Essential Qualities of a Yoga Student


Originally appeared at yogamatters

What makes a good yoga student?

If we practice long enough, there are bound to be months and even years when what we do on the mat can feel a bit routine and we lose sight of why we are doing it or what it’s all about in the first place.  As we go through this malaise, quite possibly the practice is still sustaining our health and mental wellbeing, so we shouldn’t worry too deeply as long as we are keeping up our discipline. But if we spend too long floundering in this phase it could result in a loss of interest and discipline that can eventually lead to losing the quality and effectiveness of your practice. Do not despair! Here are my essential qualities to support your lifelong quest as a yoga student.

Curiosity

“This very moment is the perfect teacher, and it’s always with us.” – Pema Chodron

Yoga is a practice of experimentation and trial and error.  We do our best with the teachings available to us, but essentially we are left on our mat with the peculiarities of our own body and mind. We should practice not to meet some ideal of what we think we should be going, but rather to face the reality of where we are. When I practice, I begin by asking myself in some way or another: “How am I feeling today? What do I need? What can I learn?” If we begin with curiosity and the willingness to free up our approach on a daily basis, the practice will never go stale. Somedays it may be hard to summon that curiosity or rise up to the information it provides, but it is an essential to keeping the practice working for you. That’s not to say that if you are a student of a discipline with more rigidly structured sequences and approaches you are out of luck. Even if you repeat the same types of physical practice every day, you can query the emotional responses, and subtle and not so subtle physical shifts that appear on any given day, and see then how you can better relate to them. Each moment we practice reveals tremendous amounts of information about ourselves and how we respond to challenge. All we have to do is listen and start learning when patterns are revealed, and then respond out of wisdom and not negative habit.

Sense of Humour

“Sense of humor seems to come from all-pervading joy, joy which has room to expand into a completely open situation because it is not involved with the battle between “this” and “that”. Joy develops into the panoramic situation of seeing or feeling the whole ground, the open ground. This open situation has not hint of limitation, of imposed solemnity. And if you do try to treat life as a “serious business,” if you try to impose solemnity upon life as though everything is a big deal, then it is funny. Why such a big deal?” – Chogyam Trungpa

Are you willing to laugh at yourself when you fall out of bakasana? Can you have a chuckle when you find yourself finding the perfect retort to an insult from twenty years ago when you sit in meditation? We can easily judge ourselves on perceived failures or instead we can have a kind-hearted sense of humour about it all. I used to have a wonderful pilates teacher who would laugh as we grimaced through seemingly endless core work and glute exercises. He would cheerfully declare “It’s not that serious. It’s just pilates.” Similarly, it’s not that serious, it’s just yoga. Of course, yoga can help us work through strong emotions and the tidal currents of life, but in actuality we are just making some shapes, breathing, and sitting. If we can handstand… great. If we can’t handstand… great. What’s important is that we don’t get too fixed on being “good” or “bad” at yoga, but keep our eyes on how we can sustain a practice to last a lifetime.

Commitment

“1.14: Practice is the repeated effort to follow the disciplines which give permanent control to the thoughtwaves of the mind

 1.15: Practice becomes firmly grounded when it has been cultivated for a long time, uninterruptedly, with earnest devotion” – Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Are you going to get on your mat today no matter what and do something? It’s easy to find excuses: “I’m tired.” “I’m sick.” “I don’t know what to do.” “My teacher is away this week.”  But yoga isn’t something you do when you feel like it; it is a tool to help you live your best life. It’s a bit like brushing your teeth. We don’t brush our teeth when we feel inspired; we brush our teeth every day because we don’t want to end up an old toothless crone. Can you have the same approach to keeping up the discipline of your yoga practice to sustain your physical and mental health?

Unconditional Friendship with Yourself

“Developing unconditional friendship means taking the very scary step of getting to know yourself. It means being willing to look at yourself clearly and to stay with yourself when you want to shut down. It means keeping your heart open when you feel that what you see in yourself is just too embarrassing, too painful, too unpleasant, too hateful.” – Pema Chodron

I’m pretty big on discipline and I often teach a tough class. But underlying all the discipline for me must be an attitude of self-care and unconditional friendship, otherwise discipline can easily turn into self-punishment and practice can become its own addiction that takes you out of your life rather than into it.  I practice the way I do because I know that it is the best way for me to take care of myself and temper my own brand of neuroses.  However you practice make sure it comes from a place of love. When you meet challenges on and off the mat can you be a bit kinder to yourself rather than the usual go-to of disappointment, blame, and guilt. Let’s be a little bit easier on ourselves. Keeping yoga practice as part of a deal to befriend and care for yourself will ensure that it stays with you for your whole life.

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