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My Yoga Journey by Carla Stangenberg

02/22/2022 12:41 PM | Anonymous

In 1999, I had been practicing yoga for something like seven years. I was working a day job I didn't really like, and one day I saw a sign in the yoga studio where I was practicing (Om Yoga in Manhattan) that said "teacher training." I thought to myself, “That sounds interesting. What a nice way to deepen my practice.” So that's how I became a yoga teacher. It felt like a natural extension of my yoga practicelike I had to teach.

A few years before I was certified, I taught movement classes at a summer program at Northwestern University. I incorporated yoga into those classes, and it worked. Earlier, when I was in college at NYU, my movement teachers were incorporating yoga too, because they were all going to the same yoga studio, Jivamukti, on Second Avenue, where I was going. I followed their lead, and then I started teaching my friends. So I was teaching informally even before I got my certification.

My first real teaching job was in Forest Hills, Queens, in a continuing education program. There were about 30 people in the class; I traveled all the way there, I made nothing, nobody had the right props, but I taught. Then I taught at yoga studios in Manhattan and Brooklyn. I taught everywhere I could, as much as I could, sometimes as many as 20 classes a week. That was it. That's how you get good. Sometimes I feel like an idiot savant, born to teach yoga, but still you have to practice, practice, practice. Pattabhi Jois said, "Practice and all will come." Keep practicing and you will find out what you're doing, why you're doing it. 

But the more I practice and try to perfect a pose, the more I realize that the practice is not so much about the pose but about what comes up in my attempt to do it. My perfection may not be a physical perfection but a perfection of understanding how to act in an effortless way, to do an action without a need for the outcome to be a particular thing. The Bhagavad Gita says: “Perform without worrying about the outcome.”

What comes up for me in my practice are the same things I see in my students. I get frustrated, angry, doubtful, self-conscious, and competitive. I feel all of those things and that's helpful, because when I get on the New York City subway, all those emotions are going to come up in me. If I have really incorporated my practice on the mat into the whole of my life, it won't be so bad because I will have already dealt with it in the privacy of my microcosmic universe of yoga practice. So I can say, "Give me my frustration, give me my anger, give me everything that comes up with attempting to do something that is impossible." What happens when I try? Everything happens. So then, I learn what it's like to try and succeed, what it's like to try and not succeedall of this with quotations around it. It's just like every other day. But when I try mindfully, it's an informed day, a more intentional day, I'm not just getting bashed around by advertising and the newspaper, I have a little bit more of a hold on the reins and I also know that eventually the reins are going to disappear. 

As you get older, you won't necessarily be able to do the same poses anymore. One of my friends, a beautiful yoga teacher, came to my class recently and said, "You know, I'm aging and I feel it. I can't do the poses that I used to do, and I need to be in a class where that's going to be okay." She was looking for a place where she could be with the group but be left alone when she needed to be left alone. It's the same situation we're all dealing with, which is that we're all getting older at the same rate. And this is not so dreadful. This is one of the recognitions that are probably going to set us free.

I think the practice gives you the route to how much effort is correct. And I believe that we all go through times of too much effort and times of too little effort. And we all have to go through that to find a place of balanced effort. I've had people tell me that they've taken two months off and they feel slothful, but maybe those two months will be the best of their life for their practice. Maybe it was too much, practicing for months or years, on the same schedule. You may learn so much from the two months off than you would have had if you just kept going. Every day is different. Some days we feel like a gazelle. Some days we're a bull in a china shop. With practices where the poses are always the same—such as Bikram or Ashtanga vinyasa yoga practice—maybe it's easier to tell what's going on with your body, what kind of day you're having. It may be a bit trickier for us who want to create new sequences from day to day.

But either way, it makes you feel alive. If you forget you're alive, do Warrior II for 10 minutes. If you start to fall asleep, metaphorically, yoga wakes you up. It sparks this life, helps us to see, “Wow, look at this body that I have.” And then, the practice is so deep that we say, “Wow, what about this yoga, and this philosophy and psychology?”

Starting yoga is like a baby tasting ice cream for the first time, we're so astonished—wow, that feeling, that taste. Doing yoga is like that. It brings out that innocent quality in us—even in the toughest cases, the most unhappy people, feel lighter. No matter what age you come into it, you understand that there's much to discover.

Adapted from an interview with the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education.

Find more about Carla at jayayogacenter.com or on Instagram.


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