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The Yoga Body

Several years ago I was having lunch with a friend discussing our dreams, our goals and our passions. “What I really want to do is practice yoga all the time, and maybe some day even teach yoga”, I said, admitting it out loud for the first time.

“Yea, but don’t you have to be thin to do that?”, he replied.

And such is the way of the mind – to judge, to condition, to expect things to be a certain way based on what we see in the media, read about in books, or rationalize based on experience (or lack thereof). Yogis are thin, some people think, because to practice yoga one has to be flexible, health conscious, active and therefore healthy. On and on go the preconceived ideas about what it takes to be a yoga teacher.

It’s true, that some yoga teachers are svelt, flexible and in pristine physical condition, but that in itself doesn’t make someone evolved in their practice or teaching (though it can certainly help when it comes to practicing asana). While not all yoga teachers have been blessed with a genetic gene pool that makes the practice of yoga easy or natural, the empathy developed from practicing in a body that is not naturally flexible or ‘perfect’  can be a teacher’s great gift to their students; it may even contribute to one’s compassion and ability to teach.

When the asana practice is easy, what can one learn from the practice? How does a human pretzel relate to students who find certain postures challenging or even painful?

The philosophy of yoga says that we have been born into our families and our bodies for a reason based on our samskaras (past karmic imprints). This implies that we are not in complete control of our metabolic makeup, our shape, or even our overall health. Yoga philosophy says that what happened many lifetimes ago may just be germinating karmically in this lifetime, so we should take it in stride,  do all that we can to treat others with kindness and compassion, and practice our sadhana. The rebirthing process into a human body is a gift – it’s an opportunity to work out our past karmic seeds and evolve, and perhaps even attain enlightenment in this lifetime.

Many yoga teachers have come to teach due to their love of yoga and the positive changes they have experienced in their own lives as a result of their practice. This implies that they had something that drew them to the practice to begin with, some type of suffering or seeking within. Through the teaching of asana, however, some yogis get sidetracked from their sadhana, trying so hard to fit into the image of what they think they should be as a ‘yogi’ that they become busy with ‘doing yoga’ instead of ‘being’ in their practice. These teachers may look and act the part, but observe more closely and you may become aware: of the ‘vegan teacher’ who is passionate about causing less harm to four-legged beings, yet rude and dispassionate towards human-beings; the ‘sadhu teacher’ who looks and acts the part of a guru yet is so caught up in being a teacher that they don’t know how to be a student; the ‘flexible teacher’ who is so busy with demonstrating the postures to their students that they are practicing the postures inaccurately and actually harming themselves. These observations are not made with the intention to judge, but rather, to remember that things are never what they seem, and at the end of the day, we are all doing the best we can in our human-ness. No one is perfect, there is no such a thing.

I was asked by a complete stranger (who happens to be a yoga teacher) recently if I was pregnant. I explained to her that while I have a son, I’m not currently pregnant. I added that I have a digestive disease that I’ve had since I was three that makes my belly appear bloated. “Yea, you have baby belly alright”, she said, ignoring my previous comment. “Pilates could really help that, and so could some yoga”. I decided not to tell her that I practice pilates twice a week, have been practicing yoga for 15 years. In truth, my ego was a knocked down a couple of notches, but it was a great reminder that we never really know what is going on with people, regardless of what we see on the outside. Not everyone who appears overweight or unhealthy is so because of their diet or their lifestyle, and a yoga teacher who asks a complete stranger if they are pregnant may not know enough to realize that not all people are created with a flat tummy.

My belief is that a yoga body is a body of grace, awareness, energy and confidence. Whether tall or short, svelt or round, a yogi is one who is interested in forging a positive relationship with one’s whole self. This means no longer identifying with the positive and negative aspects of one’s being, but rather, ceasing to view oneself with positive or negative aspects-accepting both in equal measure, in whole-ness. From the study of the yamas and niyamas, a yogis walks with grace and integrity; from the asana and pranayama practice, a yogi has a vibrant cultivation of positive energy. By practicing pratyahara, dharana, and later, dhyana, confidence flows. These are attributes I aspire to in my yoga body. What do you seek from your practice?

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