Recently I watched the film “Awake” about Paramahansa Yogananda. In one of my favorite scenes, a devotee recalls a conversation with Yogananda where he asks the guru what activities he could continue to do while studying with Yoganandya.
Yogananda asks the man, “Do you smoke cigarettes?” The man answers, “yes.” Yogananda replies, “You can do that.” Yoganadanda then asks him, “Do you drink alcohol?” The man replies, “yes.” Yogananda says, “You can do that.” Then, Yogananda asks the man, “Do you have relations with the opposite sex?” The man responds, “yes.” Yogananda says again, “You can do that…”
"But, you may find that you do not want to do these things so much anymore.”
This idea reminded me greatly of when I first began studying with my teacher Yogiraj Alan Finger. I was in one of his meditation classes and he said, “You don’t have to stop doing anything. Just start doing this (meditation).“
That was a turning point for me: There was no judgment attached to his statement. It came from an open heart and also, a knowing, and confidence, in the techniques.
It was also an offer I could accept at that time. I enjoyed the physical practice, but remained hesitant about meditation. I was also a bit turned off by all of the things that one seemed to have to do – or not do – to practice yoga. I’m not sure if I understood that what my teacher implied was what Yogananda had stated, but the parallel now is clear: I might not have the desire to do some of the things I was doing anymore, once my practice became more rooted.
When I began my teacher training I was still smoking at the time… quite a bit, actually. And something funny happened as I continued practicing… smoking just sort of gave me up. This activity, that had become such a part of my identity, began to leave me. I was smoking less and less until I wasn’t. I just did not want it anymore.
I do not mean to say quitting cigarettes - or any habit - is an easy thing. But when we practice, we connect with spirit. When we sit in our own true divine nature, even if we are just catching glimpses of it, we cannot help but begin to move away from things that do not resonate with that true nature. It is not something for most of us that happens overnight, but upon dedicated practice.
What I think makes these gurus mentioned here stand out is there is little preaching and instead, lots of practice. This is why it is so important for teachers to have a personal practice. Not just fancy poses... but truly connecting with the quiet within. It is with practice we begin to move more from love, and it is in the practice of stillness where the healing happens. Through our physical and meditation practice, we learn to respond rather than react.
There is also a willingness I have noticed in my teachers to meet students where they are, and encourage a practice from that space. I used to have a stronger reaction to some of the “newer” yoga classes. However, because of my practice and my teachers’ approaches, I have stepped back from the judgment and see them now as a place for students to begin stepping on their mats. When we connect movement and breath in the physical body it is extremely powerful (hear Leslie Kaminoff as I think he makes a few great points.) It makes so much sense for many of us to start there, and there is no doubt in my mind that just as I began to catch those glimpses of something greater, so do those students.
Many times, students who begin with a very different type of practice, do make their way to my class. What I say might resonate with them, and it might not. I always hope to come from a place of love and humility. I hope to meet them with an open mind and heart, as my teachers have met me - because it made all the difference.