By Michael Levin
I’ve done yoga for more than 30 years, but after practically every yoga class, the instructor asks me the same question:
“Is this your first yoga class?”
I just don’t look like the guy on the cover of a yoga magazine you see at the checkout counter at Whole Foods. I’m 62, not 32. I eat too much. And I couldn’t do an eagle pose to save my kids’ lives.
And yet, starting January 27th, I’m going to start a 200-hour online yoga teacher training program with Yoga Farm Ithaca, a non-profit yoga institute located 10 miles from Ithaca, New York.
Why would I do such a thing?
Because I want to teach yoga.
And I would like to believe that there is a place in the yoga world for someone who doesn’t have the requisite age, body type, or perfect yoga skills.
Yoga teachers don’t even have to be able to do every pose. Instead, they learn to direct their students to flow from one pose to the next. Often, yoga teachers don’t assume the poses themselves. Instead, they verbally cue the instructions, and sometimes provide one-on-one specifics to a student who is not quite grasping where to put an arm or a leg.
Why would I want to teach yoga, if after 30 years I still haven’t mastered it?
If you love something, the best way to understand it more deeply is to learn to teach it. And I do love yoga. I once had a yoga teacher named Bhavani, a Jamaican-born woman who taught at gyms and schools in Santa Monica, who said, “Your yoga practice consists of driving to the studio. After that, it’s up to me.”
I’ve always loved that idea because yoga is one of the few times in my life where I can completely surrender all responsibility to someone else where I know I am safe and in competent hands…and be better off for having done so.
If you’ve never taken yoga, no two instructors, and therefore no two classes, are the same. Okay, that’s not entirely true; there are schools of yoga where no deviating from the program is permitted. But by and large, teaching yoga is a creative activity, where the teacher assumes responsibility for putting together the specific order of poses or flow that the class will follow. So part of the fun of yoga is the variety that you encounter—the poses, the types of instruction, even the varieties of yoga itself.
The word yoga doesn’t mean “stretching exercise you do in the dark while wearing stretchy yoga pants.” The Sanskrit word actually means ‘to Unite or Yoke together’ breath, body, mind, and Soul. At a time where most of us are out of our right minds, disconnected from our bodies, and seemingly a million miles from spirituality given the events of the last year, what could be better than unifying those three basic elements of human existence, even if only for an hour? That’s why I love yoga.
For me, the best yoga classes push me out of my comfort zone. They involve poses or combinations of poses I’ve never done before. They force me to move, to work, to breathe and yes, to unify the disparate elements of my being, in ways that perhaps I have never tried before. So the idea of learning not just the physical but the spiritual aspects of teaching yoga is incredibly appealing. And that’s the journey I begin on January 27th.
Why Yoga Farm Ithaca? I’ve taken yoga classes at a wide variety of venues, from gyms and dedicated yoga studios to places as unusual as a beach and the warning track at Fenway Park (long story). I simply resonated most deeply with the approach of Yoga Farm Ithaca, whose mission isn’t just simply to teach yoga. It’s to eradicate the root causes of unnecessary suffering in contemporary culture.
The educators who lead Yoga Farm Ithaca will tell you that we live in a society with unnaturally rising levels of anxiety, depression, loneliness, unnatural busy-ness, addiction, and self-harming / suicide.. These are the afflictions of modern times. Part of the answer, according to the educators at Yoga Farm Ithaca: Awareness. From their perspective, yoga training is primarily Awareness training. When you’re aware of your thoughts and beliefs and the impact in your life, you can identify the things that are ready to change or shift. Awareness, therefore, is the foundation of mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health.
I liked the idea that Yoga Farm Ithaca presents, that yoga can be adapted for the modern Western lifestyle while giving due credit to its deep traditional and cultural roots. I’m not the kind of guy who could take six months off from life and go sit by the Ganges wearing a loincloth. I need a yoga practice that’s respectful of the cultural heritage of yoga, but at the same time being practical and relatable to my busy American life, and that’s what Yoga Farm Ithaca promises to deliver.
Yoga Farm Ithaca, incidentally, is located on an actual farm, 65 acres of peacefulness just outside of the college town of Ithaca, home to Cornell University and Ithaca College. (There used to be a bar in Ithaca called the Rongovian Embassy, which I remember entering but cannot recall leaving. I must have left it at some point, because, well, I’m not there anymore.)
The essence of farming, to get back to the Yoga Farm Ithaca concept, is that you learn to move with the seasons. On a farm you can’t rush anything. That sounds like a very good metaphor for yoga, and yoga, in turn, sounds like a very good metaphor for life.
So all I can say is, wish me luck. I’ll be back with periodic updates about my yoga teacher training experience. During the 200 hours over the next three months, I’ll be seeking to answer one basic question:
Can a guy who yoga teachers think is taking his first class, even though he’s done it for 30 years, really get to the point where he can be useful to people who really are taking their first yoga class?