The 300-hr Advanced Yoga Teacher Training has begun! Just getting all the materials together pushed me in unexpected ways. I was feeling like I learned a lot before the training even started! I am full of so much gratitude towards both my students and my teachers. Although I never knew or met Mr. Desikachar, it is like he is part of me because my teachers have conveyed his teaching through them to me. It is a beautiful thing!
In the first weekend of training, one of the trainees asked me if I have memorised the entire Yoga Sutra. I have not. Her asking that question really sparked a lot of reflection about why we take up the study of yoga and, in particular, the study of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra.
I was very fortunate to have an excellent and exacting teacher – Guta Hedewig – for my 500 hrs of YTT. At the time, I did not really appreciate her insistence that we learn the sutras by heart and chant them correctly. In fact, I really disliked it and resented her demands. Memorisation is difficult for me and, like many, I don’t like making mistakes in the public view. Chanting out loud in front of everyone and stumbling over the syllables was pretty excruciating. I remember a lot of silent and not-so-silent cursing of poor Guta. Sorry about that, Guta.
At a certain point, however, I did memorise those sutras and manage to chant them correctly. I suspect it was out of sheer ego and fear of looking bad that I forced myself to learn them but, hey, even ego can be a useful thing now and then.
Slowly, over time, they became more than just difficult syllables to get out of my mouth. They became words conveying ideas and I remember one day wondering what they actually meant. I mean, I could recite their meaning, such as it was explained to me. But I began to wonder what they really meant….to me and my life.
Mr. Desikachar famously said, “Yoga is relationship.” In that moment when I wondered for the first time what those sutras actually had to do with my life, my relationship to yoga and the Yoga Sutra shifted. It no longer an abstraction – it came alive. I still held it at arm’s length a lot of the time but studying it became less something that someone was imposing on me and more something that I was curious about. The questions weren’t (always) being asked by my teachers; more and more they were coming from within me. I suppose if I were another type of person, that would have been a time when I might have memorised the text but, for me, that endeavour still felt too abstract. I didn’t see the purpose.
Recently, as I have begun to teach others about the Yoga Sutra, my teacher, Chase Bossart, has made it clear that it is time to memorise it. I agree. My capacity has grown. The potential feels pretty boundless and exciting. I can hardly believe that I am writing that sentence about a massive memorisation project! But that is how it feels.
As I reflect on all of this, I think about how we often come to yoga thinking that it is about getting our bodies into certain shapes. There is this pose and that pose and our goal is to be able to do them just like the picture. Now, courtesy of Instagram, we see all sorts of fancy poses being offered to us in beautiful surroundings so we come by this notion honestly. When I am leading group classes, I often see people reaching for their toes in a forward fold because…that’s the goal, right? I make no judgement! I have been there over and over and over. If it wasn’t touching my toes, it was getting a wrist bind or mastering an arm balance.
But what if the shape was not the point? What if the purpose was as much about the movement between standing and forward folding as it was about any final destination? Riding the exhale as you forward fold – however far – what if that was all there was? (Hint: that is all there is.) . If you can place your entire palm under your feet or if your feet are still miles away from your fingertips…what if none of that mattered? (Hint: none of that matters.) What if the āsana or posture was there to show you something about moving towards and moving back? Oh my goodness – what if yoga really was relationship? Moving in relation to breath, in relation to the ground, in relation to your spine? And in relation to your mind, opinions, ideas, beliefs. What if the destination – the shape – was a nice place to visit but, honestly and truly, you wouldn’t want to live there.
With that in mind, what if it doesn’t matter if you have ten or 20 or no sutras memorised or you know the entire text backwards and forwards? What if what matters is the relationship between you and the teachings – it’s alive. How much is enough? What is necessary? If you are genuinely practicing, you will know. Until very recently, I didn’t need to know every sutra. Now I want to know. It’s time.