This article is not only about the Four Stages of Yoga, but about why they aren’t being taught, my own teaching, and what I want to do about it!
Some of you are aware that I have wanted to open up a dialogue with the on-going yoga community I have attracted over the years—it’s interests and needs, in particular relation to what I’ve been teaching. This blog may be of interest to longtime yogis, who have pondered the same themes, or those newly interested, and want to discover how “real” yoga is described by the master teachers in India. My inspiration to share this in a post is a direct result of an email I issued to my students about my health: namely, that I have been affected with health issues for a good long while that had not been diagnosed till recently. Functioning at a diminished level, I saw how it effected my teaching; more energy work, restoratives and meditation, less flow, less big strength sequences. I am now working with a healer who puts it like this: I’ve been functioning (private psychotherapy practice, dharma practitioner, single woman in her 50’s, home owner, dog mama and caretaker, etc.) solely based on the strength of my spirit, as my body is quite deficient in what it needs to perform my many duties well.
The good news, I guess, is that my spirit is strong.
I share this with you, because it came to my attention that some students weren’t “getting what they needed” from class (i.e.: more challenging asana? I’m not exactly sure since there wasn’t any further discussion), and moved on. Of course, it has caused me to reflect on Yoga in America, and how I want to move forward as both a yoga teacher and student of yoga. I’ve had cause, actually, to reflect on my teaching for a long while, as in the past couple of years I’ve become more committed to meditation and energy practices from Tibetan yoga and Qigong. I have reflected on not only what has become more interesting for me to teach (after 30 years in the field), but what I consider of true importance to share. The concerns I will voice now come from both personal observation of my own evolving practice, and a professional stance noting what has become of “American yoga.”
I tend to be enjoy the “classical approaches,” whether it’s dance or yoga or music, and I am so grateful, blessed really, to have studied with true masters in the lineage of Krishnamacharya*, and in my Tibetan lineage. As such, I have always wanted to teach more of classic yoga, the Eights Limbs of Patanjali, but no one in Seattle can make a living teaching classical yoga. Seattleites in general, I have come to accept, are highly motivated by the fitness aspects of yoga, and less interested in the spiritual and energetic aspects. This was recently confirmed by a conversation with a lovely woman from CA who is surprised, shocked really, by how non-spiritual Seattle yoga is, compared to her roots in Southern Cal (even with all those Conservatives down there!)
My dilemma with this began 15 years ago, at least. Back in the early 2000’s, I became aware that running a yoga school by myself, and dealing with the business of yoga, was much harder than I anticipated, and in ways different than I thought. I knew it would be demanding physically and spiritually, but I didn’t realize the emotional hardship that it would carry for me. Namely, that the commercialization of yoga, and the reducing of yoga down to the level of physical culture (understandable, of course, in an America so intent on seeing everything through a material lens), was not something I thought I could continue to bear, at least all on my own. The pressure of having to perform/conform in order to make a living, based on whether students “liked” my class was very difficult. Kudos to my friends in yoga who were able to brave on and keep trying to share the depth of yoga (although I do wonder how successful they really were/are) to an audience that may not really have wanted the more internally strenuous aspects of yoga practice.
Here’s the conundrum: yoga shouldn’t always be “like-able.” Yoga is not something to do for pleasure, actually, and not for simple physical fitness, either. It’s a discipline to help us get to know every part of ourselves, and that isn’t always comfortable. So that takes us up to the present—here are a few concerns I’ve heard directly from students:
~ the class isn’t challenging enough
~ I don’t feel I’m making progress
~I have a hard time really feeling that energy work is truly making an impact
Now as an educator, I take in this feedback to help me question what it is I’m teaching and if I should consider making revisions, which I certainly have done. But this also begs other questions:
~ in what ways is progress being measured?
~ what is one’s definition of challenging?
Is being able to sit in “meditation” for an hour (20 minutes, 5 minutes) challenging, or sensing your energy body and consciously directing prana through it? Or must we always use physical postures as the indicator? Are the visualizations, energy practices, pranayamas not rigorous enough? That, I can do something about. What I can’t do anything about is whether you, the student, takes responsibility to develop a personal practice on your own, or continues to rely solely on a yoga teacher (one class a week?) to “give you what you need.”
In class the past couple of weeks I have been reminding students of the classic Four Stages in yoga:
Stage 1: Strengthening and Purification
These practices include mostly asana and pranayama; the vast majority of American yoga focuses on this stage.
Stage 2: Working with the Mind and Emotions
Self-reflection, concentration, meditation, breathing, prayer—all have a profound effect on the quality of our conscious mind, and deeply impact our subconscious.
Stage 3: Working with Prana
Deeper exploration of the energy body, the subtle body and intuitive aspects of our being
Stage 4: Refinement of first 3 koshas and deep work in the the Anandamayakosha—the Sheath of Bliss. Here visualization and resting in pure Awareness takes us deeper into Source.
As a teacher, I am less interested these days in spending lots of time in Stage 1. It may be due to my diminished health and strength, which I have only recently acknowledged fully to myself and have finally gotten some help with. Or it may be part of a karmic design to take me more fully into depth practice. We need all 4 Stages, of course, and I am committed to offering those…at least for the next 3 months. What I’d like to avoid is a repeat of my experiences where I was so concerned that the classes were physically challenging enough, that it took me out of what I call my “flow,” my connection to my inner guide. My work as a teacher is to stay disciplined in practice, and disciplined in offering what I know, geared toward who is in front of me, while staying in integrity with the moment. To this I re-commit myself.
This extends the question, then, for all students of yoga: What are you committed to? Are you doing yoga for your butt, or for the transformational potential found within the 4 Stages? I don’t have undue judgment if it’s the former, but I do know that is a wasted opportunity, and I have no time to waste! I take the message from my Tibetan Buddhist teacher: My house is on fire–will I remain distracted by whether the car needs a wash, or get to work on the spiritual plane?!
Here is a link to our Satguru’s grandson’s Facebook page with a very important message from him, Kaustub Desikachar. It is the prologue to his new translation of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, one of the most essential texts in all of yoga. If the beginning seems too esoteric, please scroll down and begin reading at the paragraph: “Be it the Yogasutra of Patanjali…”
This will give you a sense of how truly preciousness the yogic teachings are held by the carriers of the message.
Namaste, and blessings to all beings.
*Extended studies abroad or in the US:
BKS Iyengar, in Pune India, 1990, 1992, 1994
K. Pattbhi Jois, in Mysore, India, 1990, 1994
Sri Desikachar, in Seattle and British Columbia, 1999, 2001.