Throughout my 30-day Hot Yoga Challenge, I found myself in a number of different yoga classes taught by various teachers. In one class, while in low lunge, the teacher said to her students, “Don’t cheat! Don’t drop that knee.”
As the words crossed her lips, I consciously and perhaps defiantly dropped my knee down. I know this teacher quite well personally but this was my first class with her. I know her to be gentle and caring, open and loving. So I was confused by the seemingly “un-caring” language used in her class. At the time I chalked it up to the hot class, the power vinyasa studio and perhaps, less focus in her training on yogic philosophy and ethics. (I even wondered if I should write this, because if she sees it, I don’t want her to feel badly. We simply have different viewpoints. I don’t believe one can “cheat” at yoga).
Then last night, I taught a yoga class. In opening the class, I asked the students what they wanted and what they needed. Something I do in pretty much every class I teach.
“I want to sweat!” one said.
“I’m really tired” said another.
“Just be nice to us, I don’t want to get yelled at for cheating” said another.
I explained to the room that everyone comes to the mat wanting and needing something different in their practice and it’s important to take your own needs into consideration throughout the class. I encourage this by offering modifications, and options to take the practice deeper. But on the inside, my heart sank when I heard “just be nice to us.” I literally wanted to cry. Another teacher had brought competition into the yoga room. And then there’s the glaring issue of that little word “cheating.” It keeps coming up.
Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines cheating as 1: to deprive of something valuable by the use of deceit or fraud; 2: to influence or lead by deceit, trick, or artifice; 3: to elude or thwart by or as if by outwitting.
There is “No cheating in yoga.”
Just like there’s “No crying in baseball.” There’s “No cheating in yoga.” From my perspective, the entire concept is simply an impossibility. How is is possible to “cheat” when it’s you and your mat? Your teacher is there as a guide, not a drill Sargent. Yoga teaches us to listen to what our body needs, to honor our intuitive wisdom. Yoga teaches us to let go of the judgmental mind-chatter that tells us we’re not good enough, thin enough, strong enough, whatever enough. Yoga teaches us acceptance and to have the strength and courage to put our knee down when our body needs it. There’s no deprivation. There’s no deceit. Honoring where you are is not cheating.
Yoga is more than exercise.
There’s no doubt that yoga can be a great workout, one that will challenge your strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular capacity. (If you don’t think so, try hot vinyasa for 30 days straight). Yoga is complex. Yoga is more than simply exercise. It will challenge you physically, mentally and spiritually. It’s so much more than simple forms of physical exercise like aerobics or Pilates. Asana, the physical practice of yoga is after all, only one one limb in the 8 Fold Path. The first two limbs of the path are the Yamas and the Niyamas. The “dos and don’ts” of yoga. And the first of those is Ahimsa. Loosely translated, ahimsa means non-violence or compassion.
Yoga is compassion.
Practicing Ahimsa on the mat means not pushing yourself beyond your limits, not stretching yourself to the point of injury, not berating yourself for your weaknesses, not being impatient with yourself in the learning and opening process and not being told or feeling as if you’re “cheating” when you’re honoring your body.
Listen to your body.
To practice ahimsa on the mat, you must have compassion. You have to listen to your body, know yourself, bring concentration and mindfulness to your practice, stop comparing yourself to the others around you, and – yes – be willing to question a teacher who’s pushing you beyond yourself. A teacher that accuses you of “cheating” in your yoga class is doing you a disservice.
This doesn’t mean you can’t challenge yourself; it just means you should honor your limits.
As a student, I visit my favorite teachers to keep my practice fresh. To have my alignment corrected, to be challenged, to learn something new and to step outside my own yoga box. It’s one of the big reasons I challenged myself to 30 days of hot yoga. It was so far outside my own practice. I don’t go to yoga classes to succumb to competitive energy from the studio, other students, or by the teacher.
As a teacher, it’s my responsibility to guide my students and help them learn how to trust and listen to their body. To help them understand and accept their limitations. It’s possible to guide students, new and seasoned to stretch their boundaries without pushing them into a place of physical or emotional discomfort.
For the teachers out there reading this blog, please be gentle with your language. Let go of the competition, there’s enough of that already in the world. Cultivate self-acceptance and compassion in your class.
For the students out there reading this blog, please be gentle with yourself. Let go of the competition. Cultivate self acceptance. Have compassion for yourself on the mat and take it with you throughout your day.