Go to the Front of the Class

Check your ego and learn something new

Until just recently, I’ve been guilty of hiding out in the back row of my yoga class, afraid of exposing off the roll of, well, fat, that has accumulated around my middle this year. In the past several weeks, though, I’ve been trying to get over my ego and bow to my teacher’s request: the more advanced students should always practice in the front (bulging cellulite and all).

I was feeling very magnanimous about this, until the new girl arrived. She was young and beautiful, and could lower her legs from a perfect handstand at a snail’s pace. At first, my competition flared up; but as I started watching her more carefully, something wonderful happened: I began to experience all these little “ah-ha!” moments as she modified poses, demonstrated things I’d never thought of before, and showed me how to expand my practice.

Which got me thinking about the role of “demonstrators” in yoga—those specifically selected by the teacher, and those whose more advanced practices serve as an inspiration to us all.

For a better perspective, I spoke with three different New York instructors: Heather Shaw of Mala Yoga, Shri Yoga owner Elizabeth Rossa, and my owner teacher extraordinaire, Sasha Slocombe of the Park Slope Yoga Center.

Do we need demonstrators in a yoga class?

Shaw: In my former life I was a dancer, and my most influential teachers always had us dance without any mirrors. The thought was that it’s not really about what it looks like as much as about what it feels like—that you will really be in tune with the way dancing, or yoga, is meant to be if you’re not constantly looking around outside of yourself.

Rossa: If the group is very deep into their practice and they’re doing fine, then I won’t have a demonstration. If I it seems everyone could use a visual, I’ll find someone who is confident and inspirational and then point out some of the certain anatomical alignment points.

Slocombe: I don’t love it in a vinyasa class. But if something’s happening, like if everyone’s doing handstands and then all of sudden there’s somebody in the room doing something really amazing, I might say, ‘Here we go, you all are seeing something live that normally we only see on the Dharma Mittra poster. Isn’t it beautiful and exciting?’

When you DO use demonstrators, how do you do it?heather from malasite

Shaw: I tend to teach in all directions, so there isn’t a front and a back because the room moves around in a circle, or a mandala. Once the whole room turns around, the people in the back are suddenly in the front. People feel shy, but I’m trying to get them out of the habit of always doing things the same way.

Rossa: I look for the person who has a confidence and radiance to the pose so people aren’t going to be intimidated, but inspired. The demonstrations should not be used as a how-to-manual. I’ve always learned my most difficult poses on my own, by trying it over and over.

Slocombe: One of the things I love about the way John Friend demos is that he doesn’t always pick the person who looks like they would have the most beautiful practice. He finds a way to use all different kinds of experience levels and body types and ages and sizes, to really illuminate what’s beautiful in everyone.

Do demonstrations provoke competition?

Shaw: There’s always going to be someone who you think does it better than you or is prettier than you. There’s always this part of you that’s putting yourself down, or saying, ‘I should be more, I should be better,’ and that’s really like the false ego saying ‘I’m separate,’ ‘I’m not worthy,’ or ‘I’m better than this person.’ Every time you say ‘I’m better than—’ or ‘not as good as,’ you’re confirming your separation from that person.

j.crew  elizabetheRossa: A lot of people won’t practice yoga because it’s not a competitive sport, but then there are some people who really love competition. I think a very effective yoga teacher is going to be sensitive to yoga not becoming competitive. Nowadays, it’s, ‘can you do a handstand and fall into a chaturanga, come up into a cobra and somehow jump back to the handstand?’ But, is that really necessary for enlightenment?

Slocombe: I think for those who are more, part of the practice is managing the ego. Most of us have to manage thoughts like, ‘oh my God I can’t do this,’ or ‘this is hard,’ but for people who have really advanced practices, they need to work on just stepping back.

How do we work with our ego when watching others?

Shaw: I have a person who I run into a lot from the yoga community, and every time I’m behind this person I’m like, ‘grrr, grumble grumble,’ and lately I’ve had to be like, ‘okay, every time I’m behind this person, it must mean she’s is here because I’m supposed to work on this issue.’ It has nothing to do really about what I can or can’t do, but everything to do with me facing this part of myself over and over again.

Rossa: Most people don’t want to be in the front because there’s a perception that somehow they’re going to be looked at the whole time. Yoga is so intense, the only people who really look are beginners, who are feeling awkward because they really don’t know what they’re doing. Frankly, those beginners are not judging what people look like, because they’re freaking out.

Slocombe: The practice is like a flower. Sometimes, you’re moving into the blossom, sometimes you’re at the point where it’s at its full fruition. There’s nothing any less beautiful about the bud. There’s value in moving through each stage to get to the ultimate place.

Shell Fischer

Ego On The Mat… I Suck / I’m Great

yogacitynyc | 06 May, 2009 07:40

This week YogaCity NYC has a story about checking your ego at the door when you come into a class. Our site’s good friend and early supporter Elizabeth Rossa, founder of Shri Yoga, is quoted in the article; “Nowadays, it’s can you do a handstand and fall into a chaturanga, come up into a cobra and somehow jump back to handstand? But, is that really necessary for enlightenment?”

Her comment and the subject of the article got me thinking about all those times my teachers ask me to bind, bend forward, twist, or worse, do any combination of the three. It is still, and will probably always be, a difficult process for me to truly let go of my ego in those moments and remember that it not the destination but the journey that holds the fruit of the practice.

Others have reactions similar to mine when handstand, headstand, or backbends are called but since I do these with relative ease, I don’t get all caught up in defeating myself; although my ego sometimes works the other way and gets me to ”show off” my skills. When I catch myself and my ego in such a moment of adoration, I come out of the pose and reflect on why those feelings of getting noticed are so important to me.

Over the past 8 years, my ego has gone through a major revision. My hips are a little looser and my body is stronger but I know that the deeper aspects of what I am attempting to learn are tightly bound up in the images I have of myself and how I express them on my mat.

Sometimes I think I should be able to do something that I can’t and sometimes I think I can do something better than anyone else around me. Neither attitude reflects the mature ability to be satisfied with where I am in the moment or a truly advanced practice.

Still I try.