A world of questions

I really enjoy teaching, whether it is yoga or science. I find it very rewarding to explain something and see the student’s face lighten up with understanding.

I have to say I am very lucky, in the sense that the students I have chose to be there: they want to learn.

But what students often don’t realize, is that I also enjoy teaching because it enables me to deepen my own knowledge. I like the stimulation of having to explain something in a different way so that they understand. I don’t dread their questions: I love them!

When I’m teaching yoga, it often happens that someone asks a question about something I have not especially thought about before. This is especially true when I teach people with a body very different from mine. I am, after all, the standard yoga journal picture of a relatively slim, flexible blond woman. There are some things that I do without thinking about, or take for granted.

I like to say that when I started practicing yoga, I was completely out of shape, and it is true – I was unable to do a side plank! However, with ten+ years of dance under my belt, even as a dilettante, flexibility came back fairly fast. It has other challenges: flexibility without the strength to stabilize it can be dangerous. I’m always surprised at how people admire my flexibility but do not realize how much of my practice actually is spent on strengthening and not overextending.

I used to complain quite a bit about how unflexible my hips are. It is the one part of my body that is not flexible at all, and I’ve been struggling with hip openers since day 1, more so since I started practicing Iyengar yoga and realized how their inflexibility was affecting many poses, and that my knees were going to pay the price soon if I didn’t back off for a while. I am happy to say that it is getting better; I can now practice padmasana for a while without feeling like someone is going to rip my hips away from my torso.

Nowadays, I am actually grateful that my hips are/were this tight. It has made me more compassionate, and it has unabled me to understand what my stiff student go through in other poses. Had I never had stiff hips, I would never understand why some people feel crazy pain with leg stretches. But I do, because I felt the same with hip stretches. It was unlikely I would hurt myself/break my hip by sitting in half padmasana because the pain (in the hip, not the knee) was too intense for me to go over my edge (whereas I have hurt myself by overstretching because I didn’t feel anything until it was already too late).

The other day, I was teaching Urdhva Dhanurasana, and one of my students asked “what’s next? lifting one leg up?” after I showed how to get into the pose in three steps. I took it as an incentive to teach that a pose is never finished. So I demonstrated again, this time talking through all the steps I was going through once “in” the pose, which went around something like “I turn my thighs in, walk in, ground my feet, readjust the thighs, activate my buttocks to bring the hips higher, calm my breath, bring my shoulders in line with my hands, walk in again, check everything again”. I really liked showing that there is more than just getting “in” the pose.

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Drawing from French Iyengar yogi Fanny from fnyogi.com

Recently, a student asked me something about a pose I had not thought about previously. I can’t remember what it was about now, except it was about weight repartition. I said “I don’t know, give me a minute” and proceeded to get into the pose and focuse on the weight repartition. I loved the exploration. The answer came easily to me; I had never thought about it before, but I thought it was great he brought it up, because it brought my awareness somewhere it had not been previously.

I’m teaching my students how to get in touch with their body, and they’re teaching me how to be a better practitioner and teacher. It’s a two way street, and I love the stimulation!

NB: for ease of use, in this article yoga is interchangeable with asana practice.

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The iceman, the breath of fire, and pada III.38.

So, some time ago I heard about the iceman, i.e. Wim Hof. I read about him on the internet and decided to watch the vice documentary about him:

I was very surprised, since I live in the Netherlands, that I had never heard of him before. I find his story fascinating.

He is able to control is autoimmune system and able to teach others how to do it; all of it in a scientific setting – the results were published in PNAS, which is a high-impact factor scientific journal.

He says in the documentary that he is not the first person to be able to do this, and I believe that actually many yogis have reached a similar level during the ages. Indeed, while he does not call his technique “yoga”, in my opinion what he does is “simply” a very strong pranayama practice.

He talks about the inner fire, which obviously made me think of agni sara, breath of fire.

I really feel like Wim Hof is a yogi, also because he stays very humble through these demonstrations of “superpowers” and I am glad that his son pushed him to “market” his talent since otherwise there would be no scientific data on the fact that humans are capable of influencing their automatic nervous system.

I can’t help but think of Patanjali’s warning in the Yoga Sutras III.38:
से अत्त्ऐन्मेन्त्स अरे इम्पेदिमेन्त्स तो समधि, अल्थोउघ थेय अरे पोवेर्स इन अच्तिवे लिफ़े.
te samadhau upasargah vyutthane siddhayah
These attainments are impediments to samadhi, although they are powers in active life.

Divine perceptions¹ are hindrances to a yogi whose wisdom is supreme and whose goal is spiritual absorption. They are great accomplishements, but he should know that they fall within the range of the gunas of nature, and in acquiring them he might forget his main aim in life and luxuriate in them. If they are shunned, however, they become aids to samadhi.

The yogi may mistake these accomplishments and rewards for the end and aim of yogic practices. He may imagine that he has attained great spiritual heights, and that whatever is attainable through yoga has been achieved. In this way he may forget the goal of Self-Realization.

Patanjali warns yogis to treat these powers as obstacles in their sadhana. One should control them as whole-heartedly as one fought earlier to conquer the afflictions of the body and the fluctuations of the mind. Then one can move forward towards kaivalya, emancipation.

(Translation and commentary by B.K.S. Iyengar)

Notes:
¹ Divine perceptions: powers that have been gained through the sadhana.
sadhana: practice
gunas: qualities of nature
samadhi: equanimity of mind, profound meditation, eigth and final aspect of ashtanga yoga, bliss

Another translation and text explanation that I found clear and useful.