Judith Hanson Lasater: The Art of Teaching Yoga – The Asana Is Not the Yoga

Judith Hanson Lasater has taught yoga since 1971, and is widely regarded as a teacher of teachers. In this interview, she sat down with Eva Norlyk Smith from YogaUOnline.com to share some of her reflections on yoga and the art of teaching. For more on Judith and her YogaUOnline courses on Restorative Yoga, Yoga Anatomy, and Living Your Yoga, see her dedicated Teacher Page on YogaUOnline: Teacher Ed. Courses with Judith Hanson Lasater.

Eva Norlyk Smith: You started practicing yoga in 1970, and became a teacher shortly after. How has the world of yoga changed since you first got involved?

Judith Hanson Lasater: In about every possible way. When I first started studying yoga in 1970, it was exotic. It was heavily connected to India. There were very few people doing it.  It was associated with alternative lifestyles.

Virtually all that has changed. Yoga has become American. It pervades gyms, hospitals and schools; you might say that there’s been an Americanization of yoga. The direct and profound and deep connection that yoga had with Indian teachers and the philosophy of India as a way of living, a way of eating, a way of thinking, a way of choosing your values has completely changed. Now someone will go to a yoga class and then have a hamburger and then go to a bar. It’s not that those things are bad, but that’s not the way it was when we started.

Eva Norlyk Smith: Yes, I’ve seen articles on everything from Wall Street tycoons using yoga to deal with the stress of turbulent markets to drug addicts hitting the yoga mat to burn out the stress of dealing with addiction. So yes, you can say the span of yoga is very wide in terms of its applications.

Judith Hanson Lasater: And it’s really gotten diluted, in a lot of ways, from its traditional teachings. Traditionally, when you studied yoga in India, you understood the context of yoga as part of a broader spiritual practice. You understood the Yamas and the Niyamas and asana in the context of Patanjali’s 8-limbs of yoga, and as part of a greater journey.

Now, only one part of yoga has been pulled out; the focus is almost exclusively on asanas. We somehow approach the practice of asanas, as if it were separate from the whole. It’s like saying, “I just need to eat one food and I’ll be healthy.” The hallmark of good nutrition is variety. The hallmark of the practice of yoga is, firstly to appreciate asana in the context of specific technique and, secondly, understanding the techniques of yoga in the context of the wider historical and philosophical context of yoga. That has totally been lost by the vast majority of people.

There’s an expression that I heard in Texas when I was growing up, which is, “A mile wide and an inch deep.” Yoga, today mainly means asanas—and often not just asanas, but a certain kind of fast and hard practice of asanas. So the practice of yoga, unfortunately, has become “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

Eva Norlyk Smith: Interesting. You could say, however, that there are pluses and minuses to the way yoga has developed. Too narrow focus on a spiritual practice can also lead to rigidity; or at least something that is not as flexible as the approach to yoga we see at most studios today.

Judith Hanson Lasater: Well, you still find a lot of difference in opinion, and people believing very, very strongly that their way is right. To me, it boils down to the difference between belief and faith. Belief is about hooking onto a group of ideas or thoughts and using that to protect you against experience. Faith, on the other hand, is jumping off the edge of the cliff.

So yoga is a practice of observation and faith. It involves continual observation of the thoughts, of the breath, of the body, and reflecting on the results of the choices we make. And it involves faith; we have to trust the unknown and go there anyway. So it’s a very radical practice.

There’s rigidity when human beings cling to belief in the false hope that they give security and meaning to life. But yoga is quite the opposite. The more beliefs we cling to, the less connected we are to life itself. This practice is about being naked and porous and letting life soak into us, inundate us, overwhelm us almost.

To me, the yogi is not withdrawn from life even if he’s in a cave or she’s in a cave. The true yogi feels life intensely and immediately and fully and is unafraid to root in the present moment. Belief keeps you from doing that, because you’re busy defending and protecting your beliefs. You cannot both be protected and open.

