Taking a seat

Well, this is it – my last yoga class. Actually, let me be more specific (and more accurate): this is my last class for my RYT 200 Yoga Teacher Training Program. This is by no means my last yoga class, and likely not even my last yoga class for the purposes of training. This is my last yoga class for this phase of my yoga journey – but true yoga is never actually ‘finished’. Yoga can be a life journey if one chooses to make it so. (And I would actually assert that nothing is ever finished, that everything can be a life journey [or a multi-life journey if you believe in that concept]; but that’s probably a discussion for another time…) So while I cannot say if I will engage in yoga forever and ever, I can say with some measure of confidence that I will continue to practice yoga for some time. But, today marks the end of one segment of the odyssey.

The topic of this last tech session was Chair Yoga. As with last week’s session, I’m not entirely sure why I signed up for this class. From a personal practice perspective, I enjoy pretty difficult styles of yoga (ashtanga, advanced vinyasa, etc.). But from a teaching perspective, I seem to be drawn to more gentle, physically compassionate forms of yoga. Maybe it’s because they are generally slower-moving, and therefore easier to teach? Maybe I recognize that much of the general population isn’t physically suited to do really advanced forms of yoga practice? Maybe I’m more patient with and compassionate towards other people than I am with myself? Whatever the reason(s), I felt like it would be a good idea for me to learn more about this method of yoga instruction.

When I arrived to the studio, I promptly dropped my equipment bag to the floor, knelt down, and unfurled my yoga mat. Only then did the teacher notice what I was doing, approached me, smiled, and said, “You won’t need your yoga mat today. We have chairs along the back wall; you can just take one of those and have a seat.”

In the 14 months I have been coming to this studio, I have never (literally never) sat on a chair for a class. Not even for classes that were four or six hours long. I have always been on the floor. So today, as I leaned back into the padded folding chair, the experience felt weird; but also a little nice, too.

In fact, that’s how this whole ‘last class’ experience felt; a little weird, a little strange, but also a little pleasant. I have deeply enjoyed this year of study; but it has taken a lot of time, and a lot of energy, and a lot of effort. (And I have added to all of that time/energy/effort by choosing to write about the experience all along the way; I have easily invested an additional 200-400 hours of writing time on top of the nearly 250 hours of class time…) So while I will miss the learning, study, discipline, and reflection, I will also be relieved to have some open, unscheduled time back in my life.

But anyway – back to today’s class.

The teacher began by stating that for all yoga classes, one of the main jobs of an instructor is to create an inviting, welcoming, safe space for people to engage with yoga – and that this intention is even more important for a chair yoga-type class (or any class where the population might 1) feel more intimidated, or 2) be more limited [physically, mentally, emotionally, or any combination thereof]). Various actions a teacher can take to help establish and encourage a safe, welcoming environment is to overtly give people ‘permission’ to have their own experience; to honor the body they have today; to remind them that all yoga poses should feel ‘steady and comfortable’ (in Sanskrit, the phrase is “sthira sukham asanam”); to help students learn/remember that if they can’t breathe freely in a pose, they probably shouldn’t be in it as deeply or intensely as they currently are (or perhaps they shouldn’t be in the pose at all, at least not for today)… These recommendations are very good for all yoga classes, taught to all students; but they are even more critical for ‘special-needs’ populations (such as brand-new beginners, people who are injured or who are healing from an injury, people who are older, pregnant, disabled, significantly over- or under-weight, etc. etc. etc. And actually, in looking over this list, haven’t most people fallen into one of these categories at one time or another? Perhaps even more importantly, don’t people flex in and out of these categories from time to time? Just last week I was injured [I had some pretty wicked shin splints going on], so I really needed to take care of myself, and not do some advanced poses that I have been able to do with relative ease in the past… and I needed a teacher who didn’t look at what I was able to do last week, but instead recognized what I was able to do [and what I wasn’t able to do] on that specific day…)

