(This blog was originally posted in 2013 towards the beginning of my teaching career, but it's become a bit of a manifesto for me so I've brought it to my new site)
I love visuals. I love sharing and celebrating moments in my life with photographs. I love films, colourful books and artwork, well-illustrated magazines and cookbooks. I love anatomy drawings and the diagram I have of a skeleton from an old French schoolroom that is mounted on my wall. I love to see things explained and stories told pictorially.
But not everything can be seen.
I love my iphone camera and Instagram, just as I loved my old point-and-shoot cameras, the first battery-operated Kodak camera that preceded them, and the old photo albums and scrapbooks I used to keep. I love capturing beauty, light, life and landscapes through the lens to share with others in real time (or to keep for myself for later viewing on a rainy day).
But not everything can be shown.
I love watching dance, acrobatics, gymnastics, the Olympics and all the movement arts that display the limitless abilities of our majestic bodies. I love gasping in awe when a body defies gravity, sighing with relief when someone lands on their feet, yearning from every cell in my body to dance and move my hips, and feel the spring of foot against floor the way those who have trained their bodies through relentless practice do with grace and ease. I can imagine how it would feel in my own body because yoga has connected me with my movement centre, the inner dancer who has always been there.
But not everything is meant to be performed.
And because I have no interest in harming myself to achieve something my limbs are not ready for (and may not ever have been designed to do) in an attempt to emulate what has come before or imitate what might appear on the cover of a yoga magazine, I have to remind myself to keep my practice inside. This is and has been my yoga philosophy since injuring myself during practice over seven years ago: focus on the feeling, not the display. Go for the subtle, not the intense. Use yoga to heal, not to harm. Listen, don’t look. Practice for me and no one else. Because my yoga is not for show.
The above is a little ‘matifesto’ (I believe this term was coined by the clever Alexandra Franzen) I wrote to myself following an experience doing yoga in a display window for a popular yoga clothing brand (more on that below). It is something I have to revisit from time to time to keep my practice safe and to keep my teaching sincere. While the physical practice of yoga asana can challenge our bodies as it invites our fascial matrix (connective tissue) to bend, fold, twist, turn, and lengthen in the way a dancer’s body does effortlessly, the ability to practice difficult poses is NOT criteria for getting on the mat. And while becoming more flexible and bouncy in our bodies can inspire us to be more expressive and more daring with our movement, there is a fine line to cross before pushing it too far to the extreme. What is essential to practice yoga is the abandonment of any kind of perfectionism, the self-discipline to go only so deep into a pose to trigger subtle sensations, a willingness to listen, a commitment to being patient, and a certain amount of humility or humbleness to keep at one with the true aim of yoga practice, which has little to do with what you look like.
I once read an article somewhere that said the sign of a good yoga teacher is someone who shares, doesn’t show. It rang so true but I also thought, what a challenge! Could I explain movement to someone without demonstration or synchronization of my movement with theirs?
Yes. And perhaps more profoundly so.
I’ve been teaching large, flow-style studio yoga classes for almost four* solid years now and over this time I have slowly developed my yoga teaching voice – its cadence, its clarity, and its connection with ‘the moves.’ I have also developed an awareness of the vast variety of people who come to practice yoga, their physical limitations, hang-ups and insecurities. They are mostly shy, like I was, but a little voice has told them yoga may hold an answer they’ve been seeking, may bring relief to an aching body that just wants to dance, and so they have braved the first step of walking into the classroom. And would my way of encouraging them be to lift myself up into a challenging arm balance or flip myself upside down in an inversion? To show off rock-hard abs and a Lycra clad body? No. Why? Because while that may motivate some, it would probably scare off others who can’t even imagine reaching their toes with their fingertips.
I like to ease my students into their practice. I love teaching beginners (who naturally have the essential ‘beginners mind’) because they are willing to take it slow. My number one goal in teaching is to have everyone leave the classroom feeling good, feeling calmer, warmer and more alive in their bodies, not deflated, achy, or worried they may have hurt themselves. I’ve been there. Many times. And it’s a discouraging place. I do wear some figure fitting clothes and demonstrate some of the postures because, in the beginning, it does help to see. During my training my teachers explained to me the different levels or ‘limbs’ of yoga – they start with the physical and evolve into the deeper, yet more subtle practice of meditation. The physical is the entry point into the less tangible world of eliminating one’s inner chatter to find inner peace. We have to start with what we can see and then we can move on to address those things we can’t.
So, in teaching, I keep to occasional demonstrations and soft adjustments. I look at each person as an individual. I encourage everyone to make yoga work for them, not the other way around. I don’t try to be a model for my students, instead I am a facilitator and guide. I admit my limitations in arm binds, inversions, and other asanas that my body has not found yet and remind students that the prep work for advanced poses is where it’s at. I don’t look for perfect bodies, flat stomachs, or long limbs. I look for soft smiles, uncreased brows, lifted hearts, relaxed shoulders, focused gazes and all the true physical manifestations of a body that has found its home on the mat.
Do I think all of the yoga images we see today are bad? Of course not – they are simply images. It’s all down to how you interpret them and how they are used to market yoga. The human body is a remarkable thing and it’s lovely to see it expressed in different ways. Yoga poses and mudras make for great expressions. Clothing is also a fun way to externally express your inner colour so if you feel beautiful in a certain outfit and in a certain pose and you want to capture that moment, then why not? I’ve had rare moments where I have simultaneously felt beautiful and in the mood for some self-portraiture and done just this. I’ve had more moments sitting in meditation in my pjs with bed-head where I’ve felt equally gorgeous, but not necessarily camera ready. What has never felt and never will feel right is practicing yoga or posing for yoga with a large, scrutinizing audience waiting for my next trick.
Occasionally I get lured back into the ego space of wanting to look a certain way. Last year I was asked to do ‘yoga in the window’ for a popular clothing brand. I agreed on the condition that I would not allow myself to ‘perform’ for the passersby, that instead I would take on the task of representing the less lean ‘yoga body’ that is excluded from most yoga marketing and would demonstrate a softer practice. Maybe I would even just sit there and meditate. But when I arrived on the scene and observed the preceding model (a trained dancer like most of those chosen) bobbing her head up and down to the beats of a live DJ whilst holding her right leg up in Paschimotonasa, I started feeling inferior and completely not up for the job. I wanted to run; I wanted to hide, but there was a voice that said – follow through with this Kate, there is a lesson here. So, heart racing, insecurities abounding, I chose an outfit to model and got in the window display. I took three deep breaths and tried hard to centre myself but the thumping music and amassing crowd of pedestrians gathering around the window had my nervous system in overdrive. I was worried about the sweat dripping off my face, but did everything I could to keep my cool and stick to the plan. Did I stay true to my intention?
No. How could I? I was completely disconnected from me. I was clothed in brand new yoga bottoms and top but I felt naked. My senses were heightened so much as a means of protection that I couldn’t find my breath. I ignored but could feel impatient eyes upon me. One gentleman even decided to come into the shop and stand behind me as he stared at my bottom in a forward fold so his mates outside could take a picture. I was a moving mannequin advertising an outfit in public. I ended my 1- hour window (which felt like an eternity) ten minutes early. They allowed me to keep the free outfit, which I have since given away. For the next day, actually the next week, my body got back at me with stiffness and pain. My nerves were so revved up that I hardly slept a wink that night. I woke up and journaled for an hour. I didn’t regret the experience, instead I felt immense gratitude to the Universe for showing me that my approach was right all along. That cemented it for me. True yoga practice requires deep connection with your breath, full immersion in your being and humbleness. The rest is just for show.