Eva Norlyk Smith: That’s a beautiful point. The interesting thing about yoga is that it tends to have very spiritual effects, even if you don’t approach it from the angle of wanting a spiritual practice—at least if you define ‘spiritual’ as getting a deeper experience of yourself and the world. Has that been your experience?

Judith Hanson Lasater: Well, I certainly didn’t want any of that “spiritual stuff” when I started practicing yoga in my early 20’s. But once you begin to observe and pay attention and be brought into the present, it is profoundly powerful. It almost doesn’t matter what does that for you, yoga or something else. The techniques, the asanas, are not the yoga. The residue that the techniques leave is the yoga. When we begin to look deeply at our speech, our posture, our breath, our thoughts, our choices, or our values, and observe those with compassion and a certain distance, we are changed forever.

Eva Norlyk Smith: The witness.

Judith Hanson Lasater: Or the Self, Capital S, Self. That’s all there is, anyway. It just takes many forms.

Eva Norlyk Smith:  How does this inform your own teaching?

Judith Hanson Lasater: The most important part of being a yoga teacher, in my opinion, is to be a mirror. Do what you need to do in order to become the mirror to reflect back the inner radiance and inherent goodness of the student, so that they see their own inner radiance and inherent goodness.

When we are in touch with our inner radiance and inherent goodness, we cannot harm self or others, because we see divinity everywhere, first in ourselves. And that’s the job of the teacher, to find that in him or her self and reflect it back—through words, through actions, through poses, through meditation.

We become an alchemist. In alchemy, the belief was you could turn lead into gold. If we are in touch with our own gold, then we just radiate it out. That’s the easiest thing in the world.

Eva Norlyk Smith: Becoming a yoga teacher is a wonderful profession, as we know. But it’s not easy! What is the most significant piece of advice that you would give to new yoga teachers today?

Judith Hanson Lasater: Well, there are three things.  Number one is to practice yoga every day.

Number two is to always stay curious, open. Continue to learn. Never think you know what yoga is. Keep learning. Keep opening. Keep reading.

The third thing is be clear on your values and your intentions. In my own teaching, I always abide by three values and intentions. When I walk into the classroom, the very first thing that I want to do is connect with myself. What’s going on? What’s arising? Am I happy? Am I tired? Am I anxious? It doesn’t matter what arises, but I want to be attentive to what is coming from my deep self at that moment, as a human being. Because if I’m not connected to me, there is absolutely no way I can connect to the students.

The second value is to see with my heart the person who is in front of me. Not the person who they are pretending to be, but who they really are, and what they are really asking me with their question. What are they really expressing with their body in the pose? Who are they, really?

So, I’m giving them my full attention with my eyes, with my mind, and with my heart. My highest value as a teacher is to be radically present with the person, who is in front of me at the very moment, not the person from last week. Not that person with my expectations and beliefs projected on them, but the human being with the inner radiance and inherent goodness, who is standing in front of me. Can I be deeply present with them and see them?

The third thing on the list, and this is in the order of importance, is the task at hand, teaching them the pose. When I first started teaching, I used to think the most important thing was teaching them the pose, then paying attention to them, then thinking about myself.  I had it completely reversed.

I don’t believe that anymore, and the results have been profoundly satisfying. What I hear now, if I may be so bold, is that people don’t say to me “that was the best shoulder stand I ever did,” or, “I really liked that forward bend, it felt so much better.” Rather, mostly what people say to me—and I’m very humbly receiving this—is, “You changed my life. You helped me understand myself. I feel so much more hopeful now.” And I think that comes from being really clear on my intentions and my values in teaching.

My best advice for young teachers is to think deeply about what your values are in teaching and practicing of yoga. Study and teach from your deepest self. Stand on the mat in your own light and teach from your inner radiance and your inherent goodness.

That’s a big order. That’s what it’s about. We have a deep, deep profound joy and luck to be having this as our work in life, to be the mirror. And it is a profound honor to teach yoga.  I want us all to do it with unbounded respect for self and others at every moment, and with kindness. This doesn’t mean you don’t ask someone to do something that might be difficult, but only within the context of kindness, deep and profound kindness.

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