Judith Hanson Lasater on The Art of Yoga: Making Every Movement an Asana

Judith Hanson Lasater is one of the longest-teaching yoga teachers in the U.S. In this interview, she reflects on how yoga teaching has changed over the years and shares her insights into what is the true essence of practicing yoga asanas.

Eva Norlyk Smith: You’ve been a yoga teacher for more than 40 years. And today, of course, yoga is more popular than ever. Has the way yoga is taught changed over the past 30-40 years? 

Judith Hanson Lasater: When I began teaching in 1971, yoga was still rather unusual and the approach was different than most classes are now. It was much more integrated, the asana with the breathing, the mediation, the chanting – all the aspects of the practice were there, and there wasn’t such an emphasis on asana.

In addition, we often would practice a pose and then rest in between each pose. There was a lot more emphasis on how it felt. And because there were no teacher training programs outside of a few isolated ashrams in the US, the way most people taught was very simple. If someone had pain or difficulty, we just said, “Don’t do it.” That, in and of itself, was protective. The rooms tended to be darkened. We wore loose yoga clothes. The whole emphasis was on letting go, relaxing, slowing down, cooling down.

Now, there are more styles of yoga readily available to the average person. And some of them as we know are quite vigorous and of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. But the key is matching the person to the style. That’s the number one key. Obviously, a 25 year-old gymnast in good shape will have the ability to do more things physically. If not, you have to know your own limits.

Secondly, we need to be aware that our needs might change from decade to decade, year to year, even from day to day. Like today, you might feel really tired. And so, you might want to do a quiet practice. And tomorrow, you might feel very vigorous and you might want to do a more active practice. So to me, we’re not training our students to be more selective in the style that they study and making sure that that suits them.

The other thing that happens is that many yoga teachers are leading yoga classes instead of teaching them. The belief seems to be to work people out, to put them through the paces. And when you have an attitude like that, no matter who walks into the class, they’re all getting exactly the same thing. And that’s not always appropriate.

I like to think of a yoga class as, yes, in part giving people an experience of the practice. But additionally, I think it’s very important that classes teach people how to practice, so they are aware of basic safety ideas, as well as how to sequence poses, how to pace themselves, how to use the breath, and how to be aware of any signs that their body is giving them to do less. I like to say to my students, “I want to teach you in such a way that you can go to any class in any system and keep yourself safe.” And I think that’s one place where we are falling down as teachers. We’re not training our students how to practice.

To me, an experienced practitioner is one who has his or her own home practice and only comes to class as a way to refine or get fresh info or be inspired. But increasingly, people don’t have a home practice, they go to a lot of different yoga teachers, depending on what is convenient and nearby, just to get the workout. So they are not incorporating what they learned in class on their own mat at home, and from there understanding and filtering what works best for them.

Eva Norlyk Smith: Yes, even if people have practiced for a number of years, you can’t assume that they have been taught to increase body awareness and tune into the body, which is probably the most protective skill to have when it comes to avoiding injuries in any kind of activity.

Judith Hanson Lasater: Yes, and I also have a different time line perspective. To be an intermediate or more advanced student, you need to have a home practice almost every day of the week. A beginner is someone, no matter how proficient, who just comes once a week or twice a week to a class and hasn’t incorporated it into their own home practice. So I have a much longer term view of this as a serious practice.

You can make an analogy to playing a musical instrument. When you have your lesson, that’s not your practice, that’s your lesson. The work is when you leave your lesson, you go home. And the next day, what do you do the next day? Do you practice what you learned? Do you try the new techniques? Do you make the corrections that were suggested? Do you pay attention? That’s when you really learn, when you make it your own. And that only comes from a willingness to commit to your home practice.

Eva Norlyk Smith: Good point. Now, increasingly, many new people coming to yoga studios are not just young, fit people 20 to 30 year-olds, but people in their 40’s and 50’s who have more physical limitations and may also be more injury-prone. It’s a trend that would appear to create some wonderful opportunities for yoga teaching as a profession, and also tremendous challenges. It often makes me wonder if the original standards for yoga teaching, i.e. the 200-hour basic yoga training, are sufficient to give teachers the knowledge and skills they need to deal with the kind of challenges that yoga teachers are facing today.

Judith Hanson Lasater: Yes, there are so many factors to be taken into account when teaching yoga. I think we need to look towards creating perhaps the equivalent of a Bachelor of Science degree in this training at some point in the future. Understanding anatomy and knowing that the thigh bone is called a femur is not enough, teachers increasingly need to understand how the body works: What is the normal range of motion of the hip joint? What are the normal movements of the shoulder joint? What would I see in someone who didn’t have that? What would those symptoms look like and what should I do in a case like that?

So there’s understanding the anatomical and kinesiological foundations. And then there’s a huge piece of the student-teacher relationship: How do I deal with a student who won’t limit themselves and throws themselves into everything? How do I deal with a student who doesn’t want to try anything new? How do I speak to a student in a way that both inspires and perhaps invites them to step a little bit out of their comfort zone, while doing it in such a way that they feel safe choosing that themselves? This is a really big distinction.

So an important part of the student-teacher relationship is about understanding the interpersonal dynamics and understanding who you’re teaching. You’re not teaching a class. You’re teaching a human being. And understanding how to speak to them with their language, how to touch them with respect after asking permission, and how to use your touch and your words to encourage them to grow at their own speed, those are key skills of a yoga teacher.

So it’s not about pushing students physically. It’s about reflecting back to students where they’re holding on mentally, and encourage them to let go of some of those mental limitations that may or may not have a physical expression—if and when they feel ready. It’s more important to me that we help people understand that they’re prisoners of their thoughts, not of their hamstrings.

Many wise teachers have told us that we are the prisoners of our thoughts, and to help people live a full, rich, and happy life, free from the mercy of your thoughts and beliefs—that, to me, is our job as teachers. The way I actually say this to the teachers I train is, “The job of a yoga teacher is to reflect back the inherent radiance and inner goodness of each person.” And of course, the only way you can do that is to find it in yourself.

That’s what we’re really doing on the mat. That doesn’t have anything to do with dog pose. Dog pose is fun. Dog pose is a technique that slows us down. It’s like a speed bump that slows us down so we can become aware of how we’re holding, how we’re resisting, how we’re breathing. And those skills, those skills which come from the residue of awareness, are life skills that we can carry with us everywhere, until our whole world becomes our yoga mat, every moment becomes an asana.

Because every moment, we’re aware of what thoughts are ruling us, what position we’ve been holding too long, what misalignment in our back we’re maintaining, because we’re tense or we’re stressed. And that, to me, is what we as yoga teachers are about. And the asana is really not the yoga. It is the residue the asana leaves in our minds and bodies and hearts that is the yoga.

So if we teach from that perspective, we teach with kindness. We teach with respect. We teach with empathy. And when you have kindness, respect, and empathy, there’s another word for that which is compassion.

You may also be interested in Judith’s online course:

Rest & Silence: Practicing from Stillness, Spaciousness and Ease

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