“Purification, Refinement, Surrender. These are the practical steps on the path of yoga.”
– Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra II.1, (trans. by Alistair Shearer)
I’ve gone back to basics lately with my practice, my teaching, and even my thinking about yoga. With over 1,000 hours of teaching, I keep coming back to the same question in my writing and conversation with other teachers: What is yoga, anyway?
My recent study with Doug Keller only underlined that question in my mind. He has a lovely overview of the history of yoga in his book about yoga philosophy Heart of the Yogi. He traces the long history of yoga – philosophy, practice, posture – to reveal there are only a few things that tie them all together: mindfulness and action.
Yoga is sometimes defined as Skill in Action. I like that.
I stayed with my mom over the weekend that I studied with Doug. She doesn’t ‘do’ yoga, so in many ways she’s my best audience. How can I explain yoga to someone who doesn’t already know what it is? I said to her, “It’s kinda like what they say about pornography: you know it when you see it.”
“That is not a good answer,” mom replied.
And she’s right.
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I have been avoiding the anniversary of The Thing this weekend. My teacher Mitchel is in town, and I’m looking forward to his Bowspring workshops and vinyasa classes. I would like very much to go on about my business, and not get sucked in to the ten-year anniversary. But yoga won’t let me.
Purification. That’s what fire does, and it’s why fire is often used as a metaphor to describe the yoga practice. Purification is not a pleasant process, and it usually requires tremendous hard work and a decent amount of discomfort – if not pain. Fire burns away everything that isn’t real.
Water also washes away everything that isn’t real. Water washed away everything that wasn’t permanent, that wasn’t deeply rooted, that wasn’t fully committed.
Refinement. Once the heat of the practice has built, then the true work begins. It’s in the tiny movements in our body that real change happens. We want to find a showy pincha mayurasana to post on Instagram, but we know that’s just the shell. The real work happens on the inside, when we feel those small adjustments starting to reveal huge change. Looking strong doesn’t hold a candle to feeling strong.
The last ten years have been a constant process of refinement. That has meant looking at the things we were doing – as individuals, community, leadership – thing things that were working, and the things that weren’t. Being brave and ruthless about our choices, doing our best to keep the heart of our city along the way.
As my teacher Heide says: “You don’t learn perfectly. It’s not a straight line forward.”
Surrender. Everybody knows the best yoga pose is Savasana – after 60 or 90 minutes of working, you get to rest. Just rest. And no rest comes easier than the rest after hard, challenging work. Honestly, I MUST work that hard to truly surrender. Because surrender is the hardest part.
Surrender means accepting things as they are, even if they aren’t where you want them to be. Yet. It means yielding to the wisdom the pose has to offer you – letting the pose do you, instead of you doing the pose.
Surrender means being willing to let your life be molded by a power beyond your imagination. It’s a willingness to be humble, to make mistakes, to fail, to learn, and to grow. That is my understanding of yoga.
Yoga is a willingness to be humble, to make mistakes, to fail, to learn, and to grow.
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I want to avoid the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The tenth anniversary of a 17 hour drive to Houston; the tenth anniversary of watching helplessly while my city flooded and idiots on CNN called Elysian Fields Avenue “Elephant Farms Road”; the tenth anniversary of sharing a twin bed in a stranger’s Baton Rouge apartment; the tenth anniversary of a six-week exile from my home; the tenth anniversary of One Dead In Attic; the tenth anniversary of Superdome rapes; the tenth anniversary of watching my city-family being abandoned by a government I had trusted until that moment; the tenth anniversary of deep sense of uncertainty, foreboding, and tremendous loss.
I am not interested in reliving it. It purified me, and for that I will be forever grateful, in a strange, perverted way.
Today, I’m working on eternal refinement – and most importantly, surrender.
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