Yogic Learning (or, What Learning To Teach Taught Me)

As the mind and body are connected, so we are connected to everyone and everything, be it the entire ecosystem of the planet, all living beings within it, or our personal relationships with those beings — we are, all of us, made from starstuff. But all too often we dismiss it as mumbo-jumbo or find it just too vast a concept to wrap our heads around. I wanted to explore why and learning to teach yoga proved to be my way in, providing a deep appreciation for persistence, practice and patience.

The challenges of living in a modern western economy are well documented.

It’s easy to do nothing when you’re travelling at speed, yoked to a relentless stream of digital crack, populations have evolved into attention economies, yanked every which way by competing market forces.

Instead of being handed the promise of freedom, we’ve experienced the paralysis of choice, losing our ability to use our time, energy and resources responsibly. Hyper-connected and yet increasingly isolated, we are splintered and lacking in focus, both individually and as a society.

In the recent Reith Lectures, previous Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, spoke of how we have come to esteem financial value over human value and that we have transitioned from market economies to market societies. Much of our economic system is predicated on growth and we are programmed and encouraged to consume more.

But countless studies have shown that the more we consume, the less satisfied we become. One of the most powerful antidotes to this state of suffering has been guiding people to find the still centre within themselves for millennia, tracing its origins back for around four and half thousand years.

Global, de-centralised, open source and operating on a series of enduing principles and philosophies, yoga in all its forms offers not just physical and mental balance, but a roadmap from the misery of me to the wellbeing of we.

Why I decided to train

I’ve been practicing Yoga regularly for about ten years. Like many people new to the discipline, I initially saw it as a physical practice, a way of staying in shape. But increasingly I became fascinated by its history and deeper teachings. Back in 2019, my teachers Cat and her husband Phil, founders of Sangyé Yoga School, encouraged me to consider teacher training. It seemed a surprising suggestion, certainly one better suited to a supple twenty-something surfing a wave of wellness, but Cat persisted. I’d discover more about Buddhism, Hinduism, anatomy, ethics, the concept of emptiness, impermanence and critically why the discipline of the physical practice was the key to stilling the mind and reducing distraction.

This was no easy undertaking; far from a nice little sabbatical from life, it was difficult. To be accepted you had to pass an assessment, submit references and bring serious reflection to what makes you tick and why this might benefit you and others. You then had to seriously commit to a regular, almost daily practice of 90 minutes of strong vinyasa where emphasis is placed on breath and movement, daily meditation, journaling, an essay and talk on an aspect of yoga and seven modules of between two and five days over a space of five months. To graduate we were welcomed by a written exam and a practical teaching test. There was resistance at home too. How did I propose to manage work commitments and continue to be a good husband and father? There was much discomfort. But from that discomfort emerged a path of discovery, friendship and support. Since completing the course I have had time to think about what it really all means, the amazing people I met and its wider influence on me, my work and my world.

Where I came from

I’ve been lucky enough to work in a (mostly happily, occasionally successfully) corporate career and experience the highs and lows of being an entrepreneur. More recently I’ve been working as a professional coach to entrepreneurs and executives, so I was not new to the game of helping others fulfil their potential. But I could never have predicted how becoming a yoga teacher would inform my business and coaching practice in such fundamental ways. I had unknowingly been working towards this for a long time, so it was less a radical departure than a coalescence of ideas which had been permeating for years. The demands of training to be a yoga teacher have brought new clarity, focus and depth to my coaching practice.

Bringing the principles of yoga into business may seem contradictory, if not diametrically opposed. How can stillness, unconditional generosity and the abolition of the ego possibly align with the cut and thrust of commerce? How do you support and engage all those involved in an enterprise and serve the profit imperative while practicing non-attachment? It may seem wholly counter-intuitive, but I believe that yoga’s simple yet profound teachings can enhance our effectiveness as people, leaders and businesses.

I am not talking about yoga as yet another consumable or tick in the box of desirable lifestyle pursuits. What I’m proposing is something far quieter yet radically transformational.

The Disease of More

Consumerism is a difficult cycle to escape, not least because it taps into our basic drives for survival. We are motivated to secure food, shelter and procreate. Get a job, buy a house and feed your family — nothing wrong with that. But taken to its extreme, we strive for the bigger job to buy a bigger house, eat at smarter restaurants and have the Instagrammable perfect family. If we work hard enough, or get lucky, we secure those things only to find we are still not satisfied so we keep striving to reach the next peak. It’s a cycle that not only makes us unhappy, but selfish. If you are driven by the need for more, it is very difficult to give without feeling anxious or expecting something in return.

But giving, like striving, is a habit. If giving were commonplace we would forge valuable connections to each other and our communities, quelling the need for more stuff. It’s a cliché that those with the least give the most, because it’s true. The majority of wealthy people are not philanthropists and many of the middle classes clasp their riches close to their chests on the grounds that they worked hard for it. Getting off the wheel isn’t easy.

How does yoga address this?

Here in the West, we usually think of yoga as physical form of exercise. I’ve learned that is actually a very small ingredient of the whole. Yoga is a way of living, a philosophy, offering a path to detachment from the cycle of restlessness and want. We are all familiar with the physical postures of yoga, but the asanas are about so much more than strengthening the body and increasing flexibility. Their true function is to focus the mind and develop an awareness of the moment. This is critical because It is only in this moment that we can achieve contentment. Contentment might sound like a watered down version of happiness, but it is the only conduit to lasting joy. It is not the temporary high that comes from getting a job, getting a pay rise or getting the girl. It is a profound sense of well-being that comes from acceptance of whatever is, in that moment. We stop fighting. We relax.

