After class the other day a new student approached me, and said he wanted to ask me about some of the things I'd said in class that he didn't understand, and, you know, what is yoga really all about, and what is the purpose of it exactly?
In a nano-second my mind was blown away by the vastness of that question and by the delicate position that I was in of being asked to answer it. I mean, sheesh, why would I know anything about that? Oh, except that I am a "yoga teacher", and therefore I guess I am supposed to know how to explain these things. Anyway, in the end I told him, more or less, that yoga could be about many things for many different people, from purely physical to purely spiritual and everything in between, and that his best approach would be to keep practising, and keep an open mind, and see what he gravitated towards. I told him that for me, yoga was about being the best person you could be, whether that meant physically, mentally, spiritually or all of the above.
But it's got me thinking. As teachers we are given the opportunity to share our love for yoga and to share the joy that it has brought to our own lives. We also have the opportunity to share some of the insights that we have gleaned from our years of practice, like lanterns that may just help to light the way for others. So I'm going to try and answer his question from my own experience.
For me, Yoga is a journey. It's not a new journey, because we are always moving, flowing down that river of life! But it's a journey within a journey, a path you navigate within that great river. The difference I guess, for me, is that instead of being swept downstream, Yoga is like finding a small boat, and using it to navigate your own way down towards the sea. Along this great river, as you learn to navigate in your small craft, you encounter many small pools and eddies, and you spend time in each one, discovering what it holds for you...
The first pool I encountered was a vast lake, surrounded by a dense forest. When I first arrived, my senses were overwhelmed by the abundance of life there. The forest was alive with birds and animals, all living out their dramas on its shores, making commentary on their lives in loud, raucous tones. I tried to navigate my craft towards them, only to find that no matter how hard I tried, the forest remained always just beyond my reach.
I longed to reach that far shore, to join the life of the forest and to make it my own, but instead all I could do was watch from the outside, consoling myself with my stories of what was happening inside. Gradually I became absorbed by that forest, and I would sit all day on the rail of my small boat, eyes riveted on the distant shore. Oh, how I longed for it! How I wanted to discover each and every creature in it! I watched the forest day after day, and when the animals would peek out and briefly come into my field of view, I named them, gave them stories. In my mind, I recreated what the forest might look like inside, how all the creatures lives, what were their places, purposes and roles.
But not matter how long I watched, I never drew any closer to the shore. So, for a time, I mourned. Mourned that I was apart from this world I dearly loved, mourned that I could only watch it from afar. I felt lonely, and empty, longing to be in that place where I could not go, to be a creature of that forest, to be a part of that world.
One day, as I was in my usual spot, a small splash of water shook me out of my reverie. For what felt like the first time, I looked down to see the water, and my small boat, and myself. Suddenly I remembered the great river, and the journey I was on. And as my memory returned, I noticed that all around me the water was pulsing with life, fish darting beneath the surface, small insects leaving trails like skaters on the waves. Light poured in from above, danced on the ripples, creating a kaleidoscope of colours blue-green-yellow-purple-black.
On that sudden impulse, I drew in my sails and felt my boat, limp and listless for so long, come alive beneath me as we harnessed the elements. My hand touched the tiller and I felt myself quiver as a shiver of life ran through me, electrifying my body and lifting a weight off my soul. I felt like I could sing, I felt like I could soar! I breathed in the fresh air, and my whole body filled with joy. It was as if I had been asleep and suddenly woken to realise that I was alive, I was on a journey, I was myself! I felt as though I would burst from this happy knowledge, and so I set my sails, and felt my boat gain momentum, and I did not look back as I sailed away from that forest, leaving it to its own mysteries in order to finally sail on towards my own.
For a while I sailed this way, enthralled with my own being, with my newfound awareness. My senses felt heightened, as though I were seeing for the first time, smelling for the first time, breathing, touching, feeling alive in the world as never before! As I made my way down the river, I encountered a strong current, and I let this current take me, speeding towards the unknown.
Stay tuned for part II... In the meantime... What are your reactions to this story? Can you relate to it? What are your reactions to the question my student asked me? What might you have said if a friend asked you the same thing? :)