Are You a “Practitioner”?

Part 2 of a three-part series

My ears perked up when Abhijata recounted her yoga beginnings during Q&A one day. In 2000, when she was 16 or 17, Abhi moved to Pune to attend college. Curious about yoga, she began taking classes with her aunt, Geeta, and uncle, Prashant. In the yoga hall, she’d take a spot in the back, along with her grandfather. They’d talk and he’d offer hints when she was struggling. That created a bond between the two. “It was more grandfather-granddaughter than guru-shishya at this point,” she said.

By 2005, she’d gotten her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She planned to pursue a PhD in bioinformatics, but opted to take a year’s break from academics to focus on yoga. At that point, she said, “I became a practitioner. Before, I was only taking classes.”

Throughout the intensive, Abhi used the word “practitioner” to mean longtime, committed students. For example, after teaching us how to enhance Adho Mukha Svanasana with exhalation, she said, “If you felt something new and learned something new, good. But, remember, the practitioner always does it this way.”

Independent Learning

What does it mean to be a practitioner? One essential is probably “home practice,” the yoga term of art for independent solo practice.

When I discovered yoga in Berkeley the late 1990s, I was hooked on classes, taking as many as possible with my first teacher. Once, chatting with a more experienced classmate, I noted her recent absence. “You missed a great class!” I said.

“I wanted to go,” she replied, “but I also wanted to do my own practice.” What? I was taken aback. Miss class to do random stuff at home?

A couple of years in, I got it. Almost subconsciously, I made time for “home practice.” If my actual home space didn’t work, I’d go elsewhere—gym, community centre, wherever I could set my mat and claim a spot of privacy, even in public. In my mind, I was solitary, focused, and free.

Youngsters and Oldsters

The 300+ Zoom audience was diverse, spanning Canada’s six time zones and a range of experience levels and age. Thus Abhi often gave alternate poses. While teaching a strenuous pose, she’d say, “Now immediately do Adho Mukha Vrksasana again. The elderly, if you’ve had enough jumpings, do Uttanasana. You did all of that in your prime already.”

There was frequent distinction between “youngsters” and “oldsters.” One participant joked in a Zoom chat message, “How do you know if you’re a youngster?” (Abhi laughed and commented that in her 20s, she considered that age group to be youngsters; now, as she approaches 40, her definition is broadening. Ultimately, she said, “It’s up to you to answer.”)

I know many fit, active practitioners in their 70s and 80s—and I wondered if they cringed at the categories and assumptions. But asana is only one aspect of yoga. I realized that Abhi considered oldsters to be senior practitioners—those who could grasp her finer points, especially in pranayama.

When she worked on the breath, she gave two streams of instructions: For beginners, she focused on basic posture (“Coil the armpits from back to front”), the outer body; for senior practitioners, she included breath retention and touched on the inner body.

Senior practitioners exemplify the three imperatives of Yoga Sutra 1.14: Your practice becomes firmly rooted when done with keenness, without interruption, for a long time. What is “a long time”? In Iyengar yoga, it means decades and the body gradually, inevitably changes.

Abhi asked, “How should a practitioner face aging? Try to beat it, go against it, postpone it? Or accept it and let go?”

“Well, I knew a grand old man at 95,” she continued, “and he was not the type to just accept it.” But, she said, “he did not use blind willpower to attain what his brain wanted. His body was his guide. He saw reality and adjusted what needed it.” She went on to describe the challenging backbend pose Kapotasana and his using different props on different days.

Maybe the key to being a true practitioner is simply to see clearly. What is reality? What is appropriate? What is yoga for me in this moment?

Yoga is Not the Only Practice

If you’re feeling guilty for “only” taking yoga classes, ask yourself whether yoga is your practice in the first place. Your practice might be something else.

Perhaps a decade ago, I taught my dad several yoga poses during a trip to Hilo, Hawaii, my hometown. An active senior, he was outdoorsy and an avid golfer, but his posture needed yoga, I thought. My mini lessons were just that, half an hour max, whenever we both had free time, maybe before dinner or a ball game on TV.

