Joelle's Yoga

The Heart of Yoga & the Path of Least Resistance

Published in the YABC Spring 2002

The sun was setting on a cool January evening when Leila Stuart had just completed a day of clinical massage practice. It could have been any other ordinary day but today something was wrong…very wrong. Leila felt so tired she could barely move. How could this be happening to her, a usually healthy and indefatigable clinical massage therapist and yoga teacher ?

Yoga teachers are symbols for health and well being. They are dedicated to a practice which absorbs body, mind and spirit in a state of balance. The idea of this balance being disrupted by an illness is an oxymoron which turns the picture perfect yoga teacher image on its head. Our expectation is that yoga practice will make us impervious to all difficulties and act as a kind of divine intervention shielding us from all messy and undesirable human problems. The truth is that yoga practice gives us the courage and resilience to tackle whatever comes our way.

Leila was diagnosed with a virus which she says was an opportunity to learn about letting go. "Going inside yourself," she says, "is where spiritual transformation begins".

"Yoga is a state of being more than what you do." Leila says, "I think that's what really happened for me being sick. I think the trap that a lot of teachers and therapists get caught into is they feel like they have to do something; they have to show what they can do. It’s the old dichotomy between doing and being. I think that yoga is coming to a place of wholeness with yourself, whatever that is."

"We're human beings", Leila says "and it's easy to get sucked into an ego place of well, we're not quite human, we're somewhat elevated and that we shouldn't get sick. This illness has definitely been a huge lesson in humility for me. And even the progress of the illness. I kept thinking I should be getting better faster than I am. I should have divine dispensation from the process that everyone else has to go through in healing which is healing a little bit, staying at a plateau and so on."

Before she got sick, Leila had been through what she describes as the biggest warp speed shift in her life. She bought a home, renovated, got married, sponsored the Donna Farhi 2001 teacher training and was the star witness in a trial. In the midst of all this, Leila also continued her clinical practice and regular yoga teaching schedule. When Leila got sick, she made a conscious choice to let go of her resistance and accept what was happening. Rather than being victimized, Leila made a choice to accept the illness and ask herself what she could learn. This is the heart of yoga: making a choice that empowers us to deal with what is happening in our lives, whether it is pleasant or painful.

"I strongly believe now that it was really important that I did get sick. As soon as I stopped looking at it as a physical thing and started looking at it as a gift from God, in a spiritual transformation, then things started to shift and open and I got to more of a place of surrender. It was a big struggle to surrender. It was a big struggle to get past the thought that this is just a virus."

The ability to let go is an important part of the state of balance in which health is maintained and illness prevented. Like all good yoga teachers, Leila was accustomed to giving out. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, this is known as yang. Yang represents the male energy of heat, light, creation and dominance, while yin is the opposing female energy of cold, dark and submission. Leila recognized that she was giving out too much and had forgotten how to be on the receiving end. This idea of giving selflessly lies at the very core of the yoga teacher persona. There is a tendency for teachers to give too much (which can lead to an imbalance). This imbalance caused Leila to feel depleted of much needed personal resources.

"As a teacher, healer and therapist, there's this persona that starts developing and that's the maya(1)of it. Yoga is about balancing yin and yang, ida(2)and pingala(3)and I was very overbalanced into male giving out and neglecting receptivity. This realization kind of shifted the whole healing process from 'the next doctor, the next test' to my meditation and going deeper, looking at my dark side. I thought I'd done a pretty good job at looking at it before but obviously, I hadn’t gone deep enough."

Leila tells a story about the man who wanted to become a great violinist. The man goes to a master violin teacher and asks him to ascertain his skill with the instrument. Upon hearing the man play, the teacher exclaims, "Oh, that's terrible! You have not suffered enough. Go away and come back after you have suffered." Soon after the man loses everything, including his home, family and employment. In his sorrowful state he wanders into a moon lit tunnel and begins to play his violin. The violin teacher just happens to be walking by and hears the man play. "That's wonderful!" the teacher says, "I can hear that you have suffered."

Is the message here that we have to suffer dire misfortune and in calamity in order to grow? Certainly the Baba I met in North India thought so. He hadn't allowed himself to
sit down for eight years and he had the sores on his legs to prove it. He was trying to make this earthly human plane as unpleasant as possible so he'd really want to transcend it. In yoga philosophy, this is referred to as 'tapasya'; pain that leads us to desire liberation from suffering.

It's important to realize that we are not here to suffer. It's our own power of awareness that is the remover of pain, and not the pain itself. The goal is not to create more suffering in order to remove it, but to remove suffering through awareness. In Leila's case, her awareness of pain was a catalyst for her to strengthen her spiritual foundation. This spiritual foundation, Leila says, is the heart of yoga.

"Before I got sick, I was unbalanced. " She says "When I gave out in classes or in therapy, I wasn't staying connected. Now when I teach, I am teaching from a spiritual foundation so what comes out of my mouth is multitextured. It encompasses the spiritual, the emotional, the physical and the mental in a much more integrated way now. It's like I'm speaking from a depth of Being, Spirit and experience that I never had before. Or I was never in touch with."

While yoga teachers can often impress us with feats such as holding kumbak (breath retention) for a long period, or balancing the body in fantastic pretzel like positions, the fact is that yogis are human too. Yoga teachers are just as vulnerable to the gamut of unforeseen human experiences as everybody else. The gift of yoga is a growing spiritual awareness that accompanies us through whatever experience life throws our way. A life of yoga practice doesn't necessarily shield us from difficult and problematic situations so much as facilitate the evolution of a spiritual foundation that remains no matter what is happening in our lives.

1 Sanskrit word for illusion
2 Sanskrit word for the pathway on the left side of the body, linked to right side of the brain and associated with congnizing power or thought
3 Sanskrit word for the pathway on the right side of the body , linked to left side of the brain and associated with action


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