Lately I’ve been fascinated by the human brain’s proclivity for being seduced. Yoga students are seduced by the fancy (and perhaps erroneously labeled ‘advanced’) yoga poses. University students are seduced by the new, sexy, advanced concepts in certain academic fields. We are seduced, visually or otherwise, to the point where the basics—the very foundation of what we are trying to learn—is considered boring. We, quite frankly, don’t seem to want to spend the time mastering the basics. As a yoga teacher and university professor, I often see this in my students, and just so that all is on the table – I still find those seductive tendencies creeping into my own brain every now and then.
Why do we do this? Why do we scroll through our social media feeds or thumb through yoga magazines, pausing at those in handstands, arm balances, and pretzel-like positions? Why do we sigh and say, “Wow, I wish I could do that.”? Have you ever paused in awe at a picture of someone meditating? How about an image of someone in Tadasana/mountain pose, who is working tirelessly at all of the loops that need to be set up in order to ensure proper alignment and posture? Why are yoga workshops focusing on inversions more well-attended than workshops focusing on the bones of the basic sun salutation? Or even more importantly, the breath?
What is it that drives this behavior? Is it impatience? Excitement? Curiosity? Dare I say, laziness (i.e., to get to some desired point faster and skip the hard work along the way)? Is it our socialization to believe that bigger is better? Maybe a combination of several things? And before you give me the evil eye or send me some hate mail, let me say that I do think that there is a place for inspiration and for working toward a goal. But tell me, how can we get to those ‘advanced’ poses or concepts if we skip the foundation? How can a house be built if there’s nothing to build it on?
A few years ago, I took a class where, as is fairly typical, we were focused on a peak pose. Surprisingly though, it wasn’t the ‘usual suspects’ of peak poses….you know…backbends, inversions or an arm balance. It was the breath. Let me say that again. It was the breath. For an entire hour we moved, one breath per movement, through a continuous (and very simple in terms of yoga asana) breath flow. It was transformative. It was flat out challenging. It was inspiring. It taught me how much the breath is lost in our standard vanilla yoga class. Our students have been ‘trained’ to see bigger as better. A wise mentor said to me once, “If you don’t train them, they’ll train you.” And she was right.
As a yoga teacher and trainer of aspiring yoga teachers, I believe it is part of our responsibility to inspire our students to learn. After all, if we don’t encourage a strong foundational practice, who will? What if we encouraged our students to be in awe of the breath? To be in awe of the foundations of the practice? To be amazed by the process by which we integrate breath, alignment and movement? To become fascinated, not with standing on our hands, but with the self-awareness that is built through yoga? What if we made the basics downright amazing? If we change how we speak about and teach the breath and the basic, foundational poses, we may just change how our students approach them. Not only will this shift in perspective guide them to be more present in their own yoga journey, it will decrease comparison and feelings of inadequacy, and encourage joy and contentment on the mat. Becoming an active listener and observer to our mind and bodies throughout the yoga practice can, indeed, be the ultimate seduction.
As you consider this perspective shift, here are five things I’ve learned from trying to focus on the basics in my own practice and with my students:
1) It’s hard. Even the basic poses can be challenging, particularly if the intention is to sit in the pose for several breaths and become the internal observer. The mind wanders. A lot. And, to sit with ourselves? Well, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard. The mind is a muscle and we need to exercise it and teach it to be present.
2) Paying attention to the breath can be exhilarating and expansive at times and downright aggravating at others. I’ve left my breath-centered practices feeling cracked wide open and breathing more fully than ever and I’ve also left them feeling agitated that I couldn’t find ‘the groove’ that day. Stick with it….this is teaching the practice of patience and allows us to check in with why we react the way we do when things don’t go our way.
3) Leave the ego at the door. Going back to the basics can be a humbling experience. But…to be able to find contentment with the sensations you feel while pausing in, for example, Warrior 2? That is tapping into one of the main intentions of yoga. Be willing to stay. To steep. To linger. To explore. Some of the best lessons come at the moments when we want to bail. Staying is often harder work.
4) Focusing on the foundations has decreased my brain’s relentless quest for ‘bigger is better’ and replaced it (most practices) with ‘subtlety/nuance is better.’ For example, instead of focusing on how deep I can go in Trikonasa (i.e., how flat can I get my bottom hand on the floor), I stay up very high in this pose, focusing on creating equal length on both sides of my waist by lengthening my spine. I focus on keeping my mind present by trying to find the subtle firing of my Quadratus Lumborum muscle. The possibilities for focal points in simple postures are quite literally, endless.
5) Teaching these concepts to students is more challenging than teaching a vanilla yoga class. Some of your students will buckle in, stay the course, rave about it, and want more, more, more. Some won’t. If you’re teaching from a place of authenticity (no matter what approach you take to teaching) you’ll ignite a fire and change the lives of those that stick it out.
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Valerie Knopik is a Senior Research Scientist, Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, and E-RYT in Providence, Rhode Island. Formally trained in classical ballet, as well as a former runner, Valerie has always been a believer in staying active but yoga is the perfect marriage of her work in mental health & her love of movement & anatomy.