I attended the Yoga Journal Conference in San Francisco this past weekend. I’ve practiced yoga at various levels of intensity since 1999, when it was first introduced to my health club in Ann Arbor, Michigan, by one of the aerobics instructors. Something about it just stuck with me. I went into myself and started to hear my own voice for the first time. It was the first time during exercise that I noticed my breath, and treated my body with care. I’ve been a devotee ever since, with my practice peaking between 2002 (in Cleveland) and 2006 (here in California).
But as with any not-quite-ingrained habit, my motivation has ebbed and flowed over the years. It seems that there’s always an excuse – either the class schedules at nearby studios haven’t fit with my schedule, or the instructors’ presence wasn’t healing for me, or I “didn’t feel like I had time” to do a regular practice. So I’ve done other things, like golf, and Spinning, and working with a personal trainer, all in an attempt to keep that connection between my mind and body which I knew intuitively was essential to my sense of well-being.
Attending this year’s yoga conference reminded me again of why the practice of yoga is an everyday essential in my life, and inspired me to include a new ritual in my teaching as an experiment in 2009.
What is yoga? The best definition I’ve heard so far is, “It is the practice of making the unconscious conscious.” In other words, it is the process of becoming aware of your thoughts, feelings, and actions, and their effect on your physical body. It’s actually a commitment to awareness. It is not just the act of “doing” the poses. One instructor said it best this weekend: The physical poses (asana) are just a means to move the breath throughout the body. The movement of the breath is a means to create awareness of our body. And this awareness is the practice.
Yoga is an ancient tradition that has been practiced in India for thousands of years. The modern practice of yoga in America seems to be driven by the convergence of (a) stressful lives leading to various chronic health and emotional problems, (b) social activism and a desire to change the world, and (c) highly educated people in search of a way to take better care of themselves. Anyone of any age or body type can benefit from yoga. It is no longer perceived as a “religion”, or the realm of a few “circus freaks” who can contort their bodies into seemingly unnatural pretzel shapes while balancing on their chins. There is an entire culture of yoga in America, as evidenced by the number of local yoga studios, conferences, and a yoga “lifestyle industry” of books, videos, clothing, props, and other products. There are a handful of charismatic personalities who have branded themselves as master teachers and travel around the world sponsoring retreats, workshops, and teacher trainings for their devoted followers. Each of them preaches their own message related to the universal truths of yoga. Their own approach to instruction, home practice, and its therapeutic benefits.
But there are central themes of yoga which resonate with me now in particular – and really began to grow during my very consistent practice from 2002 to 2006. They are the ideas of mindfulness and attention to the relationship of the mind and body. When I first started practicing regularly in a yoga studio, I thought, These are the foundational principles of how I learned and teach music! To train the mind is a first goal of teaching toddlers in my program now. Only when the mind is trained can you begin to develop skills of playing the instrument – making the music. There is simply no way to reverse the order of those steps, if you are to experience authentic learning.
Each time I’m in a large room filled with people on yoga mats going into the same poses simultaneously, with the singular voice of the teacher guiding the room, I feel a certain energy. This is different from anything you can experience at home on your own mat, and the energy must come from the collective force of individuals bringing something to their mats to practice together. They call this the “flow” in yoga speak. I could call it the “music” of yoga.
Another principle of yoga is that intention drives motivation. Motivation is a combination of thoughts and feelings that drive our behaviors. The intersection of these three elements – our thoughts, our feelings, and our actions – is our character. Each yoga class begins with some kind of ritual – unique to each teacher – that sets an intention for the class. This may be a theme for the class, or a collective vocalization of the sound “Om” (which is literally the music of yoga), or a devotional chant in Sanskrit dedicating the practice to some wish toward the greater good. No matter what this ritual is, the purpose is the same – to mark the beginning of each practice with a certain mindset, and give each person a motivation for that day’s practice.
I realize that in my violin teaching, the closest thing to a ritual that we have is when the piano plays the A major chord, we bow. We bend at the waist, with our feet touching and our violins held in “rest position”, we count “1,2,3” and then we come up to standing position. This implicitly is the opening ritual that sets our intention and prepares our mind for what we are about to do. I start by teaching every child how to bow correctly. It is something that every child can do, without much assistance, but which requires attention. It’s not “difficult” but it’s still important to be done right. It shows respect for the process. And we do it over and over again, until it becomes habit. The question is, whether it becomes a good habit or a bad habit. I can always tell when my teaching has become sloppy when I no longer take the time to watch the children bow. How they bow tells me where their minds are. A perfect bow means their minds are perfectly attentive to their bodies and their ears are listening. Without attentive minds and bodies, they really cannot even begin to experience the freedom of making music.
So now for my newest initiative and experiment for the beginning of 2009. Before every class, I will now start with a joint vocalization of the following mantra for myself, my students, and their parents. It will set our collective intention for each time we interact around the violin, and represents what I believe is our collective goal for the study of violin together.
I am good.
I choose to be better.
I am listening.
I am always trying my best.
There are a few things to notice about this mantra.
– it is in the present tense
– it is affirmative
– it is both universal and specifically applicable to violin
I am good. Nothing can begin until we acknowledge our own inherent goodness. We are all, in this moment, worthy and good.
I choose to be better. Two things here. One is choice. Learning (or not) is a choice. All the things that are required to become better are things we must make our own mind focus its attention on. No one, not even the best teacher, can ever do this for the student. To be better than we are today (to improve constantly in some way) should be a lifelong goal of anyone who chooses to continue learning and growing. We rarely have all the answers ourselves. We must proactively seek the lessons in our world, and then do the hard work of making the knowledge our own. This is a commitment to that daily process of inquiring how we can get better.
I am listening. Lessons are available all around us, if only we would pay attention. True listening requires both open ears and an open heart. Our eyes also help us connect while we are listening, although they can also distract us if our gaze wanders. Listening is always the first step to learning. It requires trust of ourselves (remember, we are good) and of the teacher. As teachers, we have to remember that our students take our words very seriously, so we commit to being meticulous about our words, and listening to our students’ interpretation of those words.
I am always trying my best. This is an affirmation of both the truth of each moment (people are always giving what they can in any given moment), and the intention to examine whether we are truly present in a situation when we are trying to learn.
All of my teaching is an act of love. It is a gift of myself that requires all of my intention in order to be effective. I am good. I choose to be better. I am listening. I am always trying my best. My intention for 2009 is to become more aware, and more conscious of all my thoughts, feelings, and actions, so that I may continue to become better.