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How to Spot an Evolved Yogi

by Linda McGrath

How to Spot an Evolved Yogi

Yesterday, I posted the following on Facebook, and received a storm of responses:

You all made some very good points, some funny ones, and some very deep ones too. My question was more practical - as teachers, how do we spot an evolved practice? Teaching being a creative endeavor, it’s helpful to define the implicit or explicit goals we have for our students and to outline the markers that will validate our approach so that at some point we can hope to gain job satisfaction that is independent of the customary hype: “omg, that was the best class ever!” Many of you may say "just show up, teach and trust the universe" but I am much more hands-on than that. So what signs can we look for in our studentship to tell us we’re doing our job, especially in a group class of 50, 70, 100 people where our own focus is dispersed?

A steady dishti is absolutely at the top of the list but it requires more longitudinal observation. Maybe it’s my personality or the overall lack of pure beginners in my classes, but my students control their gaze well when they sense me looking at them. I’ve learned then not to hang my hat on a single data point.

"Kinesthetic hotness" as I like to call skillful embodiment makes me very happy when I see it. As a self-confessed technical teacher, I won’t lie that the body is my tool. But it’s still not the sine qua non of a yoga practice. We all know the dancer or gymnast who imports a history of great form but looks dry and rigid.

The willingness to modify can be a sign of self-knowledge and humility or it can be plain rebelliousness and lack of discipline. It takes some long-term observation to put it into a context so I refrain from ascribing meaning until I know them well.

A soft face, a sense of surrender and ease are undeniably integral. A smile is great if it’s true and I am grateful to get many, but it’s not otherwise required. If I ever ask you to “smile!" in a yoga class, you can shoot me.

What I look for is simply a continuously moving ribcage and a body that moves in sync with that, whether that’s through a transition or through the micro-movements of a held pose. Inner movement matching the outer movement. The reason I hold that sacred is that it takes presence and courage to nurture a continuous breath through the fluctuations of a class. It is a surrender to process, an ode to inquiry, to be able to bring the breath full sail into the seeming stillness of a challenging pose and to use that pulse to thaw the pose out, to develop it, to come into relationship with it. Coordinating the breath to the movement takes up most of the processing bandwidth of the executive brain so the odds are good that the mind is stilling. More than anything though, the breath makes you an active participant in the present moment. No matter the circumstances, you are not just enduring but actively creating this reality.

Disclaimer: of course, there are no guarantees. I often wonder, can we learn to fake this? Can you become so pre-occupied with the breath that you ignore the sensation of injury? With experience, can you learn to automate this process, like driving stick? Can you build smugness and attachments through a perfectly performed ujjaii? Unfortunately, I think so. You can breathe gloriously and still be an asshole. Ultimately, as  Desikachar told us: “If you want to see if your yoga is working, look at the quality of your relationships”. As teachers, we cannot (and should not) follow our students outside the studio to observe their relationships to their loved ones. What we can witness is their relationship to the breath. More often that we think, the breath is enough.

Thank you all for a great discussion! ….X 

Linda McGrath

Linda is the founder and owner of Yoga Source Los Gatos, the largest independently-owned studio on the West Coast and Silicon Valley's most awarded Yoga and Pilates program. She leads trainings, conferences, and retreats in the US and internationally. As the Director of the YogaSource Teacher Training Institute since its inception in 2006, she has nurtured hundreds of successful yoga instructors from across the country.


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