Taking Refuge by Sarahjoy Marsh
"The teacher suggested that ultimately the practice of yoga was to train the mind to concentrate."
I have the great luck of both loving what I do and doing what I love. I am a yoga teacher by spirit and by trade. My life is filled with other yoga teachers as friends and mentors, and with the warm hearts of yoga students. I have permission, in my work, to go barefoot, to wear yoga tights and tank tops, to breathe deeply, to take a stretch break, to speak of the things of the heart.
Recently I went to a teacher’s gathering where we contemplated the intention behind our teaching. The teacher suggested that ultimately the practice of yoga was to train the mind to concentrate. Basically, by giving the mind something to focus on—the little toe or the hamstring—and then keeping it there, it will learn the useful art of concentration.
When I took class with this particular philosophy as its foundation, I felt like I was being given a stream of endless tasks to do with my body to bring the pose into balance, and, I presume, the mind to concentration.
Now perhaps your own life is very simple. But in my life, unfortunately, I am already mastering this task of doing endless tasks! The task of thinking, planning, reviewing, controlling. The task of being in charge, of being someone. Honestly, at this point on my yoga path, I am much more interested in surrendering the mind to discover the wisdom inherent in the body.
Reflecting on all of this, I realized that teaching the art of concentration has never been my focus as a yoga teacher. With that realization arose a doubt: perhaps I’m a phony teacher? I was shocked! “What do you mean you don’t teach your students the art of concentration?;” “How can you call yourself a teacher?;” “What are you teaching then?”
Certainly any yoga practitioner knows that paying attention in your practice is very valuable. So, too, is developing awareness of what your body is doing and how it feels doing it. I have been in yoga classes where, looking back now, I assume the teacher must have been trying to teach me to concentrate. For try as I might, I never did get any of those poses right! There was always more tinkering to be done with this pose or that one. And the teacher, of course, was always several steps ahead of me. I left feeling that the breadth of yoga will forever be too deep to plunge into fully. If understanding was my goal, I was failing.
Certainly the science of yoga is far more vast than I am able to fully comprehend. And yet the essence of the experience of yoga is such a strong and enduring taste, I can spend my lifetime exploring just this taste. When I practice yoga, what I taste is an utter simplicity of heart, gratitude for this mysterious existence. Many times the expression that comes through in my practice is a longing for being even more immersed in that taste. When I teach, it is to share this celebration. When I practice yoga, it is to express this celebration. Some light a candle in prayer. My yoga practice is the prayer; yoga alights an inner flame of reverence and faith.
But if we are practicing yoga, or lighting a candle, with the hope of getting something from it, then are we really open to the mystery to which we pray? Do we really trust its wisdom? If we are trying to master or concentrate the mind, what are we missing out on in the heart or the body?
What if we allowed the yoga poses to work their magic through our bones and blood? What if we allowed the simple gesture of lighting the candle to be felt deeply in every cell of the body! Imagine the original awe when man discovered fire! What does your body long for? Not just the whole body, but let’s say, the feet? What is their longing? How do your hands cry out in praise? The knees, for what do they sing?
I understand the value of proper alignment in yoga poses. In fact, I devote myself to this art. But it is not for the sake of training the mind. I teach my students to align their bodies as a temple for the mind to fall into, in surrender. I teach them to align their bodies so that every part of the body can pray together, like a symphony, calling out in praise, in quietude, in thanks.
May our minds be free to hear the wisdom of the body and the longing of the heart. May we allow ourselves to call out to God, not awaiting a reply, but making our lives the expression of that calling.
Sarahjoy Marsh is a founder of The Sanctuary, A Center for Yoga, Dharma and Healing Arts. She is dedicated to the heart’s awakening through yoga and meditation. She can be reached at 503-552-9642 (552-YOGA).