Earlier this month, I spent a week on retreat to study with one of my teachers, Elena Brower, and her teacher, Yogarupa Rod Stryker. Both are considered master yoga teachers and it was a privilege and an honor to not only take lessons with them, but to be able to witness them in the context of daily life—albeit at a lovely hotel in the quiet German countryside.
We were 55 participants from all over the world, mostly women, ranging from lifelong yoga practitioners to curious students, seasoned teachers to new instructors, and even a professional scholar. Every morning and afternoon, we gathered for a 2.5 hour session lead by either Elena or Yogarupa. Although my personal practice has shifted significantly in the year since I last saw Elena, her cues and style are familiar to me. Her voice comforts me and the postures she guides us into feel secure and soft in my body. As we slid into and out of trikonasana, triangle pose, the echo of hip-clicking in the room triggered the judgement loop in my brain, but I continued following the sequence to the rhythm of my own breath—generally half a length longer than everyone else.
For at least 15 of the nearly 20 years I have been practicing asana, I have been encouraged to honor my own breath rhythm and understood it to mean that the movement aligns with the length of my breath. And it has been a fundamental aspect of my own teaching. It’s probably my most repeated cue in class: “follow your own breath” or “let your own breath guide you.” So when Elena asked us to try to stay together with our movements, I freaked out. In my own head of course. Suddenly, the coziness of her language felt restrictive and my own left hip started to ache.
Though my body continued to perform the movements, my inner monologue went into overdrive: “what the hell is she talking about? We are not supposed to be a chorus line! This is not a Zumba class! I am honoring my own breath rhythm, my special and unique rhythm—the way you’re supposed to.” Then, as I started to look around and see that almost everyone was already in sync, I remembered something she said the day before: “scars of the past imprint on our bodies and show up as resistance in a posture.”
Switching from judgement to curiosity, I began to notice levels of resistance: physical, mental, emotional. How much of my practice is spent in resistance. How much of my day is spent in resistance. How much judgement my body holds as an ache here, a tension there. How, even as my movements link with breath, the key ingredient—present awareness— was missing, and therefore, so was yoga. Because it has almost nothing to do with shapes and everything to do with the body, mind, and breath being in the same place at the same time, yoga is not so much something that we do. It is who we are when we’re doing something.
And as Yogarupa reminded us later, “Our yoga should be increasing our accessibility to feeling the fullness of who we are.” And, just as yoga is so much more than asana, who we are is so much vaster than our individual self. Prioritizing my body and my breath reinforced a cultural, familial, and personal belief in a fundamental separation of self, in sanskrit terms jivatman, from Self, atman. My dear teacher’s request to practice in unison provoked self-preservation mode, sending distress signals in the form of aches, tension, and judgement, all reactions to a threat to the old way of feeling only partially who I am. Thankfully, I have had the support of masterful teachers whose embodiment of living as one’s fullest self serves as an ongoing inspiration for continual personal evolution, and after several days of considering the invitation, I finally stepped outside the boundaries of my familiar and solitary way and into the realm of collective synergy.
On the one hand, it’s so simple: breathing at the same rate and moving in the same way with others. On the other hand, it’s a radical act of affirming one’s own divine humanity. Practicing in unison takes the focus out of me and my experience and connects us to the field of awareness that precedes self. It requires that we attend both to our own breath and to the life force as it moves through everyone around us. It dissolves any sense of isolation and elevates perception to encompass an expanded awareness. It puts us in touch with who we want to be so that after we all rest and receive that slice of heaven that is savasana, we can gracefully attend to the rest of the day and, when resistance arises, instead of recoiling back into habitual ways and limiting reactions, we might pause, get curious, and make a choice that honors our fullest sense of Self.