Teaching at Vagabond Temple has taught me so much about my self and my understanding of yoga. I’ve had the opportunity to teach a variety of students from all over the globe, with classes varying from fast flowing vinyasas to restful restoratives. The freedom to play around with time has been incredibly liberating, as I can really slow my classes down, planning 2-hour sequences starting and ending with a 15-minute shavasana! Yet the greatest lesson I have learnt is that I am always a student and always will be, learning from every yogi and each class I teach. We are all on the same, immeasurable journey of self-discovery and are equals along that path. This understanding has freed my mind from the worry of wanting to know everything and perfecting all the poses- because I never will! All I can do is keep an open, curious mind and learn from the lessons life throws at me.
The Yin Yoga classes have been the most challenging to plan and teach. Yin Yoga is a passive, introspective practice that reconnects us with the softer, quieter, more still side of life. It explains why I often prefer the more yang or fast-paced, fiery classes, as they play into the business of my life. Yin Yoga offers a very different challenge: it’s about releasing down into stretches without push or pressure. Postures are held for around 3-5 minutes, which forces you to sit in silence with the ‘monkey mind’ and witness its movements from moment-to-moment. Yet it’s not about forcing as there’s no push or pull yin: it’s about letting go and allowing things to just be.
This tendency 'push' occurred in my approach to planning. I really wanted my students to enjoy the practice, so I put pressure on myself and tried to control every element of the class. I was trying (and failing) to plan a Yin Yoga class but from a very yang perspective. This insight made me appreciate the prevalence of yang in our lives; we prioritise doing over being and live in fear of ‘never enough’. My class was about slowing down and simplifying and yet I was trying to pack-in as may postures as possible! This was a wonderful lesson in ‘practicing what you preach’ because I realised that in order to pitch the class right I myself would have to slow down, soften and find flexibility in body and mind. This beautiful Lao Tzu quote encapsulates this very quality:
“A man is born gentle and weak; at his death he is hard and stiff. All things, including the grass and trees, are soft and pliable in life; dry and brittle in death. Stiffness is thus a companion of death; flexibility a companion of life. An army that cannot yield will be defeated. A tree that cannot bend will crack in the wind. The hard and stiff will be broken; the soft and supple will prevail.”
The tree in the wind example really resonated with me. I realised that my job as a teacher wasn’t to create the perfect conditions for a windless day: it was to encourage students to move with the wind. Thoughts come and go just like the weather but a flexible mindset is able to witness- without judgement- its wanderings. The tree doesn’t want to stay rigid and crack, but it also doesn’t want to get swept away: it’s about finding a balance between effort and ease, push and pull, yin and yang. Yes yin and yang because there’s no such thing as pure yin and perfect yang as there will always be yang in yin and yin in yang. There might be stillness in the body during a long-hold lunge, but madness in the mind. Fire in the hips but calmness in the breath. This not only applies to the practice but to the teaching. There are times when I need to be more instructive and direct in order to guide students safely into postures and moments when a much more motherly tone is required. In the Yin-Yang symbol this is represented by the dots on the opposite side- because what is white without black and black without white? They are two sides of the same coin and they need the other to exist and to exist within them. This also applies to the world around us: sun and moon, light and dark, day and night. You can’t have one without the other. Our whole existence is built on binaries and the aim of yoga is to find balance and harmony between these oppositions. Whilst Yin yoga focuses on the slower side of life there will always be elements of yang: in the teaching, the postures and even the muscles.
Yet, this is where it gets really confusing because yin and yang are relative and can change roles in relation to something else! For example, the rain is considered yin in comparison to the heat of the sun but yang in relationship to the to stillness of the earth. And even within pairings there is movement and change! Take for instance the stomach: it is yin in relation to the skin when we contrast internal and external. Yet if we consider this pairing in relation to activity, the stomach is yang when compared to the soundless skin. Everything is relative, highlighting that there isn’t a right or a wrong side of life, it’s about seeing the bigger picture. My Grandma’s funeral was obviously a very sad day but also one of beauty, as our tears showed how much she was loved. You can’t have life without death, love without loss.
In the end my class focused on finding the yin in the yang: finding shelter in a storm, patience at the airport when your flight is delayed and a calm mind when you’re sat next to a screaming baby! Unless you’re living on some remote island, I’m sure you could also do with a bit more yin in your life, to balance out the non-stop activity of everyday living!
For more information about the Temple, please visit www.vagabondtemple.com !
The beautiful Lao Tzu quote was from his famous text the Tao Te Ching. Here’s a link to the whole text if you’re interested in reading more: http://www.with.org/tao_te_ching_en.pdf
Thanks to @searching4conrad for the beautiful photos!