No one wants to hear this! We love turning ourselves over the care of others. None of us really relishes the day-by-day, breath-by-breath awareness of self that constitutes real living. Many of us abhor responsibility, even if it’s just to ourselves. When God slips the rudder into our hands and asks us to grow up, to educate ourselves, and to steer our course, we instinctively look over our shoulders for the guiding hand of a parent, a mentor, a boss, a teacher. But the bare fact is that yoga will whittle away all externals and bring you deeply into contact with yourself.
Paradoxically, America is the land of rugged individualism, of renegades and rebels and revolutionaries. We wouldn’t be here if the first settlers had not struck boldly (and basically blindly) out across the waters in search of the Land of the Free. We love self-made men, the pull yourself up by your bootstraps guys and gals; we celebrate innovators and experimenters. Thoreau setting out for a solitary year battling the elements at Walden Pond, Emerson expounding the virtues of “Self-Reliance,” Whitman incanting the “Song of Myself.”
Yet many of us don’t believe that we can “do it.” The gap that yawns between our heroes and ourselves is as wide as that between our mundane lives and the snippets of celebrity “life” we pore over in People and Star. Just as we raise our antennae to pick up celeb cues on how to do our hair, our makeup, our workouts, our families, we are always looking for guides. Even the “self-help” industry assumes that we don’t know how to help ourselves and so need to follow in the footsteps of self-appointed gurus. These works are almost doomed to fail us in any profound transformation because it just doesn’t work to follow someone else’s dance steps. No two snowflakes alike—the answers are not out there or over there.
Before I put myself out of business, though, I do need to say that teachers are helpful in yoga as in any other discipline. In the beginning, they are probably essential. They introduce us to technique and thus save us fruitless effort and spare us injuries. I have been told that the guru’s function is to mirror back to us the best in ourselves. I would expand this to say the best, the worst, and everything in between. However, the teacher is always drawing on his or her experience, and no matter how wide or deep someone has ranged, his or her path can never duplicate ours. I have noticed that students often gravitate either to teachers who are a lot like themselves in temperament, likes and dislikes, age, and life experience or to teachers who are almost their opposites. Both strategies make sense to me: a teacher like you will offer you a yoga that feels comfortable—but may potential slow your transformation. A teacher unlike you allows you a chance to step outside of yourself altogether—which by definition constitutes a serious detour off the path.
No worries, however—you simply can’t get yoga “wrong.” There are no mistakes, no missteps, only quirky, unpredictable, inevitable progress. Because no matter what the teacher is like, yoga will move you inside. And as you go deeper into yourself, your outer form will start to shift. And I’m not talking about more open hamstrings or a deeper backbend. I’m talking about personality, the outer manifestation of our inner wiring. We often don’t notice the changes until we find ourselves switching careers, ending or starting relationships, eating or sleeping or dressing differently, giving up cigarettes or going raw, even becoming aware of and honoring our true sexual orientations. Yoga wakes you up, not with the blare of a digital alarm clock but with a gradual unfolding. You simply become more conscious. I have had to gradually pull out of New York City over the last 10 years, as my awakened nervous system finds the jar of so much stimulation exhausting. Pre-yoga, I didn’t even notice it. I’ve learned to speak the truth, almost at the same time that something is actually happening, instead of having painful delayed reactions because I went temporarily numb, in shock, at some unacceptable behavior. I laugh a lot more because my horizons have expanded to truly appreciate the foibles of our human Vanity Fair.
“Yoga is self-teaching and self-correcting,” my teacher Danny Paradise always says. He understood early on the perils of guru-enslavement, took the teachings and made them his own. The hard truth is that no one can do yoga for you, no parent, no mentor, no guru, no teacher. Our guides along the path merely hold the space for us, give us license to roam around the quarters of our own psyches. Along the way, we confront what we love, hate, ignore, and deny about ourselves. It all gets tossed up from the depths into the foam of our attention. With this abundance comes freedom, wiggle room, options, choice! Shaken out of the chains of habit, we have room to grow. Of course we will stumble and err, but is our fear of “failure” so great that we abandon the path? I hope not. If you are reading this blog, the answer is no. It’s too late, you are already a work in progress. I urge you to continue to step out of the box and into your own skin, plunge deep into your own heart and mind and offer up what you find. Your beam of light will light the way for future yogis. And so it goes, from teacher to student . . .