Every so often when someone hears that I teach yoga, they respond with, “Oh! I do yoga!”
This response always makes me cringe a little. While it’s certainly preferable to, “Oh! I find puppy eyes to be a delicacy!”, what I usually surmise from the phrase “do yoga” is that the practitioner’s practice doesn’t extend far beyond the physical, if at all.
So why should I care? Aren’t they moving their bodies and getting exercise? Yes. And that’s all fine and good. It really is.
But I suppose that in spite of the sad yet overwhelming popularity of the rock-star yogis with their spiritual gangster tattoos and ironic egomaniacal rhetoric, I still foolishly hope to impart something of the yoga philosophy to practitioners that goes beyond a dance party. I mean, isn’t that why I’m getting paid the small bucks?
The tough part is, the yoga philosophy is complicated and deep and trying to share these aspects of the practice is a hard sell. Reaching enlightenment, even if for fleeting moments, doesn’t guarantee flatter abs. Never mind the additional complication that the philosophy is translated from ancient texts written in Sanskrit that could easily be compared to, say, something translated from Aramaic.
That’s why in my own teaching, I try to keep it simple – attempting to incorporate a VERY basic understanding of the eight limbs of yoga. At least, as I see them:
Yamas and Niyamas:
These are the first and second limbs. They are comprised of ten ethical precepts (five yamas and five niyamas) whose purpose is to allow us to be at peace with ourselves, our families, our communities and, ideally, the aforementioned rock-star yogis.
The third limb is made up of the postures. And there are a lot of them. Their intention is to build a strong and flexible body while strengthening the nervous system and refining how we internally process stuff. To many a Western mind, however, they have become the crux of the practice and something to be showcased on social media #LookAtMeMeMe.
Roughly defined, this fourth limb is about breathing practices and exercises. Prana is the “life force” and these practices are designed to help how we move this life force in our bodies. Generally speaking, pranayama tends to be more effective when one is in touch with the sound of their breath rather than pulsating club music. But whatever.
Limb #5 is about bringing your attention toward silence rather than toward things. In its simplest definition, it’s a detaching from the senses. This is not the same as utilizing handcuffs, a blindfold, ear and nose plugs and a gag while practicing. That’s something else. Though what, I’m not sure.
The sixth limb asks us to bring attention to a more one-pointed focus, thereby cultivating an internal awareness that does NOT include how hungry/skinny you are since you started that raw vegan macro sunshine diet.
At the seventh limb, the work becomes sustaining awareness under all conditions. This a supremely wonderful state that comes in handy during any potentially annoying situation such as being maligned while driving, standing in an long line or finding yourself at Lululemon.
Often translated as “the return of the mind into original silence” or even more commonly as “enlightenment,” this is the ultimate state of being. You have to do the work to gain entry though. No free passes.
So yeah, it’s tricky. In general, I attempt to teach that if you commit to a practice with a balance of the inward and the outward, you might catch a glimpse or even stay a short while in that state of samadhi.
On the flip side, if you commit to ego expansion and world domination through your yoga practice, you may stay a short while in an institution. Or at some trendy overpriced ashram. It’s a fine line.
Maybe there’s something to be said for never scaling any higher than the rave at the third limb. So be it. It can be a lot of fun there. But I personally wouldn’t feel like much of a instructor or practitioner if I didn’t at least let other practitioners know that there’s something else up there.
Then from that knowledge, they can decide whether they want to stay, scale or soar.
Steph Ruopp is a yoga instructor, educator and freelance writer who has no illusions about living permanently in samadhi, but likes to visit.
* Art by Lisa Lee Lucas.