Unlearning Yoga: Discovering New Truths
Photo by Amelia
For more than 15 years, I studied with the same yoga teacher. I learned what she had been taught, in the way she had been taught. Her limitations were my limitations. She wasn’t strong in handstand or arm balances like Bakasana (Crow Pose), so they weren’t a part of our practice. She didn’t study the chakras, so neither did I. My likes and dislikes were hers.
As an accredited instructor in one style of yoga, I learned only that style and the prescriptions that went along with it. Cat/cow (Chakravakasana)? Never! Shoulder stand (Salamba Sarvanghasana) without a blanket for neck protection? You’re asking for an injury. Breath control (Pranayama)? Not until you’ve been a regular yoga practitioner for at least a year.
Later, when I signed up for additional training elsewhere, I held firmly to the ways I had been taught to practice certain poses despite my new teachers’ instructions. And I wasn’t just attached to the things I’d learned from my long-time teacher—I found that I was actually hostile to anything that deviated from what she taught or practiced.
Unlearning is harder than learning. Letting go is harder than holding on. These are truths that yoga teaches if we’re willing to listen.
Getting to that place is difficult, but once you’re there, a whole new world of yoga can open. And you don’t need an obsessive attachment to an old teacher to figure it out—you just have to pay attention.
You may have heard a teacher or someone in class say that “all yoga is good yoga.” What they usually mean is that whether you choose to practice in a heated room, with music or no music, props or no props—practicing attention to breath, supporting the physical body and brining your mind into presence is good for you. And in that way, that statement is true. Lengthening and strengthening your muscles activates your parasympathetic nervous system. Your mind quiets. Yoga just makes you feel better!
But it might be that we’re missing another layer of meaning, which is that you’ve got to bridge together all aspects of the practice. Limiting yourself to just the asana part—and in my case, also attaching absolutes to the asana—misses the larger benefits of yoga. You miss the yoga that leads to to live in the moment, the yoga that helps you cultivate patience and to detach from habits and ideas you’ve attained over the course of your life. The good yoga helps you become more receptive and less judgmental.
That’s where unlearning comes in. Once I let go of my attachment, I was able to open myself to new styles of yoga, new asanas, new variations and new explorations I’d not been taught by my long-time teacher. The result? Balance, which is what we’re ultimately after. I started to find inspiration instead of hostility in workshops and new classes, and came away with a sense of confidence and humility.
I’ve come to realize that unlearning must be a regular part of my practice. Just as the body remembers every broken bone or pulled muscle, the mind remembers old ways of thinking, too.
I still practice with my long-time teacher and will always feel most comfortable with the style of yoga she teaches. But now when I step on my mat I do so with the knowledge that unlearning—or more specifically, letting go and being present in the moment I’m actually in—is just as important as learning. And in that way, learning and unlearning become one and the same.