Yoga as awareness

It's January – and, with the snow and first real bite of Winter,a flurry of new yoga students are taking to the mat whilst New Year Resolutions still pack a little punch.

As a yoga teacher, I find teaching complete beginners an immense privilege, and a big responsibility. The teaching of yoga is now just about instructing a 'perfect' Downward Facing Dog on the mat. It spreads far wider than this. As Kirsty posted on her facebook page recently, 'Yoga … is about the attention you put into each moment of your day, whether that is in downward dog, or in a conversation with another'.

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Yet, in my 15 years' experience as a yoga student, and 5 years as a teacher, I have seen that contemporary yoga teaching is largely resolutely physical, with little time or emphasis given to meditation and the wider 'spiritual' aspects that separate yoga from pilates, or any other exercise system.

I'm not a fan of the word 'spiritual' – it means many different things, and risks turning people off. In this context, I simply mean the wider aspects of yoga: an ancient discipline whose origins extend back thousands of years. The ancient texts spoke very little of the physical practice and mostly of the role of awareness and perception.

Yet the average yoga class makes no reference (explicit or implicit in the teaching) to this original meaning. I am so heartened at the recent explosion of interest in mindfulness meditation: the practice of being present to the moment in an open, non-judgemental way.

As I understand it, yoga is mindfulness, centred on the body; it is a present-moment awareness of the body, through movement and the breath. This awareness extends life off the mat; on the most basic level, by taking some of the presence we foster in a yoga class into everyday activities.

This is the essence of a practical yoga practice: it's a lifestyle, not something we do mechanically for an hour a week. If students aren't open to the mental attention and 'work' that this requires – as many aren't – then at least the teacher has done his or her bit to impart, to their best ability, what this yoga is all about.

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This isn't to negate the importance of alignment during a yoga class; nor does it mean that the physical postures have to be practised very slowly, though it helps to stay present and centred by slowing down enough to feel the body move. The best ashtanga classes are very challenging both mentally and physically, due to the slowed-down pace and focus on alignment and awareness.

Most people – myself included – initially came to yoga for its promised physical benefits, and there is nothing at all wrong in this. But it's the teacher's responsibility to impart that yoga as a physical practice is only one part of a big, colourful, ancient tapestry.

Teachers such as Paul Dallaghan, Judith Lasater, Sarah Powers and Tias Little (to name a few) are rooted in the classical teachings of yoga – and, as an 'industry', we need to make sure we keep these teachings alive for generations to come.

The alternative is that yoga becomes just another one-dimensional, on-the-mat-only exercise system, its heart and soul stripped out – and what a crying shame that would be.

With thanks to Lucia Cockroft, founder, Satvada retreats (www.satvada-retreats.co.uk) and editor of Yoga Abode (www.yoga-abode.com) for writing this article.