Today is my mother's birthdate. She was the primary reason I returned to Huntsville in 2011. My husband passed away that year in California and then I turned my attention to my mother who was caught up in a similar struggle. After a few months she died in early 2012. That is how my teaching life began here - with significant losses.
My identities of wife and daughter were forever altered that year. While I can still relate to these roles, the flesh and blood people are no longer available to interact with. So, today at my mother's grave, I spoke a few words of concern and comfort towards her and then left, making plans to prune the Indian Hawthorne bush and plant some irises at her gravesite.
What does this have to do with Yoga practice and teaching? Actually, more than you would think. Asana classes end with Savasana, the corpse pose. I remember Geeta Iyengar progressively guiding us into Savasana for several minutes and ending with the words, "Let loose yourself, let go yourself." She was speaking of the ego, without saying it directly and I am certain that most of us were able to trust and deeply rest as if 'dead to the world'. The enormous auditorium full of 900 students became silent and peaceful.
Ego is what makes me feel and think that I am different from you. Even if it is illusory, it is a way of creating a boundary, a safety zone. Perhaps it is a link to the survival instinct and yet can be willingly sacrificed in a situation when saving another human or animal is more important than saving yourself.
The yogis described human consciousness (citta) with these words: manas, ahamkara, and buddhi. Our consciousness is a blend of these three mental capacities. The yogis didn't insist that the ahamkara (ego) is a bad thing to be permanently excised. Like a mask or a shield, it is useful when needed.
When I loosen my grip on what makes me different from you, I can sense an expanded world with delineations and boundaries that are mutable and permeable, not rigid.
As a teacher, how do I convey this experience of relaxing the ego and expanded awareness to new students?
Today I asked my fall semester students to lay out their mats and perhaps stretch a little before class. It was their first active class. When they all instinctively faced the big floor-to-ceiling mirror on one wall I was bemused but also understood what was happening. It was a learned response to having a mirror in the room - when one is present, you tend to face it, like it or not.
Before roll call, I directed them to turn their backs to the mirror. It was a clear message that Yoga is not about looking at a mirror image of yourself. Yoga is not a performance. Let go of using a mirror to be self-critical, let go of assessing how well you are doing compared to others! We didn't look at the mirror for the next hour and won't for the next few classes.
Letting go of dependency on mirrors to give us performance feedback is one way to loosen our grip on our egos. Instead of looking out, we learn to sense what is going on from the inside out.
At the same time, I could see that each student has her own unique persona. Generally speaking, some are extroverts, some are introverts, some are sincerely curious and a few are not sure if this is really where they want to be. Being a class of women, I know that they are all daughters and they are all students. In time I might learn a little more about each individual, although this isn't necessary. One of my responsibilities is to bear witness to all of these variations of the human spirit while teaching the asana - establishing common ground and step by step guiding the group and each person onto the path of yoga.
When I describe a student in a certain way, such as an introvert, it isn't a negative label. I simply see a student who is shy. Next week she might relax a bit and be a little more outgoing or she may be the same. It is not my role or responsibility to remove her mask of shyness (mask being another way that ego is often described). Instead, I let her be who she is. It is through the asana, pranayama and traditional philosophy that I can communicate with her while she absorbs the experiences of the practice. If she is inspired by Yoga to make changes, that is up to her.
By the end of a yoga class each student will have an opportunity to relax enough to loosen her attachment to her ego and let go for awhile during Savasana. This is a private, voluntary and personal experience that can never be forced from the outside. It is an inner process of release.