“No. You’re doing it wrong. You could hurt yourself that way.”
The year was 1972, and I was taking my first yoga class—a private one—the only kind there was in Atlanta back then. The teacher was Martin Pierce, who would soon open the first yoga center in Atlanta.
I learned that when entering into a yoga pose that requires flexibility, good alignment is critical. Without it, the body will automatically default to the parts that are most flexible to compensate for the tighter places. Meanwhile, the tight places will remain relatively dormant.
That was what Martin was noticing in my forward fold. He saw that if I continued on that path, over time I would cultivate more and more of an imbalance.
I wasn’t dissuaded by Martin's critique of my paschimottanasana (seated forward bend). I figured he was just jealous of my flexibility. Years later, I learned how right Martin was and how naive I had been. Deepening one’s yoga practice is a journey, and you have to be ready and open in order to take it.
Previously, I had been practicing yoga using a book. It introduced three daily sequences with the promise that if I practiced every day for 28 days, I would acquire a lifelong yoga habit.
After two or three months of daily practice, I was very pleased with myself. I was very flexible and healthy. I imagined myself to be quite the yogi. To go deeper, a good teacher is a must. At least the book got me started.
In the early years, I fell in love with the physical practice. Loved the feeling of accomplishment when I made progress in a particularly challenging pose. Hungry for more, I started traveling all over the country, attending yoga workshops and teacher trainings, often neglecting my work at home. I sought out and studied with those we considered the greats in those days, such as Rodney Yee. Back then it was common knowledge he walked on water.
Along the way, I started teaching yoga.
Refueling with regular side trips to workshops with yoga luminaries, I’d return to my students with the latest new pose, sequence, tips and techniques. It was uplifting and meaningful for me to see the confidence and joy my students felt when they got up in handstand or some advanced pose for the first time. It still is, even after leading more than forty-five 200- and 300-hour courses.
These days, if I mention the famous Rodney Yee in reverent tones, I’m likely to get a blank stare from younger students. Things change. And so did my yoga practice. My interest in cocktail poses waned and was replaced by a deeper appreciation of what was happening inside of me.
Cultivating evenness, clarity and resilience
I began to realize that there was more to yoga than I had imagined. Rather than the allure of more, and more-challenging, poses, I began to love the pranic effects of holding an asana and feeling the energy flow just after coming out of it.
I got more interested in the effects of the practice. Why did some classes leave me happy, uplifted, calm yet energized? Why did others leave me depleted or irritable during the day?
For me, as teacher and as practitioner, “going deeper” took on a different meaning, less about achieving any new pose and way more about cultivating the evenness, clarity and resilience needed to meet the world.
How could I provide a yoga class that would lift a diverse group of students from depressive, depleted states; calm them from agitated states; and lead them to find that sweet spot of restful alertness? Our whole culture—always in a hurry, contending with the effects of too much screen time, under fluorescent lighting instead of sunlight and moonlight—is chronically in a state that yogis call rajas.
A little bit of rajas engenders feelings of excitement and motivation to act. Excessive rajas leads to aggressiveness, fight-or-flight mode, swollen ego and anxiety.
Tamas, on the other hand, is dullness, inertia, lethargy. You need a little bit to get a good night’s sleep. Too much puts you under the table.
The yogi’s preferred state of body and mind is sattva: balance, upliftment, harmony, clarity, intelligence and light. Daily practices that cultivate sattva lead to real transformation. Does your yoga practice cultivate sattva? Here’s an easy test. How do you feel at the conclusion of a yoga class? How about two hours later? Is there a feeling of lightness? Clarity? Do you feel calm yet energized? If so, it was likely a sattvic class.
A sattvic class requires more than simply progressing toward a peak pose. It requires that you gradually prepare for the poses, and that you finish by bringing your body back to a state from which you can comfortably go back into your day.
At the end of a class, feel into your body. If you don’t feel balanced, stable and relaxed, go home and take a few minutes to unwind. An easy twist followed by gentle forward folds and rest (savasana) will help you compensate for the more active parts of the class. They neutralize the pelvis as the body/mind receives and integrates the practice.
Then finish with some gentle pranayama [see Three Breathing Techniques to Improve Life in our March 2018 issue] or meditation. Make your transition back into your day steady (sthira) and joyful (sukha).
It was 1973, and I was eating lunch at the Golden Temple, a Sikh vegetarian restaurant in Atlanta. A pleasant but somewhat strange chant in a foreign language was playing over the sound system.
And then something happened that took me by surprise. There I was sitting with my sandwich and carrot juice, when suddenly I was overtaken by a powerful upsurge of all-consuming bliss.
I looked around the room, expecting everyone to be having the same experience. I was astonished to see people continuing to eat lunch, read the paper, buss tables.
But there I was, trying to maintain composure in the throes of something like an orgasm. I felt like grabbing somebody by the shirt, wild-eyed, and asking, “Don’t you FEEL THIS?”
Modern physics tells us everything in creation—including our own bodies and minds—is vibratory in nature. Ancient yogis knew this as well. Somehow they discovered certain vibrations that could create profound, life-transforming effects. My brief experience in the Golden Temple was just a little hint of what was to become in my life.
Soon after, I noticed a copy of Scientific American on the coffee table at a friend’s apartment. The cover article was The Physiology of Meditation. I hadn’t known that there even was a particular physiology related to meditation. Reading about it piqued my interest.
Then I picked up Be Here Now by Ram Dass. In the now-iconic book, Ram Dass suggests a method of meditation using a mantra, a sound vibration. I tried to practice the meditation daily, and within just a few weeks I was pleased that I actually felt something while meditating: a sense of peace, of stillness and of inner fulfillment.
But I also felt something outside of meditation that was not so great. I began to feel uncomfortable around people. I avoided social interaction. I just wanted to meditate and leave the world behind. I learned firsthand that not every meditation technique is helpful if you want to be in the world.
I craved spiritual growth from a meditation practice, but I wasn’t ready to renounce the world. Wasn’t it possible to have both? If so, how? From whom? Surely there was a path for people who want both inner and outer fulfillment, people such as me, who want to enjoy it all—relationships, things—and yet also want to go deeper. Time and circumstances eventually led me to a meditation practice that enhanced all aspects of my life.
There must be truth in the old adage that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. I found that teacher and that path. And it was the greatest discovery of my life. I also learned once again: Books are great. But to go deeper, you need a good and experienced teacher.