I did a headstand in Monday night’s yoga class. More accurately, I did a forearm stand. It was modified; I needed two spotters and a wall. I shrieked coming in and out of the pose, but up I went. It’s a pose I thought I’d never do again, but I did and I’m still enjoying the pleasure of the achievement.
|Sometimes, we don't know which way is up.|
I would not have attempted this inversion had I not trusted my teacher and my assistants. Practising yoga or meditation with someone untrained or unskilled as a teacher, no matter how good their intentions, can lead to physical and emotional harm. People have said to me, “I took a yoga class once and I hurt my back/shoulder/neck. . . .” They’re not easily persuaded that poor instruction, not yoga itself, was the problem. Most of them have never attempted yoga again.
Let’s discuss some of the things I think are important to consider when beginning a yoga or meditation practice. The criteria here are mine alone, but they come from discussions with other practitioners, experiences in a variety of classes and my current practice. The descriptions of yoga and meditation are limited and are to be used only as a starting point for your journey.
Just as meditation is not “relaxation spelled differently, (Kabatt-Zinn)” yoga does not translate as “something popular” or “what we enjoy doing.” Much as I love them, spinning, knitting and other fibre arts are not “the new yoga,” nor are they meditation. The skills and tools we develop in practising our fibre arts can be used to develop meditation skills and our perspective on yoga, but calming down or relaxing while you are spinning does not mean you are meditating.
Yoga (meaning “yoke” or “union,” usually considered as union of body and mind) developed through various traditions in India. It is associated with Hinduism and Buddhism, but it is also aligned to practices out of Asia and elsewhere. Meditation is found in many traditions, religions and philosophies. My practice of mindfulness meditation is a process of learning to accept the NOW, and appreciating things as they are. Meditation can be part of a yoga practice or separate from it. For me, the best yoga and meditation practices are inclusive, available to anyone no matter what your philosophy or state of well-being.
I avoid practices which appear divisive. One which comes to mind is “Holy Yoga.” My problem with this current offering and its siblings is that it implies that only a Western, Christian-based practice can be “holy.” (Ask yourself: “What is the opposite of ‘Holy Yoga?’”) Intentional or not, this is dismissive of the thousands-year-old Eastern practices at the heart of yoga and meditation. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t attend such classes. Just be aware that all worthwhile yoga/meditation practices have, at their core, respect for a vast array of spiritual traditions.
Choosing the right fit for you among the many schools and philosophies of yoga/meditation will involve research and experimentation. Yoga/meditation is practise, doing. The best way to find what works is to attend classes. Look for a studio offering a variety of classes or a “sampler” class of different yoga styles.
A good instructor will be well-trained, thoughtful, and open to working with your abilities. She will be looking to improve her skills and challenge you to push your limits. She will not insist that you do anything that puts you at risk, nor should she teach beyond her limits. She should be willing to share her training and credentials. A good yoga/meditation teacher does not necessarily require decades of training, experience and paper work, but I would avoid anyone who claims to be certified after attending a weekend workshop and/or who does not practice on a regular basis. Think of it this way—would you be comfortable with a spinning teacher who claimed to be accredited after a few days using a spindle or wheel? Yoga and meditation work on mind and body; you wouldn’t (I hope) give yourself over to a doctor with a week’s training, no matter how many papers she had on her wall. Approach yoga and meditation with the same thoughtfulness you’d give to anything else affecting your wellbeing. (Mindfulness meditation practitioners often recommend that you don’t speak of your own practice for the first five years. This allows time to develop your philosophy and practice before you involve others.)
At the same time, you owe it to a teacher to be honest about your limitations, both physical and emotional. Teachers aren’t mind readers and certain practices must be done carefully or not at all by some people. (E.g. Inversions are not recommended for those with blood pressure issues requiring medical attention. Meditation can help depression, but can also deepen the problem if not properly practised.) NEVER abandon medical treatment in favour of yoga or meditation. If a teacher suggests that yoga/meditation alone will cure you of a serious medical ailment such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, etc., do not stay with that teacher if she insists you leave your doctors behind.
It may seem like a daunting task to find the right teacher and practice, but there is also truth to the idea that when you are ready, the teacher will appear. If you can’t find one in real life, there are useful guides to be found in books, CD’s, DVD’s and the internet. Don’t let the lack of teachers or classes prevent you from practice. Do a bit of exploration and then Begin, gently. Learn to stand in Tadasana. Sit quietly for ten minutes a day. One day, if you need it, you will learn to stand on your head. Or not. Take care.