My History of Yoga

I have been practicing yoga since I was nineteen.  It started with a course in college that fulfilled my physical education requirement.  As a drama student I was only required one physical education course as a core class toward my degree.  I thought about tennis and volleyball and ballet.  But yoga stood out as a really cool option.  Something that dovetailed with my new Buddhist outlook.  It would be shocking enough to my parents to please mmake me happy.

I am beginning to think this was the one class I have taken along my entire life.  That year from January to May we met for four hours every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon.

Back then, 1980, we didn’t use yoga mats.  We met in the gymnastics area so the floor was made of cushioned material.  We were to bring a large beach towel.  At the time we were told the towel, or whatever cotton or natural fiber we had placed on the floor to mark our space was sacred to our yoga practice.  It was the towel we were to keep only for that time that we were in our yoga space.  Yoga mats, whether rubber or now the various chemical materials they are made of, just weren’t used.  They hadn’t been thought of I suppose.  I’m not sure the phrase “on the mat” or “off the mat” had any bearing on my practice at that time.

The instructor wasn’t much older than her college students.  She may have been all of twenty-six.  She certainly wasn’t in her thirties.  She was a small woman with a dancer’s body.  I, on the other hand considered myself a large girl.  I see photos now of myself back then and I realize I was petite with muscles that I didn’t know I had.  Keeping my belly flat was my biggest concern.  This woman took her yoga serious.  I was there for something new.

We learned Hatha Yoga.   I’m sure she taught us history of yoga with a lot of reverence to the masters.  I don’t remember any of that except for the atmosphere of coming together for something more that physical exercise.  Alignment was a sacred goal.  Inner focus was insisted on.  She continued for those five months to speak of our back, our spine as the energy source that requires our attention, our focus, our strength and our flexibility.  Our back is our greatest treasure.  If our back is aligned and strong, then our whole body follows in natural course.  Without the strength of our spine our lives become less.  In so many ways she is right.  Today I hear many yogis impressing on us the importance of our hips being open.  I wonder that the changes in our modern lives have made this shift necessary.

Our instructor spoke of our chakras.  I had never heard of chakras.  We studied energy centers, and opening these areas to light and to contemplation.  These were not things that I had studied in my Buddhist practice and I did not want to tarnish what I was learning from that.  And yet, I found myself years later engrossed in the Chakra system, feeling the energy flowing through me in ways I had only thought of as incidental during yoga class.

I don’t know when, between my college days and now, that the 200 hour yoga teacher training certification began.  We certainly didn’t have that option back then.  Now everything one wants to specialize in requires some kind of formal certificate before one is considered versed as an expert.  I believe now that I received 200 hours of training and then some.  If I do the math it was only 128 hours.  It was all ‘contact’ hours then.  And we were graded.  I miss the days of being accountable.  My yoga teacher training this last year was not graded.

My yoga teacher training now left a lot to be desired.  I have reviewed the syllabus that Yoga Alliance has standardized for certification.  I received all that in spades in college.  I received it at a time when my mind had room to accept and retain new ideas far easier and more completely than it seems to now.

Things I remember that were not discussed this time are :

Twists were to massage our inner organs, to squeeze out and cause stagnant energy to release and flow again.  Twists were to engage muscles and ligaments surrounding our vertebrae to expand, contract and strengthen our spine.  Forward folds were to open our lower back yes, but they were also to allow our blood flow easier access to the area above our heart.

Inversions were necessary yoga postures.  Inversions changed the flow of blood and strengthened our veins to push our blood flow even when our bodies were not upright.  What a crazy idea that sound like now.  I love inversions.  I could do headstands back then.  Today I feel like I am heavy, and that heaviness makes inversions uncomfortable.  Maybe in the new year I can change my thoughts to enjoy inversions above shoulder stands again.

I wish I would find my class notes from that time, from that class in 1980.   We practiced yoga every class.  Then we sat and listened to new ideas and theories.  We took notes and got back in our space to practice poses to feel them for ourselves.  We ended class with new sequences adding in the new poses.  We did not learn to teach yoga.  We learned this yoga for ourselves.

I believe today’s mainstream yoga has lost sight of the depth of the standard yoga asanas.  Yoga is about physical health that naturally transcends into spiritual health.   It is, I believe, our visual language that has made pretzel poses merely physical – and taken the yoga out of the pose.  I know that the twists and one legged standing tucked poses that were available to me in my twenties take longer to acheive at this time.  I am happy to release myself to tuck.  I am happy to stand on one leg.  I am cleared enough to twist.  The yoga in me is strong, it still practices.  And I continue to breathe.

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