have misplaced it. And in that moment of unexpected vulnerability I understood that my job is less about imparting knowledge or wisdom, and more about holding sacred space for exploration and introspection. My willingness to feel vulnerable, and do it anyway, can create a pocket of permission for my students to do the same. Yes, as the Teacher I am there to lead and guide and correct, but more importantly, I am there to SUPPORT. And within that realization I noticed that I cared so much less about what anyone thought of ME, and simply felt thankful that we were all sharing this experience together. My return to the practiced role of “Yoga Teacher” pointed out the hidden personal shifts that I had failed to fully notice.
You can google “Benefits of a Regular Yoga Practice” and watch a long list appear…strength and flexibility, mental clarity, stress reduction …etc. But, perhaps one of yoga’s greatest untouted gifts is that it serves as a TOUCHSTONE on the journey to self-actualization. Whether or not we see it, we are always changing, growing and healing. When we come to the mat often, and interact with the same postures again and again, we get a snapshot of where we are in the moment. We can gauge the condition of our bodies, the quality of our breath, and the state of our monkey minds. Then we can take this new information and compare it to how we felt in the exact same pose yesterday, or last year. Much like birthdays or anniversaries, these moments of repetitive stillness provide an opportunity to reflect upon where we are, how far we’ve come, and what direction we are heading. Our yoga practice offers us a regular peek beneath our masks, and a moment to reconnect with our authentic selves, the unchanging source of contentment and wisdom that gets buried beneath all the noise. The practices of asana, pranayama, and meditation also provide a still point from which to observe how and when our egos pipe up to negate, excuse, and explain away the perceived flaws of our basic humanity. We may notice that when we slay one ego dragon, it often clears the way for another to slink out from deeper within the cave of our unconscious…in endless layers of distortion.
Yoga philosophy points to the Ego (Asmita) as one of our greatest challenges and teachers on the path. We constantly confuse the vehicles of consciousness – our minds, bodies, emotions, and senses – with consciousness itself. (PYS 2.6) We forget that our true selves are divine and sublime, encased inside the profane cage of the body/mind/personality complex. Not only does a regular yoga practice give us glimpses of the flawless life-spark beneath, but it helps us chart the progress of our journey towards embodying it, make any necessary refinements, and boldly peel our masks away, one liberating breath at a time.