We are so unaccustomed to serenity that it can feel strange to begin with.

The mind alone cannot get us to this state of contentment, the body has to lead. Increasingly, modern medicine recognises what yoga has been claiming for millennia — that the body and mind are one integrated single system. By directing the mind toward the body via the bridge of the breath we achieve calm focus. It is a highly pragmatic approach. All too often we actually forget to breathe slowly and deeply. Many who struggle to meditate will nonetheless find themselves in a state of calm contentment while peeling potatoes or painting a door frame. The key is the physical, practical task which absorbs the mind without placing too many demands on it. Our monkey brains, continually evaluating, comparing and sorting a huge range of information, leap from one thing to the next. It is an evolutionary adaptability which makes modern life with all its competing demands possible. Everything is constantly changing, ourselves included.

Within seven years, every cell in your body has renewed, nothing about you remains; you are new. We cannot escape change, nor can we avoid the noise of life and our own minds. Yoga shows us a way to find acceptance and a stillness within that. It offers us respite and brings us home to ourselves.

Be Here Now

As the mind and body are connected, so we are connected to everyone and everything; whether it be our relationships, all living beings or the entire ecosystem of the planet…the universe.

But all too often we simply can’t feel it, dismiss it as mumbo-jumbo or find it just too vast a concept to wrap our heads around. Take for example the simple example of where the planet’s oxygen is made — mostly our oceans and coral reefs.

No matter who you are, where you live or how much money you have, you will be affected by the oceans and reefs, the efficacy of our forests. In fact the more I think about it, the more the relevance of water deepens to this journey — we’re mostly made of it, the world is mostly made of it and it can illustrate almost perfectly the freedom that wading towards self mastery can provide.

“When we look at the ocean, we see that each wave has a beginning and an end. A wave can be compared with other waves, and we can call it more or less beautiful, higher or lower, longer lasting or less long lasting. But if we look more deeply, we see that a wave is made of water. While living the life of a wave, the wave also lives the life of water. It would be sad if the wave did not know that it is water. It would think, ‘Some day I will have to die. This period of time is my life span, and when I arrive at the shore, I will return to nonbeing.’

These notions will cause the wave fear and anguish. A wave can be recognized by signs — beginning or ending, high or low, beautiful or ugly. In the world of the wave, the world of relative truth, the wave feels happy as she swells, and she feels sad as she falls. She may think, ‘I am high!’ or ‘I am low!’ and develop superiority or inferiority complexes, but in the world of the water there are no signs, and when the wave touches her true nature — which is water — all of her complexes will cease, and she will transcend birth and death,”

— Thích Nhất Hạnh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation

There are no boundaries. We are an interconnected whole. While we in the West are in thrall to individualism — with the hefty persuasion of market economies — in the East the emphasis has traditionally been placed far more on the group, communities or society as a whole.

The practice of yoga will not suddenly change all the ills of our world but it does bring us into a greater awareness of this interconnectedness, as well as the idea of surrender being our greatest strenght — an idea shared by many spiritual practices. Just ask Bruce Lee, the Buddha or Thích Nhất Hạnh about being like water…

The stillness, calm and quiet which comes from the practice of yoga has profound potential to change our attitudes and behaviour simply by rooting us in the moment. Strength in the moment and of the mind.

Yoga is a recognition that individual acts have collective consequences; it creates awareness of the effect we have on others and helps us to consider how we interact with friends, family and colleagues. It has the power to positively impact our own psyche and relationships, the bedrock on which our lives are built.

Find fulfilment and integrity in your work

Stilling the mind from chatter brings focus and effectiveness to our working lives. Our brains, so good at working on six jobs simultaneously, (and doing none of them properly) might slow down sufficiently so that we can bring productive focus to a single task before moving on to the next. We might actually begin to enjoy our work. Imagine. Critically, stilling the mind also allows us to reach one of yoga’s great objectives; to detach from the drives of our ego. The ego grasps onto people and objects, is hard-wired to beat the competition and emerge victorious. It’s a modus operandi which works well in a commercial and entrepreneurial environment that demands tenacity, drive and even a streak of ruthlessness. But it also builds mistrust, grandstanding and the need to win sometimes at others expense.

Bringing respect, integrity, compassion, honesty and even a sense of gratitude to the competitive arena of business initially seems all kinds of wrong. But making the leap from wanting to appreciating would revolutionise our relationship with ourselves, our families, our communities and ultimately the planet itself.

If the objectives of business were driven by sustainable objectives, the wheels of commerce would keep turning in a way that would allow our fractured societies and our planet to heal. If we lowered our expectations so that we used only what we needed and became satisfied with that, we might find contentment. My fellow Teacher Trainers were an inspiration. Together during the months, as we trained together, step by step, what originally seemed impossible became possible. We had to persist, remain patient and practice again and again.

Best of all, yoga helps us start on a journey of self-mastery and connection with others. We get to determine for ourselves how we feel. It’s a paradox, but by surrendering we gain control. Contentment can be a choice, one which removes so much of the angst from our daily lives. If we can practice acceptance and liberate ourselves from our desires, we can choose to behave in ways that are compassionate and respectful.

And as we behave, so we believe, so we become.

“saṃtoṣādanuttamaḥ sukhalābhaḥ: from contentment (saṁtoṣāt), supreme (anuttamaḥ) joy (sukha) is attained (lābhaḥ)”

— Patanjali, Yoga Sutras Book 2, Sūtra 42

Steven is the Founding Partner at Advisory and Coaching Practice WhiteCap.

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