The yoga of cultivating care
I lived on the Big Island of Hawaii in 1990. During that year a longtime yoga teacher based in Seattle, Aadil Palkhivala, frequented the Big Island to teach workshops. I was fortunate to get to work with him a number of times.
One of his workshops was held in a venue that usually accommodated tumbling and wrestling, so the floor was covered with massive gym mats of the type I hadn’t seen since grade school. Aadil took the opportunity to have us all practice jumping across the floor in Chaturanga Dandasana, the ubiquitous push-up position that peppers so many flow-class sequences. If we crashed, we’d be falling on a nice, soft surface, making the process a lot less risky and a lot more fun.
I knew I would need to be as unfettered as possible for the Chaturanga “race,” so I pulled off my hoodie, wadded it up and tossed it against the wall. Aadil abruptly stopped explaining what we were about to do and reprimanded me for so carelessly tossing my sweatshirt aside. “You’re a teacher,” he said. “You need to set an example for your students. When you carelessly toss your sweatshirt around you’re showing them that carelessness is okay.”
I picked up my hoodie, folded it neatly and set it carefully against the wall. “That’s much better!” he said. Since then I have treated my clothing and yoga props—and now pretty much everything else in my daily life—with more mindful care.
While I have sometimes chuckled at the memory of Aadil’s admonition, I actually took it quite seriously, and still do. If yoga practice doesn’t inspire me to move through my life with mindfulness, respect and care, then it’s not really working.
I’m very grateful for Aadil’s wake-up call. While I was a little embarrassed at the time to be called out on something I thought was trivial, it made an impression that has changed the way I live in the world.
Practicing, teaching and living sustainably
Recently a friend told me about a teacher training she observed at the studio where she teaches. After their session, the trainees stuffed the blankets, bolsters and blocks they’d been using haphazardly into the shelves where they’re stored. My friend asked the teacher trainer if she could make the trainees aware of the importance of storing their props neatly so that the studio would be set up for the next teacher. The teacher trainer shrugged it off, saying, “They’re focused on their practice, not on being neat!” My friend replied, “But that is the practice.”
She’s right. Many yoga practitioners endeavor to live sustainably. This includes not only being aware of what and how much we consume, but also whether we act responsibly in the context of our community. When we live carelessly, in a very real sense, we are ignoring the foundations of yoga.
Ahimsa (non-harming) is the first of the ethical precepts of yoga, the yamas, which are the first of the eight limbs of yoga. Ahimsa is the cornerstone of yoga practice. We all live in community, with those with whom we interact in the present, and with those who will come after. Our actions have consequences. When we leave a yoga studio—or by extension, our planet—in disarray, we are essentially expecting someone else to clean up the mess we’ve made.
I doubt that most teacher trainers encourage their students to be careless in their instructions, demonstrations and physical assists. The same holds true with how we treat our physical surroundings and the tools we use for teaching and living. This is just as important as learning about poses, and will likely have a more far-reaching impact on whether they simply become pose instructors or evolve someday into yoga teachers.
I learned a whole lot from Aadil back in my Hawaii days. But by far, the most important thing he taught was the importance of modeling what you want your students to learn—walking your talk. A teacher in the yoga tradition is not just a person who can talk you through a killer sequence; a yoga teacher is a person who is walking a path that leads in the direction of wisdom, kindness, respect, compassion, authenticity and peace of mind. The care with which you fold your hoodie, store your yoga props, assist your yoga students, care for your studio or living space, treat your family and friends, and nurture the planet we live on paves the path to peace.
Charlotte Bell has been practicing yoga since 1982. She is the author of several yoga-related books and founder of Mindful Yoga Collective in Salt Lake City. CharlotteBellYoga.com