In my last blog post, I mentioned that I wanted to write about a class I teach at UCLA. It is a six o’clock class that is essentially at beginning yoga class that I think is exceptional. I teach this class at the Wooden Center each quarter and it is my largest class. It starts out with 70 students, but with attrition, it averages 55 or 60. The class fills up the entire room, mats close together, with students who have studied all day but are clearly motivated to learn yoga and discover its multiple benefits. It is always a wonder to me to stand before these students at the beginning of each quarter. Sometimes it’s daunting to teach beginners because for the most part, they have no association to the mind/body connection. Their breathing pattern is shallow and not sufficient to accompany the movements that constitute a flow yoga class. I teach what is called a hath a flow class that links body and mind together with deep breathing.
The reality is that for most people the body and mind are not connected. There is a distinct disassociation that results in movement that seems relatively chaotic. If a student has a background in athletics or dance, it is definitely easier for him or her to connect to the sequences that are taught in flow yoga. But if yoga students stay present in class, the mind and body connection can be learned. What results is a person being able to stay in the moment, in the present. If students listen to the teacher, listens to breath, and surrenders to what is happening at the moment, mindfulness can be achieved..
When I start to teach a beginning class, I expect that most of the students will have difficulty connecting mind and body together and be challenged by deep yoga breathing. Most will be overwhelmed the first two weeks. However, I noticed something very interesting when I began to teach my six o’clock class. I would stop and explain a movement, an alignment, a breathing pattern, a sequence and their attention was bright and focused. They bodies, their eyes, their minds were aligned with content and example. They would sit quietly on their mats and never take their eyes off me – I mean really listen and no talking. It wasn’t just two or three students who were riveted in the moment. It was the entire class. They would set this model up for me as soon as they entered class and got settled on their mats ready for the brief meditation.
At first I thought it was just a lucky few days of teaching. This class is my 7th class on a Tuesday and Thursday and I’m pretty spent by the time I encounter them. After the second week, I mentioned to one of my older students that the class seemed to have a collective unconscious of devotion that energized not just the individual but the entire class. It spilled over to me, also. They learned rapidly. I would give a verbal adjustment and I’d see students individually adjust. I would also physically adjust a student and there would be no resistance. One of the things I look for in a yoga student is the student’s ability to allow me to gently adjust him or her without physical or mental resistance. Time and again I did that with students and they responded quickly and without defensiveness. I’d walk around that room and talk about the nuances of postures, finesse the alignment, the breathing, and the movement and response was serene.
Today is the beginning of the fifth week of class. The balance of energy in the class was a cause for delight for me once again. It was actually thrilling to stand back and observe the aesthetic beauty of the practice. Even the young girls who have struggled for the last couple of quarters were responding in a manner that I had never scene. The class seemed to have surrendered to the the bliss of their yoga practice. It was time to kick it up a notch.
I introduced one of the most complicated and challenging postures of my sequencing. It’s called “Half Moon.” I had the students sit down and told them that I had been thinking about introducing them to Half Moon for the last two classes. I thought it time we begin our journey. I explained that the practice of the Tao (our individual path in life) consists in daily losing. Throughout our daily life, things don’t always go our way. We are subject to disappointments and we feel sad or angry. But it we don’t label the losses as “good” or “bad;” we simply observe them from a distance, then we move through our losses with joy.
Half Moon is like life. In fact, it’s a metaphor for life. As yogis, we practice Half Moon all our lives and sometimes we do not arrive at our destination of a perfect posture. After all, yoga is not about the art of perfection; yoga is about our journey through life and accepting and surrendering what it brings us.
So in the last 20 minutes of class, I began to take the students slowly through the alignments of Half Moon – balancing on one leg, shoulders and hips stacked on top of one another – fingertips under the shoulder – standing foot straight – it has the appearance of one long lean line of the body. It takes a strength of balance to accomplish this posture – it’s highly complex and has to be learned in stages. I told them that it was best to learn the posture against a wall and then they could feel what it was like to be in a straight line. This amazing class was completely fascinated and loved the concept that this posture was like life. They would fall and pick themselves up and start again; they would attempt to align and fail because their hamstrings were too tight; they would try to put their free arm in the air and appear like a ship at sea. It was all very new to them and all very challenging.
And I was completely amazed at their mindfulness – the fact that they had listened so clearly to my demonstration, to what I had told them about this posture that I have been practicing for so many years and was continuing to practice daily because it was never going to be completed. Our bodies are different every day we practice yoga and we must be mindful not to anticipate the outcome, not to expect anything from the practice. Like life.
I walked out of class with the usual questions and comments from students and brought my key back to the office. Several of the students who work at the Fitwell desk take my class. One of them turned to me as I entered the office and said, “I heard the class was amazing today! And I missed it!.” I told her it was simply incredible. We talked about the idea of this class having shared energy and commitment and complete and unified mindfulness because this group was so present. They surrendered to the bliss. And that’s all that matters in the moment.