4 Ways to Practice Yoga Respectfully


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Have you ever gone to a yoga class that didn’t actually feel like, well, yoga?

Yoga teacher Harpinder Mann describes a class she took as a 20-something living in Los Angeles. “I went in looking for teachers, looking for mentors,” she says. What she found instead was more like aggressive jazzercise than yoga. “The room was so steamy and I could barely see the person in front of me,” she says. “We moved so fast. I was like, Am I in a hallucination?

After an arduous search for a glimpse of what she knew yoga could be—what yoga really is—Mann took a class while on a work trip to India. When she walked into the yoga center, instead of seeing a lobby with spandex crop tops for sale and an employee setting up the fog machine, she was greeted by plants, an enormous book shelf, and an instructor who warmly called her “daughter” and asked what brought her to class that day.

“We practiced asana, but it was so slow. We combined the shape we were holding with an affirmation,” she says. “We learned how to meditate and they would talk about what it means to live well, about karma, and about death.”

She found what she was looking for.

Today, Mann is a trauma-informed yoga teacher who uses her Instagram to discuss yoga’s history, principles, misconceptions, and the potential for self-discovery through a dedicated practice.

Still, she understands that not all yoga classes inspire these ideas. In one of her videos, she suggests that by understanding what yoga actually is, versus how it’s often misrepresented, people who are seeking greater meaning can embrace all the practice has to offer beyond the physical. (Spoiler alert: The destination is not “a cute yoga butt.”)

4 Ways to Practice Yoga Respectfully

Maybe you’re a yoga teacher who wants to understand and honor tradition so you can pass it on to your students. Or maybe you’re a student who, like Mann, desires to go deeper than the steamy hallucination exercise class that *probably* has very little do with yoga (except for the fact that they call it yoga).

Of course, learning everything about yoga can feel overwhelming. So keep this in mind: You actually can’t learn all of it… at least in one lifetime, according to Mann. “It’s not about knowing all the tools and techniques within yoga. It’s about picking one or two or three that work for you,” she says.

The following are Mann’s insights on how you can start or continue your practice from a place of greater understanding of yoga. Consider these jumping-off points—and hold onto the knowledge, mentors, and practices that get you excited about stepping onto your mat.

1. Recognize Where Yoga Comes From

“We’re thinking about something that’s been in existence for over 3,500 years,” says Mann. “There’s so much philosophy within it, there’s so many different texts, there’s so much history, and different lineages.” Mann explains that learning more about the cultural context of yoga will help teachers and students more deeply understand and connect with the practice.

Looking for some starting points? Mann mentions texts that speak to the tradition of yoga such as Yoga Sutras and Autobiography of a Yogi. The latter sparked in her a realization: “There’s so much more to this practice than meets the eye.”

“I see varying levels of responsibility,” Mann says. “If yoga is just for your personal practice, I think take what works for you and continue in that way.”

But for someone who’s a teacher, or training to be one, she sees the need for a higher level of understanding. “You have the responsibility to learn more about why we practice, how yoga originated, and the history behind it. Otherwise this dilution of yoga continues.”

2. Remember That Yoga Is an Entire Philosophical System

Mann is intentional about helping her yoga students unlearn limited definitions of yoga. “I always break it down,” she explains. “Yes, we have this common perception that yoga is exercise. But yoga is this spiritual, philosophical, psychological way of being… a way for us to make sense of our lives.”

The physical practice of yoga (asana) is perhaps the most widely recognized principle of yoga. But the poses are only one of eight limbs, which are a set of guidelines for living ethically.

The eight limbs contain wisdom we can use as tools for self-exploration in our everyday lives. For example, ahimsa, or nonviolence, is defined as not harming any creature anywhere at any time. We can practice this, explains Mann, by understanding Sutra 1.33, which contains four principles, summarized below:

  • Sharing in another person’s happiness instead of being jealous
  • Helping someone when they are upset or suffering
  • Appreciating the beautiful qualities of others and cultivating them in ourselves
  • Wishing others well instead of lashing out or judging them

3. Find Your Teachers and Continue Learning

Whether you’re new to yoga or you’ve been teaching yoga for years, one thing we all have in common is that we are always learning, according to Mann.

“I think it’s about committing to being a yoga student for a lifetime and staying humble and having humility,” says Mann.

There are so many different resources out there that can deepen your understanding of yoga. The most important thing is to find the teachers and materials that resonate with you. But it always helps to have a few places to start. Mann is currently writing her first book, Liberating Yoga: From Appropriation to Healing. She also recommends the following:

Books:

The Heart of Yoga by T.K.V. Desikachar

Yoga, Ancient Heritage, Tomorrow’s Vision by Indu Arora

Embracing Yoga’s Roots by Susanna Barkataki

Podcasts:

Liberating Yoga Podcast

Yoga Is Dead

The Love of Yoga

People:

Prasad Rangnekar (@yogaprasad_institute)

Dr. Shyam Ranganathan (YogaPhilosophy.com)

Kaya Mindlin (@kayamindlin)

4. Have Compassion for Yourself and Others

It’s easy to judge ourselves for not knowing something, Mann adds. But in reality, we’ll never know everything.

“I think acceptance, forgiveness, and compassion are the best things we can give to ourselves no matter what we do because we’re going to make a gazillion mistakes, we’re going to fail,” she adds.

Instead of punishing ourselves, she encourages teachers and students alike to embrace self-compassion. In other words, trust the process.

“Trust that you’re going to take one step at a time,” she says. “Trust that you’re on the path you need to be on and it’s going to bring you closer to where you want to go with your practice.”

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