When giving adjustments, I don’t tell people to smile. Why would I ask someone to perform in a yoga class? My goal in giving an adjustment is to support a student in going where they don’t usually go and helping them draw insight from a new experience. I don’t request an external facial expression in the hope that real joy will follow. It’s very hard to be a beginner. When we are novices, by definition, we lack technique. In order to gain skill, we have to be willing to awkwardly repeat new actions to become skillful.
The act of learning to read furnishes a perfect example. Can you imagine being told to smile as you learn to read? It’s usually the opposite: we scrunch up our faces or stick out our tongues as we work our way through the building blocks of language, laboring every step of the way. But once we’re supported, well-trained, and have invested time as a reader, we come to enjoy the process of spending hours expanding our horizons through books. Reading becomes second nature and a smile arises naturally from this pleasurable activity.
Similarly, I never tell anyone to be grateful. Gratitude is an inner disposition and cannot be demanded. Nor can it be coerced through threat, guilt, or shame. Gratitude arises naturally when the conditions are right. The practice of yoga is personal, while also archetypal. It is not a performance of values or shapes. For me, one need not pretend to feel any one thing in particular while practicing.
Rather, yoga is the ritualized act of turning ourselves to ourselves, to make the conscious decision to turn towards what is unconscious, subconscious and say “I see you, I am you, and whatever I am has the signature of all that has ever been.” Within this history: displacement, genocides, rapes and wars, betrayals, cataclysmic losses which feel unassimilable. And yet, here they are.
In choosing to practice, I want to show up. I want to know my values, my ethics. I want to live vivaciously rather than performing conformity to contemporary social mores. Instead of donning a mask, I believe yoga practice to be a decision to stop running away, and run straight back to where everything is always happening, here and now. From presence and acceptance, gratitude, breath, and joy might arrive honestly.
Map by Nevine Michaan/Illustrated by Susan Fierro.