Back (and Back and Back) to School, Yoga Style
You can tell by the sales on crisp new jeans, the lunch-box tips clogging your email inbox, and the rainbow array of binders at your local supermarket that it’s September, also known as Back to School month. If there is a child in your household, you’re busily gathering freshly sharpened number two pencils and struggling to roll back summer bedtimes to a more reasonable hour. Even if you’re long out of college, you may find that the first stir of autumn brings on a feeling of anticipation, the swirling red and orange leaves on the pavement signalling that change is literally in the air. Spring gets all the credit as the season of rebirth, but the long-ingrained ritual of back to school also charges the fall with new energy. So, you may well be wondering, what’s a yogi to do with this feeling?
First Period: Physical Education
Western yoga, unsurprisingly, usually follows the western pedagogical model. Most people begin with asana practice. We are beginners, then intermediate students, then advanced. We go to classes and eventually we might train to become the ones standing in the front of the room sharing our knowledge. This structure works for a while (most of us aren’t ready to jump into arm balances on our first day of school), but once you’ve found a level of proficiency in the physical practice, the model stops fitting so neatly. Now that your alignment has become second nature, your hamstrings have opened, your biceps have grown stronger, are you ready to graduate from yoga school? Do you know everything you need to know?
While there are always stronger, deeper, more acrobatic places to take your body, that’s not what we’re talking about. Somewhere along the way, it becomes clear that what we’re working on isn’t a one-armed handstand. It isn’t any physical manifestation of progress. The practice of the body becomes a practice of the mind. We do yoga to make space in our heads, to bring opposing forces in our lives into better balance, to clear a path for happiness and fulfilment. Yoga is revealed to be the process, not the goal.
Second Period: Study Hall
In Zen Buddhism, there’s a saying coined by Shunryu Suzuki: ‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.’ We may get an expert’s body doing asana but we must couple it with a beginner’s mind: humble, ready to learn, open to every experience. Yoga practices, including asana and meditation, encourage us to peel back the layers that we’ve built up within ourselves and between ourselves and others, making room for many possibilities. Acceptance, truth, tolerance, and connection are ongoing projects.
Every person, whether it’s a lotus-footed master or a convenience store clerk, has something to teach us. Every adventure, from global travels to a walk around the block, offers new perspectives. Every interaction gives us the opportunity to be more kind, generous, and patient. For most of us, this doesn’t happen overnight; it’s the work of a lifetime. For every step forward, there may be two steps back. The road may meander aimlessly at times or run like an express train at others. There are no prerequisites or handy, built-in measures of achievement or success. The path keeps going so we stay on it.
Third Period: Homework
Back to school is a year-round occupation for yogis, a state of being rather than a tick on the calendar. By practicing, we are taking courses in life, the world, love, and ourselves. We are always the student, even if we’ve become the teacher. So, when you feel the let’s-do-this energy of autumn, reapply yourself to the school of discovery, knowledge, and self-study, because this is the homework of the yoga student.
Featured Yogi @adamhusler
Image credit: @phillipsuddick