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the practice of connection & self-actualization in yoga

the practice of connection & self-actualization in yoga

by roxanne naseem rashedi
Practice Yoga | Hatha Yoga | | What is Hatha Yoga

It’s in the act of breathing through poses both on and off the mat that you don’t want to breathe through that you learn something about moving past yourself. Past your ego.

A practitioner for over thirteen years and an instructor for roughly five years, I have realized that yoga is a practice of connection. Yoga invites us to mindfully connect movement to breath. In turn, our habits manifest in the asana (physical poses), and these habits often mirror our behaviors off the mat. For example, there is always one pose that makes us cringe, and when the instructor calls it out, our gaze shoots arrows and our minds wander. We look at our neighbor’s new pink top, (even though this shade of pink is a tad too hot for our taste), or try to wipe off our squeaky clean mats for the billionth time.

We do anything to avoid that dreaded pose, but why? The pose challenges us for a reason, but before even connecting to (or not connecting to) this experience, we notice our breath. Are we feeling the breath shift our approach toward this pose? Or, are we moving through both the dreaded and pleasurable poses with a latent breath? Are we connected to the real-time experience of whichever yoga class we paid 18 bucks a pop for? Or, are we “doing” our yoga like we do our laundry or wash our dishes? (This isn’t to argue that household chores such as doing laundry aren’t meditative. Let’s admit that we all somewhat care about smelling pleasant.)

As human beings, we are one of the smartest creatures on the planet. Nevertheless, we resist the unfamiliar. Challenging poses trigger us much like when the pop pink girl (or our perception of the practitioner as simply a “pink” girly which is subsequently followed by associations of pink to x, y, and/or z) parks her mat in our designated but yet undesignated yoga spot. What do we do when hot pink parks next to us? And more importantly, how do we react in the real parking lots off our mats? What happens when a driver beats us to the punch and takes the last parking spot? We might roll our window down and drop one too many f-bombs, but we have a choice to react or not to react. If we react, how do we express our reactions? How are our reactions connected to the initial desire to flip a magic finger? As yogis, we wouldn’t ever dare to think to flip the finger or say violent, crude words like the f-bomb, right?

I’m not trying to be facetious here. I’m just being real to the mainstream, yogi lingo. Popular culture attributes serenity, strength, and mind-body awareness to the yogi. Yogis eat from the dirt and pluck from the tree. He or she is au naturel(le). For snootier yogis, the circumstances may differ. They’re “normal’ and fill their bodies with goodies but not any kind of goodie. No sirree! Their truffles costs $6 a piece and the word “organic” is plastered in a zillion brands which ironically reinforce societal constructions of what is “approved” and thus correct.

Let’s be real. We can consume good-old Hershey’s or some chichi omega truffle or breathe in whatever style(s) of yoga we want, but none of us feel enlightened and tingly every single time we take a yoga class. In fact, if I were to argue that there is even a “right” way to do yoga, (which I’m certainly not here but if I were to argue that), then I would argue that yoga is about connecting to what we’re feeling in real-time. Not to sound like a broken record here, but as humans, we don’t feel happy-go-lucky twenty-four-seven.

One of the intentions behind yoga instruction and the yogic practice is to raise this higher level of connecting to the body in order to go beyond the body, past the self, past the ego and into the inner muse inside of us — our satya — our truth.  While we perhaps “master” this connection on the mat, many of us struggle to maintain this foresight and awareness in human connection, especially when we’re in the context of connecting to our own self and others. We all have cringed when our undesignated but yet designated yoga spot is taken and have even been caught jittering if we weren’t feeling all jolly and rosy that day. Something as seemingly trivial as changing a spot in a yoga class is sometimes difficult. It requires us to change our position and thus our overall experience of the class shifts.

Now let’s be really real. Change is difficult. Yogic contexts supposedly advocate self-improvement and enhancement, but we improve in similar patterns, and these patterns are governed by external, ideological forces such as politics, media, etc.  But my line of questioning here has more to do with connection and awareness. To put it bluntly, is our yoga practice and/or yoga instruction a process? Whether we label the practice as good or bad, are we reinforcing the behaviors and habits off the mat, on the mat? Do we breathe through both the good moments and not so good moments of a class like a machine? Does our yoga mirror the way we go about our lives off the mat? Or, does it challenge us to realize our actions (or lack thereof) and then chose to breath and act (or not act) accordingly?

