The physical, mental, and emotional effects of my first yoga class were immediately noticeable, although I had no real language at that point for describing them, even to myself. What became completely apparent, though, was that I had become disconnected from my body to the degree that I was mostly unaware of it. My daily life and focus were almost totally intellectual.
As a child I had been very active, playing outdoors, riding bicycles, climbing mountains, and riding horses. Body awareness is especially required in horseback riding. But I suddenly realized one evening that I literally did not know whether my body felt good, bad, or in between. Although I was happy, I had become very unbalanced. This was not my first moment of self reflection, but it was my first moment of embodied awareness as an adult. Yoga taught me that.
And so began another thread of connection to Yoga and through Yoga to India – the development of my own practice, increasing knowledge about, and experiential understanding of the qualities, benefits, and gifts of a yoga practice.
Other beneficial effects of the postures I was learning soon followed: I became noticeably more flexible and felt much more energized. I was not very flexible even as a child, so it amazed me how quickly Yoga worked. Now that I’ve now taught several thousand beginning yoga students from a dozen countries – America, Mexico, Canada, India, China, Japan, Pakistan, Jamaica, France, Ukraine, England, and Scotland – it is clear that most students experience these same results fairly quickly, even when they attend only one class per week.
After a semester of classes, my yoga teacher moved on and there was no one to take his place for awhile. I was left to my own devices. Although I was disappointed, this was a great gift to me. I started going to a women’s fitness club, but it just wasn’t the same thing, so I asked the owner one day if she knew anything about Yoga. She suggested Richard Hittleman’s book Yoga: 28 Day Exercise Plan. I later learned that Mr. Hittleman’s Guru was the great sage Ramana Maharishi.
I bought the book and began my own practice. On the very first page was this quotation from Bhagavad Gita: “Having mastered the body through the Yogic teachings so that it becomes a fit habitation for the soul; having the senses, emotions and mind under control, the wise person discards the worn out sheaths of desire, fear and confusion and passes into the state of enlightenment and freedom.”
Two things were keys to my lifetime practice of Yoga.
First, Hittleman wrote that daily practice for the next two months would grow into a lifelong yoga practice – that the body itself would never allow me to give it up. So I embarked on my own yoga journey – recording instructions onto an audio tape, looking at photos, and doing my best to follow the points of each lesson every day. By then I had three practice sequences, each of which I could do twice weekly, including postures, or asanas, breath control, or pranayamas, and basic meditation. I went into this experiment believing that I would be Richard Hittleman’s first failure and intending to write to him and tell him so after my first 28 days. But by then I was hooked on Yoga.
Second, early on, I read the words “You are your own guru.” This was incredibly important because it gave me the ability to be self referent in my practice, to trust my own body, my own mind, and my own inner guidance, not only in yoga practice but in life in the largest sense. Because I started practicing on my own so early, I never became dependent on or attached to any one teacher, as so many yoga students do.
Richard Hittleman’s book gave me the experiential gift of becoming and realizing that I am my own best yoga and spiritual teacher – as we all ultimately are. We must embody and live the teachings to truly learn. No one else can do that for us.
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