So much of what we hear in the yoga room has to do with our mental state when we walked through the door. How did we arrive?
When I can, I prefer to arrive early, usually by at least fifteen minutes, set up my space, sit on my mat, and contemplate how I’m feeling, what I’ve been thinking, and what I may need to let go of in order to get the most out of my practice. I tend to do this when I teach as well: arrive earlier than necessary, set up the room, and review my tentative class plans in my head. When I arrive in this way for both teaching and practicing, the class tends to be smoother, better paced, and energetically appropriate to the moment. However, with our busy lives, arriving in this way isn’t always possible.
Sometimes we get stuck at work, we get stuck in traffic, we simply lose track of time, and wind up hustling into the room with our mat, frantic, five minutes after class has begun. When I was going through my teacher training this was a chronic problem for me. I’d finish up with my last client of the day at my gym on the Upper East Side by 5:30 and have less than an hour to make it down and across town to my studio in Hell’s Kitchen to take yoga. This doesn’t sound like that crazy of a feat but when you rely on the timing of catching the subway at all the right transfers plus walking/running ten blocks on either side of the commute, this trip can go one of two ways. You’re either twenty-minutes early or you’ve missed the class altogether.
Those evenings when I hustled into the yoga room late I’d have to ask other yogis already engaged in their practice to move their mats to make space for me. I carried that frenzied energy of a cross-town commute into the room, breathing heavily and sometimes shaking off the rain. In those instances I’d try to drop into my breathing and center myself on my own, sometimes not even listening to the instructor because many of the cues were so similar from class to class. Instead of truly listening to the instructor, here’s a sample of my standard internal dialogue:
“Yes, yes, deep breathing. Yes, yes, ujjayi, of course. Yup, an intention, ok, random intention, what’s my intention? Ummm…peace! Yes, internal peace. Ok, when are we going to start moving?”
In those moments not only was I being a bit of a wayward student, but I was doing damage to my own practice. Most of the time the classes I entered into late or frenzied or just plain distracted were the classes I’d find myself twisting to the left when everyone else was twisting to the right, or I’d find myself on the wrong standing leg without knowing how it happened, or I’d be unable to do certain arm balances or deeper variations of poses that were normally a part of my practice. In short, at some point I’d stopped listening to the language of the teacher as my guide and let my distractions dictate my behavior instead.
In addition to the daily distractions we carry, we’re all different types of learners. Some people thrive on auditory learning and find it very easy to understand what is expected from verbal cues. Others need to see a demonstration of a pose to really get the idea, and some need to just experience the pose themselves one time and they’ve got it for a lifetime. Yoga happens to be a spoken art as well as a physical practice, so honing that auditory instinct within ourselves is important no matter where we fall on the styles of learning spectrum.
Consider the Bikram yoga practice. Bikram yoga is taught from a set, pre-determined dialogue. If you listen to each class you’ll hear the exact same cues, transitions, and language used every single time with little variation by every single instructor. It’s part of the method behind this particular style. Every instructor has had to memorize the full ninety-minute dialogue. You’d think this might become ineffective at some point, but in my experience it is just the opposite. On a regular basis cues I’ve heard a hundred times suddenly pop out at me and make sense for my body and my capabilities for the first time ever. Those moments are magic and they can happen in any style of yoga, but you have to make the commitment to be mentally tuned into the dialogue in order to receive them.
The style of yoga we teach at 3 Bridges (vinyasa flow), allows for more of a variety in terms of language and sequencing, but you’ll still find those cueing consistencies from class to class. You hear the terms “become present”, “arrive on your mat”, “deepen the breath”, “stack knee over ankle”, “take the right leg high”, “fold down the back heel”, and many others in all our classes. Because we hear these cues so often, it’s easy to skip over them, not hear them, and try to anticipate what’s coming next. That’s a natural instinct, especially if we’ve arrived at the class in an anxious state, but it’s still important to tune the ear to the dialogue. Truly listen to and consider each and every cue. If the instructor asks you to become present in the room, consider what that would take for you in that moment. If the instructor asks you to stack the knee over the ankle, stop, take a look at your alignment and see if you’re first accomplishing this basic action before you move ahead to the next element of the pose. If the instructor says twist to the right, think about which direction that is from where you’re standing, and then move with intention in that direction. These nuances may sound redundant or overly simplistic, but we often times miss them for their simplicity in our own distracted state, and giving them our full attention can make a big difference in both our personal practice as well as our energy contribution to the class at large.
In your next practice, no matter how you arrive in the room, try to let go of your internal dialogue and anticipatory instincts completely. Release your distractions, trust the language of the instructor, the language of this yoga, and move with intention for each action that’s cued. In doing so you naturally become present, and you create space for your practice to advance in the most organic way possible.