I wanted him to try a local class, to express more interest. I eventually gave up, before finally realizing that he’s always had his own practice—farming, gardening, working the land. (To his credit, he still regularly does the mini sequence that I prescribed!)

Every day he spends time outside, tending his vegetable crops, fruit trees, grassy lawns and ornamentals. He’s the type of person who, returning from a trip, immediately—before changing clothes or opening mail or unpacking—waters the plants. He composted our produce scraps decades before composting was cool. To take a break from sweaty labor, he sits for hours shaping his bonsai.

During his working years, he’d spend every Saturday at his farm lot, halfway between Hilo and Volcano, about 15 miles from home. He grew banana plants for sale, shaped Norfolk pines and Portuguese cypress into local Christmas trees, and picked fruit—from pineapples and avocados to jaboticaba and other “acquired taste” tropical species. Those solo Saturday outings—week after week, year after year—were his own informal, independent workshops.

If my dad does a bit of yoga to improve his posture (and especially his golf), I do a bit of gardening to beautify my home. I can enjoy it, but in small doses.

We become practitioners of what truly matters to us.

Community and Connection

Until recently, I’d attend one weekly yoga class and as many workshops as I could squeeze into my schedule. Then, a year or two before the pandemic, I backed away from workshops and even from classes with my favorite teacher. I was feeling “information overload.” (I was also splitting my practice time between yoga and dog training.)

Throughout the pandemic, I hunkered down with my own practice. I wasn’t planning to attend Abhijata’s six-day intensive in May. But I suddenly felt restless and needed to shake up my routine.

Six consecutive classes in real time were just what I needed. But what dialed in the experience was repetition. We had access to class recordings for two weeks, so I repeated each class twice—on the same day, at the same time (6 to 8 am for West Coasters).

The intensive fired up my home practice and reset my daily routine an hour earlier. It also reminded me of the value of community, something I typically take for granted. Watching colleagues perform impeccable asana as “demonstrators”; seeing familiar names and faces in the Zoom gallery; knowing that hundreds of us were simultaneously doing the same pose—reminded me that I wouldn’t be a yoga practitioner if not for other practitioners.

Images: Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute, Pune, India, August 2014, Luci Yamamoto.

6 comments

  1. Such a thought-provoking and apropos article, Luci. So many things in our lives have been changed by this pandemic that schedules, activities, routines, and even our philosophies have had to adapt or die. But I suppose this has always been true–all we need to do is look at technology, medicine, even food, music, fashion, etc. But I love the idea that, no matter what one’s yoga or passion is, yogic thinking can help us let go of practices that may no longer work, open up ourselves to trying new ideas, moving inward when our bodies or minds call for it, or communing with other like-minded people when we feel that urge. I too have applied this thinking to my my other interests–reading, growing, massage–and each of these interests have expanded in the past year because of my new openness to trying different genres, strains, techniques. And, yes, while many of us believe that we are only as old as we feel… that age is only a number… we only live once, so we need to make the most of finding and practicing our yogas, whatever they may be. Thanks Luci.

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    1. Thanks, Keith, for your comment, which prompted me to think… Sticking to a practice. Being open to change. They can seem counterintuitive. Maybe we should be open to different practices throughout life. The trouble is that most things take “a long time” to take root! Aloha from Vancouver.

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  2. Wonderful read, Luci. You brought the course right back to life with all your interesting observations and insights. Lovely to hear about your life in Hilo, too, and your father’s ‘practice.’ I just looked up some of your Lonely Planet books on Hawaii!

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    1. I wrote about my dad to make clear that yoga is not the only way. A practice might be playing an instrument, swimming, or even fully inhabiting a role (parent, partner, etc). Thanks for commenting, Dianne! BTW, until I became a Lonely Planet author, I took Hawaii for granted.

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  3. Hi Luci: I, too, liked hearing a little about your dad and his garden – then the parallel you drew with yoga practice. As you say, ‘we become practitioners of what truly matters to us.’ Lovely! (My dad was a quiet composter long before it was de rigueur as well!)

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