To Yoga Students Everywhere: A Letter from a Teacher

 Photo by Tara Lengyel

Photo by Tara Lengyel

Words by Ellen Mcqueen

I know what it’s like to get to yoga and have the feeling your practice should be perfect.  The obsession with arriving flawlessly into every instructed posture, the determination to attempt every advanced modification, the frustration that ensues when for whatever reason today, though the teacher’s cues are calm and inspiring and sensical, the mind simply cannot “focus on the breath,” “slow the thoughts,” or “decide on an intention.”  Let this be your reminder that your instructor is simply there as a guide, and you are in fact your own best teacher.  Listen to your body, listen to your mind, and remember, this is your practice.

We all come to our yoga mats for different reasons. For some, yoga’s purpose is a physical one, a way to keep the body strong and stretched. For others, arriving to class means an hour of deep breathing, calming the mind, endeavouring to manage the tornado of chaos that rages in all of our heads. Maybe you were forced to yoga by a friend and thought it was kind of okay and are not sure why you keep coming back but for some reason you do. More power to you.

I started yoga to fulfil a high school sports requirement.

I continued it at New York University as an attempt to replace anti-depressants.  

I found a studio when I moved to Paris to make friends.

And I went to Goa for a month to learn how I could share this newfound passion with others.

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But remember, this is your practice.

Only you know what your body has been through today. This week. This month.

Only you know about that knee surgery you endured when you were twenty. About how your lower back has been aching for a week straight. How you’ve already worked ten hours today and still have more to go.

As a teacher, I’m at the front to give suggestions. I’m here to guide you through the postures, to provide advice and knowledgeable feedback. I’ve concocted a creative flow or series of asanas that perhaps go along with a theme I’ve been thinking about lately, an intention I can recommend.

But this is your practice.

Only you know what your head has been through today. This week. This month. The incredible thing about envisioning your own intention is that you get to take this intention with you off of the mat.

You get to ask yourself, ‘hey, what am I doing here today? Why did I come to yoga? What’s going on in my body, what’s going on in my head, in my week, in my relationships, my city, my job, my apartment?  What kinds of negative energy have I been clinging to that I can release, what is it I’d like to fill that space with? Only you know. And you get to spend an hour, or maybe ninety minutes or maybe more or less, creating an energy in your heart space that you and only you get to carry away at the end of class.

This is your practice, and only you can know how far to take it.

Maybe today Child’s Pose is your best friend. Maybe today you’ve already had an unbearable phone call with your partner, and maybe today you had to get three kids out the door, and maybe today your boss decided to show up early the one morning you were ten minutes late, because of those kids, because of that call.  

Maybe today your body needs restoration, rest, and even though a vinyasa class was the only one you could make it to, you’ve got to know this is your practice, and Child’s Pose is always an option.  You’ve got to remember it doesn’t matter what other students are doing on their mats.

Maybe today you skipped work altogether. Maybe lately the black cloud of depression has been relentless, and you’ve felt, you know, sick and tired of being sick and tired, and it’s time to up the ante, it’s time to push your body, to remember how the mind gives up more easily than the body, and your legs can take it, and your arms are in fact stronger than you’d believed, and today in class even though the teacher doesn’t cue it you’re going to throw in an extra vinyasa, or perhaps try that headstand for the first time.  You’re going to spend an hour reminding yourself that there are always blue skies behind those black clouds.

The point here is not to recommend attempting advanced postures that you are not capable of doing, The point here is not to recommend that you don’t listen to your instructor and possibly injure yourself. I’m not suggesting you disrupt your fellow students during a class, nor am I proposing that anyone completely ignore or concentrate solely on either the physical or spiritual facets of yoga.

The point here is to remind you that if you’ve chosen to spend an hour, maybe more or maybe less, just to work out your body, to stretch your tight shoulders, to find something physical because of doctor’s orders, and this was the only thing that clicked, than that is perfectly fine.

If you’ve chosen to participate in your practice to deepen a spiritual awakening and reconnect to a sense of self perhaps lost along the way, great. Maybe you’ve made it to your mat because you’ve been feeling alone and empty and you’ve noticed that being in a room with other yogis, manifesting and creating and sharing energy together in a safe and positive space, helps, just that little bit.  More power to you.

The point here is to remind you that this is your very own yoga class.

This is your hour, or more, or less, to be creative, sensitive, open, caring, joyful, strong, calm or anything else you’d like to be.

This is your practice.

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Ellen is an American writer and yoga instructor currently living in Paris. In 2015 she graduated from New York University with a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing, and since has had the opportunity to pursue her passion for traveling. She hopes to continue teaching yoga to the local and ex-pat community of Paris, and you can stay updated on her class schedule at mcqueenyoga.com or follow her on Instagram @mcqueenyoga.