Stop right now and ask yourself this question: "What are the top three words I'd use to describe my yoga practice?"
This is a sincere request. Before reading any further, please complete the exercise. How would you describe your practice? Three words, and be honest.
Did you do it?
What did you come up with?
If you're new to yoga (and were honest with yourself), you might have words like "confusing," "frustrating," "struggle," "competition" - even "torture." Hell, you don't have to be a beginner - there are days/poses/teachers that bring these feelings out in all of us.
Now, if you've been practicing for at least a few years, chances are you chose words like "relaxing," "concentration," "focus," and "breath." And these words describe a lovely practice. But I'm not satisfied with them.
What about joy? Love? Gratitude? Ecstasy? Wonder? Surrender? Were any of these words on your list? If not, I hope they will be soon.
In the beginning, the yoga asana practice is about improving our physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. We learn to hold and breathe in the poses in a way that breaks up energetic blockages and makes space for prana to flow freely through the body. We prepare our vessel.
But once the foundations are established, the practice can become something much greater. After we fulfill our basic needs from the practice, we're ready to stop asking and start offering.
If we let it, the practice can be a joyous celebration of life itself.
This is my favorite way to practice. I close or half-close my eyes. I suffuse every breath, every transition with meaning. Sometimes I cry, if I need to cry. I savor the music, the movement, the moment. I saturate ever fiber of my being with my intention, whether it's to send love and happiness to someone I work with, to forgive someone who's hurt me, or to offer deep gratitude for all of existence. I surrender to the infinite wisdom of the universe. I'm not afraid to say it: I worship.
Practicing in this way is delicious. It's like eating a juicy watermelon on a trampoline on a hot July day. It's bliss. It's the ultimate.
But you might not get that from taking my class. Here's my struggle: it's hard to teach alignment and surrender at the same time. It's not that they can't coexist. When an experienced yogi understands how to contain her flexibility, stay with her breath, move from her center, and respect her own physical limitations, and understands these principles so well she can keep them on autopilot, then she can absolutely practice surrender on a foundation of alignment. This is what I do.
But practicing both is one thing. Teaching both is quite another. Focusing on alignment and surrender simultaneously is incredibly hard to pull off. It generally leads to too much talking by the teacher and cognitive dissonance, if not complete bewilderment, in the students. Most teachers fall into the Annie Carpenter camp (alignment) or the Rusty Wells camp (surrender). Few teachers can nail down a mix, at least in the same class (although Amanda Moran and Stephanie Snyder do a damn good job). I certainly haven't figured out how to do it.
I might hope to focus on cultivating "joy" in class, for example, but when I look around and see yogis pointing their toes and knees in opposite directions or attempting to force themselves into a pose they aren't ready for, I have to step in and bring the focus down to Earth, down to the physical minutia of skeletal alignment. And, even beyond safety, alignment is important to me for the sake of developing technique. Yoga is most certainly not about achievement, but I want my students to be able to progress physically in their practice as well as spiritually. And you can't learn handstand if you haven't learned plank.
Maybe one day I'll discover a better way, but for now my approach is this: Safety first. Teach with alignment as a foundation, but hold space for everyone to explore something greater through the intentions I always have them set at the beginning of class, and offer everything I can from my own intention of celebrating this beautiful existence we all share. I teach with a focus on alignment, but as I do I invite my fellow souls to be curious, playful, and lighthearted in their manner, so they may one day come to describe their practice as "blissful," "soulful," and "celebratory" on their own.