Asana, Philosophy, Quotes, Yoga off the mat

On Unlearning

Photo by Vlada Karpovich on Pexels.com

I find I turn to Mary Oliver’s poetry a lot at the turn of the seasons. No one quite captures the lessons of each time of year the way she does. Here’s one of her poems as we head into summer:

Just as the Calendar Began to Say Summer

I went out of the schoolhouse fast

and through the gardens and to the woods,

and spent all summer forgetting what I’d been taught —

two times two, and diligence, and so forth,

how to be modest and useful, and how to succeed, and so forth,

machines and oil and plastic and money and so forth.

By fall I had healed somewhat, but was summoned back

to the chalky rooms and the desks, to sit and remember

the way the river kept rolling its pebbles,

the way the wild wrens sang though they hadn’t a penny in the bank,

the way the flowers were dressed in nothing but light.


I was one who enjoyed school. Even so, I find my yoga practice is often one of unlearning things I’ve been taught, whether it was in a yoga class, in school, or in another context. The kind of inquiry that’s embedded in yoga practice leads there, I think, by definition as I remember that I am embodied, that I am wise, that I am perfect as I am.

Unlearning: The teacher is in charge.

Many of us learned this one in school. The teacher is in charge, and you have to do what the teacher says. I’m not going to delve into whether that’s appropriate in grade school, but I do know that it’s not – it cannot be – how it is in yoga class. If we’re to follow the principles of yoga – things like not doing harm, honesty, discernment, and internal reflection – the teacher absolutely cannot be in charge of your yoga practice.

I tell my 7-year-old that she’s the boss of her body, and I want to live in a world where that’s true.

In my classes, you are absolutely in charge of your own practice. That doesn’t mean I get to renege on my responsibilities as a teacher. To the contrary, it’s my job to teach the possibilities, the avenues of inquiry, the building of embodied awareness, and the teachings of yoga to the best of my ability. And you get to choose what you do with that.

You don’t have to do anything I say. Ever.

Having said that, this learning is so ingrained it can be hard to go against what the teacher is saying, or against what everyone else in the room is doing. The unlearning requires practice in easier contexts, as when Mary Oliver escaped to the woods to learn from the river and the wrens and the flowers. I hope that I create such a context in my classes and private sessions, and I’m also a big fan of home practice, even if it’s just five minutes, or taking an online class with your camera off and doing whatever feels good.

Unlearning: Ignore what your body is telling you.

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As children, we often learn that there are times to eat, and times to ignore your hunger. That we need to eat what’s put in front of us regardless of how we feel about it. That there are times when we can use the bathroom, and times when we can move, and that other times we need to sit still and be quiet.

I work with a lot of adults who are really good at ignoring the messages from their bodies. I am too. I can blow by all the signals that my body needs to move or shift position until I have three days of back pain.

The unlearning process is two-fold: becoming aware of the sensations that are our bodies’ way of communicating, and building a toolkit of responses that are helpful and supportive of greater wellbeing. This kind of unlearning is one of the main areas where I support my clients as a therapeutic yoga teacher, as well as where I’ve spent a lot of time working myself.

Unlearning: There’s a right way and a wrong way, and it applies to everyone.

These are all Downward Facing Dog.

This is a big one. After so much being rewarded for getting it right, it seems preposterous to consider that there might not be a right and wrong way to do everything. We take the right-or-wrong viewpoint from our culture and apply it in our yoga classes and trainings. When I first learned to teach yoga, I memorized a lot of rules – only to find that my students and I were sustaining injuries. Ten years later, I’ve come to understand that variety and options are really important if we’re going to make yoga practice accessible for everyone and reduce harm.

Now, not having a right and wrong way doesn’t mean that anything goes. This is where the embodied awareness I mentioned above comes in. What’s right for you might be very wrong for me, and what’s right for me today might be different tomorrow. So how do we know how to do the practice? We observe ourselves as we practice, and based on the results of that inquiry, we make adjustments.

Suffering shouldn’t be part of your yoga practice. You don’t need to struggle, and you don’t need to be uncomfortable. There are no goals: not more flexibility, not making particular shapes with the body, not even more peace of mind – although sometimes these things do come about.

A big part of this unlearning is questioning the teaching of particular shapes, alignments, or actions within yoga postures, and questioning the emphasis on achieving postures itself. There are actually lots of options for moving the body, and lots of different things we can explore through any one pose or practice.

These grey areas can be a little overwhelming if you’re a person who enjoys right and wrong, as I am. They are also liberating and healing.

Unlearning: You need to be busy and productive.

I came by this one honestly – and I think many of us can say that. I have learned to stay busy, to achieve, to do my best, to have something to show for my time. I learned that to rest is lazy.

In my late 20s, I was working a very busy and stressful job, and I found Gentle Yoga. I truly think it saved me during that time, and it’s a practice that’s always been important to me. That being said, I’m only now (over 15 years later), starting to really integrate the lessons from yoga practice into my life. Which is to say, I’m very much a beginner.

You deserve to rest. You deserve to do things you enjoy.

It’s not only appropriate to ask for help, it’s necessary.

There is nothing to prove and nothing to achieve.

There is, in fact, nothing to do.

Learning and unlearning

I think I’m drawn to Mary Oliver’s poetry because she learned so deeply from observing nature. These days, I’m trying to bring more of the rhythms of nature into my daily life and not just when I’m on vacation. I’m seeing where I can use the lessons of the river and the flowers to build up a new way of doing things to fill in what I’m subtracting from my life. I imagine I’ll be doing the work of unlearning for as long as I live, and that’s OK because there’s nothing to achieve here. Nothing at all.

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