After leading us through a grounding and centering practice (three-part breathing where we placed our hands on our abdomen-and-heart, then side body [ribs/intercoastals], then on the tops of our shoulders), the instructor stated that yoga is really a path to higher consciousness. Yes, asanas (poses) can help a body prepare to settle and relax into stillness (which then supports deeper states of meditation), but the asanas are not the end goal; the end goal of yoga is union with the divine. Asanas are an aid (asanas support the body to settle; a settled body can then support the mind to be steady; a steady mind can then do the hard work of establishing the spiritual connection with the cosmic OM, but asanas are not required for divine union. The breath can also be an effective tool to lead the mind to the state of connection; and for people who might not be able to do intense asanas, they absolutely can still do ‘yoga’. Instead of doing certain poses, those people can stay with their breath (and the intention of their breath) in lieu of any difficult body position, and/or through the practice as a whole. So no matter how many (or how few) physical asanas a person can do, they can always breathe into various parts of their body; they can always mentally direct the intention of their breath into various parts of their body. [So, if a person is experiencing stomach issues and therefore can’t do inversions, that individual can still direct breath and energy to their head and shoulders, and therefore experience some of the benefits that an inversion pose would yield. Similarly, the person can send breath directly to the stomach area, and use the energy flow to help soothe {sometimes even heal} their ailment.] Breathing into various places within the body is deeply healing, soothing, and valuable for all people, but especially for individuals who are older, injured, chair-bound, or otherwise physically limited in some way. [The next time I get sick, instead of bemoaning how my malady is keeping me from exercise/work/socializing/etc., I hope I remember this yoga ‘trick’, and send soothing breath and healing energy into the areas of my body that are affected by the illness.] But breathing need not be limited to any specific asana; indeed, today’s teacher told us that a nice reminder we can offer to our students in every class (and even many times in a single class) can be a simple statement along the lines of, “Send your breath, your prana, to every area we work during the class.”

Okay. After all of this discussion about breath, and energy, and the ‘real’ meaning/spirit of yoga (union), the teacher then led us through a full 45-minute chair-yoga class. As with last week’s class, the teacher instructed us on only a handful of possible poses one could do while remaining seated in a chair. There are a variety of books that offer pages and pages of possible chair-yoga asanas, so I won’t laundry-list what we did in this class; instead, I’ll focus on two key awarenesses I had during the chair-yoga session:

  1. As a teacher leading a chair-yoga class, the focus should be on the students – and specifically on helping them connect with their physical bodies and their own intuitive knowledge. Many people in general are incredibly disconnected from their own bodies; if I were to ask a student, “What would feel good for your body to do right now?” many people would look at me blankly. (I’ve witnessed this in many yoga classes I have attended as a student, as well as some moving meditation sessions I’ve led at my workplace.) So one of my ‘jobs’ as the teacher (in addition to keeping the students physically safe and helping them feel emotionally secure) is to help guide students to a better awareness and understanding of their own bodies; helping students genuinely *connect* to their own bodies.
  2. Teachers who instruct ‘special needs’ populations [and again, I use this term in a very broad way; ‘special needs’ can include athletes who are currently injured, women who are pregnant, people recovering from surgery or an accident or some other trauma…{I was ‘special needs’ last week due to my shin splints}] need to let go of what a specific pose ‘should’ look like, and instead allow each student to express and embody the pose in the way he/she needs to. The focus of a yoga class shouldn’t be trying to make a picture-perfect physical posture, but instead should be supporting the body/mind to establish union with each other and with the divine.

As I was participating in the chair yoga experience, I realized that the poses the teacher was leading us through were moves I intuitively do all the time… the ways I stretch my body while at my desk, the ways I move when in the car…I really have learned how to ‘read’ my body, how to ‘hear’ what it is asking for. Over the past year, I have genuinely opened to the innate, intuitive wisdom that is inside of me; and I’ve been accessing it and applying it and really using it, without even fully knowing that I was doing so. Wow. I am trustworthy! My body is trustworthy! Holy crap!

After the 45 minutes of chair yoga had elapsed, I sat in my padded folding chair feeling very mentally relaxed, decently physically stretched, and quite emotionally liberated. As my weeks of training had been coming to an end, I had wondered what I might do when this experience was finished; would I still grow in my yoga practice (i.e., physically, emotionally, and spiritually) without the formal weekly instruction? Through today’s class, I got to see that yes, I really do have the tools, skills, knowledge, and awareness all within myself (and via additional supportive resources like teachers and books) that I can continue on my path without a structured program, and still do well. I don’t have to master Eka Pada Koundiyanasana and push my body to exhaustion, nor do I have to memorize every passage of the Yoga Sutras and become a Sanskrit scholar; I don’t have to be able to speak to every possible anatomical structure in the human body, and I don’t have to chant or visualize deities in my chakras…I can take a “middle way” kind of path, and allow my own intuitive wisdom be my guide. And if I tune in to the real, authentic me, and if I honestly listen to what is expressed, and if I genuinely honor the messages I receive; well, all will be well. Indeed, all will be perfect.

What a fantastic ending to this experience.

Stef

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About Stef

A "serious" gal who is trying to remember to lighten up and smile.
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