Last week a participant in my online training asked for some help finding the right language to explain how Subtle Yoga is different from alignment or fitness-based yoga. She was trying out for a new teaching gig and was concerned because she’d been warned that a popular teacher in her community was planning on coming to her class and would, most likely, heavily critique her.
Seriously?! I’d be so freaked out!
First of all, what’s up with a yoga teacher attending another’s class in order to critique them? “My style is better than yours!” How is that different from kids on a playground? “My daddy can beat up your daddy!”
I think that as yoga professionals, we can do a little better. We can at once be more gracious about/supportive of other styles AND we can learn how to talk about what we do with greater clarity and confidence. This will give students a chance to figure out for themselves what kind of yoga they want to practice.
It’s easy to get your Diva-goddess on when you are a popular yoga teacher, but the reality is that teaching yoga is much more about our students than it is about us (do I even have to say that?). I will never be the perfect teacher for every single person. So, let’s just let that one go and support each other instead of bringing each other down. (Anyway, that’s what I’d tell the self-proclaimed decider of good yoga teaching.)
Back to my point about describing what you teach. How do you explain to students and other teachers the difference between what we do and some of the more common fitness based stuff that’s out there? Here are some thoughts (and I owe a lot of gratitude to Gary Kraftsow who helped me better understand some of this):
This kind of yoga is not focused on maximizing physical fitness, strength, or even stretching (although it does all of those things incidentally). Rather, it’s focused on building Pranashakti. Pranashakti is the lifeforce energy, which manifests as vigor, stamina, purposefulness, centeredness, and equipoise. According to the tradition, breath-centered practice builds Pranashakti in the central channel.
The central channel, which is an eastern subtle anatomy concept, is an energetic correlate to the central nervous system.
The breath is the gateway to the nervous system. When you regularly practice taking conscious control of the breath, you gain greater and greater conscious influence over the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), particularly the stress response. This greater control can then positively influence functions of the nervous system such as digestion, cardiac and circulatory function, endocrine function and immune function.
When we use breath-centered practices, we help to improve the function of the ANS and through it, there’s the potential to benefit the whole of the central nervous system.
Breath-centered yoga practices are not about getting alignment right, which is more of a musculoskeletal objective/goal. Rather, the goal of this sort of practice is to build greater resilience in the nervous system – to gain greater ability to gradually push open what Dr. Dan Siegel calls, “The Window of Tolerance.” So that the nervous system can better tolerate the experience of arousal/vigilance (that would be the hyper state), and also can better tolerate the experience of low energy/depression (which would be the hypo state). And ultimately, can find the optimal state of the nervous system – for whatever activity, mental or physical or emotional, in which you are participating. And, in general, have greater balance in your life.
Pranashakti is the force that pushes open the nervous system’s Window of Tolerance. We can build Pranashakti through an integrated practice where asanas both directly benefit the ANS, and also prepare the respiratory musculature for deeper and more expansive pranayama practices – which have an even greater potential to build strength and resilience in the nervous system. Both asana and pranayama help to create a capacity for a potent seated meditation practice, which is another (perhaps even deeper) opportunity to continue building Pranashakti and resilience.
The breath is the gateway to the nervous system – so this way of practicing is a nervous system focused practice, as opposed to a musculoskeletal focused practice. Of course some of the benefits overlap, it’s the focus and intention that are different. Breath centered practices are sustainable, accessible, transformative and you will be able to do them until the day you leave this planet.
Feel free to use any or all of this to help your student, potential students or other teachers better understand that what we are doing is different.
And then, you can drop the mic.