Whether it is all about spirals in an Anusara class, or letting the weight of the world drop off our shoulders in a Mother Earth Yin class, or holding a warrior pose for five breaths longer than we want in a sweaty, Power class, the instructor of the class and the inner instructor (our breath) asks us to connect to a forgotten breath — a breath that is sometimes readily accessible in child’s pose but might be tricky to tap into in a high plank. When we can access that breath, we savor it. We relish it and even grow nostalgic for it when experiencing challenging real-time situations such as traffic jams or busy lines at the local supermarket. Yoga, regardless if it is breathing to MC Yogi or Kayne West, is a practice that asks us to mindfully connect to our breath. With each breath, we feel more length in our spine, more space across our hearts, and more space in-between our ongoing thoughts.   

Yoga instruction is an art. This art is a connected, collective, and ever-changing experience. As both a writing and yoga instructor, I will say that connection rings true in most learning communities, regardless if you’re an instructor in a traditional educational milieu such as a university setting or in a yogic context. Education demands connection, and it demands connection on both the instructors’ and students’ behalves. In connective pedagogies, there is no power game at play. The instructor isn’t superior to the student; the instructor is a facilitator. He or she doesn’t show off, call out, or demand knowledge of the poses or certain expressions of the poses. Rather, instructors share the gift of what yoga means for them. They don’t lack confidence. No, this would be an attempt at connectively instructing. Much more difficult is the task for instructors to deconstruct the inherent and socially drilled in dualisms of good/bad. In turn, connective teaching asks instructors to be metacognizant of their own sharing. Instead of relying on their detailed sequence or some magazine’s “teacher” tips, the connective instructor is in sync with his or her students. They tap into the collective energy of the room. This seems simple enough, right? Play some relaxing music; create an easy sequence that you know every student will find pleasurable and boom. You’ve reached connective pedagogy!

No, and I’m not arguing that this is an incorrect form of instruction. It just wouldn’t align with connective pedagogy. You might become real popular and gain “bank” fast, so if your goal is to make a lot of money, then this might be your art of teaching yoga, (but I hate to break it to you and say that you just might be on the wrong path. Try Wall Street.) Yoga is an art and hearkens back to the greatest spiritual warriors and muses. Not all of them are (or were) poor but they weren’t necessarily living it up in Coach. (Not to say that this would be wrong either, but hey, let’s be really real, and at least identify if this is your intention as an instructor.)

My question is then posed to the yogis and instructors out there because aren’t all practitioners instructors too? By virtue, we are own instructors and inner guides, right? We connect to our breath and this breath causes a ripple effect much like when a child throws a lucky penny into the wishing well. Your breath connects to those nearby. How come we sometimes don’t realize the power and connection of the breath? We don’t necessarily have to set an intention when we breathe on and off our mats, but isn’t yoga designed to help us connect to what we are doing to our bodies, thinking in our minds, and feeling in our hearts?

What I would like to share to all practitioners is to fall head-over-heels with your breath and connect. Connect to what you’re feeling in-real time. Practitioners: don’t blindly follow an instructor because he or she is on the cover of some magazine or because they can fly up into some funky, freaky pose. Instructors: connect to your breath and the experience of the collective. Follow the breath of your students. Notice when the breath is too labored or when it sounds like a beautiful waterfall. Connect, instruct — share from these insights. Connecting to the collective challenges us instructors, because we might offer something that we’re unfamiliar sharing, but perhaps these foreign shifts are those fragmented memories or dreaded poses that lie within us. Instead of reinforcing the norm of how we “should” share and express the gift of yoga, we can allow our students to help us connect to the shifts by listening to (and challenging) their energy — the energy which we have the authority to unlock but sometimes avoid.

Unleash the bashfulness. Get real. Get connected and not by a click — by a breath into your own self-actualization.