Q&A with a yoga teacher
How to learn yoga right, and practice it as a way of life
Yoga is one of those things that needs no introduction, but is often misunderstood in popular culture. Growing up in India, I’ve learnt a bit of yoga - but not always with the discipline or focus it deserves, and certainly not with the best teachers. After moving to the US, I tried a couple of classes at a local gym and was scared away by how flexible people were. It felt like yoga was not a fit for me. But ever so often, I hear stories about how yoga has been a gamechanger from friends, family and acquaintances and have been jealous to incorporate it into my own wellness journey.
Read on for a very special interview with someone I’m proud to call a friend (back from high school!). Arundhati Baitmangalkar has been teaching yoga for 17 years and has founded her own yoga school, Aham Yoga, in the Redmond area of Seattle. She also hosts a fabulous podcast, Let’s Talk Yoga. We recently reconnected on social media and I’ve been obsessively following her posts with the intention of restarting my yoga practice and getting it right. Her passion is infectious and I know you’ll love this interview! We cover everything from the physical to the mental aspects of yoga practice, some common misconceptions about yoga, and the role of a teacher.
Give us the bird’s eye overview - asanas, pranayama, meditation - how do all of these pieces fit into the practice of yoga?
Yoga is vast. It’s thousands of years old and so much has accumulated under its name. The reason it’s confusing is that the path is called yoga and the destination is also called yoga! If we zoom out, there are 8 main building blocks. I often liken it to a pizza with 8 slices.
1 & 2 - Yamas and Niyamas - think of these as personal codes of conduct that define your role in society and manage your lifestyle and mindset. For example - satya (honesty) and ahimsa (kindness). In yoga you’re never in isolation - your actions will impact something or someone else.
3 - Asanas - this is the physical practice of yoga, and is the most visible and tangible part of yoga. Taking care of your body is important (and even more so these days) - not in terms of how you look or your musculature, but rather your inner health.
4 - Prana - once you have conditioned your body, you then move to your breath (prana), which is your vital life force. On the surface, Pranayama is breathing technique. But it is really using this inner life force and energy, which is really fascinating - the breath controls the mind. Once you gain some mastery over the body, you use your breath as a tool to control your mind and your nervous system.
5 - Pratyahara - now things start to get a little more subtle in experience. Pratyahara is sensory withdrawal. We are constantly engaged outward in our daily lives. But when you go into these deeper states of breath awareness, really understand your body and how to connect with your mind, your senses withdraw voluntarily. Easier said than done!
6, 7, 8 - Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi - concentration, meditation and self-realization. Meditation is one of the end goals of yoga. Yoga sets you up in a way that you manage your mindset, manage your body, manage your breath. Then you withdraw your senses and go inward - you learn to concentrate, which then evolves into meditation.
You’re essentially going from outside to inside, giving yourself all the tools along the way, so you can be with yourself.
But we skip all these steps. We turn on an app and we close our eyes. The mind is busy, the body is unsettled, the breath is unsettled and we’re trying to meditate. Most people have an awful experience because their minds are so full. I get this all the time - “I can’t meditate. My mind doesn’t stop thinking”. Your mind can’t stop thinking!
I think I finally understand.. :)
Why eat just one slice of the pizza when you can eat the whole thing! But you have to give the practice time. The practice works - that’s why it’s lasted for centuries and so many people advocate for it.
Tell us about your journey. How did you end up teaching yoga?
When I started yoga, I had been dancing and teaching dance for 7-8 years and had a lot of injuries. I also knew that a dancer’s career was short-lived. My body was telling me it was time to consider something else. I was looking to be in the wellness zone - looking for something that’s fitness but more, and something that was sustainable.
Literally limping, I ended up in my first yoga class at the age of 24, as one of my dance acquaintances urged me to try yoga for my leg. Something flipped that day, and cheesy as it sounds, I knew this was what I wanted. Honestly I was surprised I didn’t find it sooner. Living in India, yoga was always around. So I immersed myself in studying yoga and acquiring the skills to teach it. I’ve always loved teaching, it came naturally. I’ve been teaching yoga for 17 years now and haven’t looked back.
How did your experience evolve along the way - did you start with the physical part and then get to the mental?
I started with no expectation and that really helped. It took me a long time to put words to the experience. I kept going back because I felt different, felt peaceful. I didn’t need to label it. It’s constantly evolving, even now! What really helped me was that I was surrounded by great teachers.
What do you see as the role of a teacher in yoga?
We often try to self-navigate through yoga, which makes it hard for people who want to learn but don’t know where to begin. There is so much out there in the name of yoga that is not yoga, because yoga sells. You have to make your way to a credible teacher - who can really simplify things and bring yoga to meet you where you’re at.
Try a teacher, and then another one. Finding the right person is crucial. They’ll cut out the noise and progress will be faster. As a student, you shouldn’t be trying to figure it out. That is the job of the teacher - you just have to show up.
Once you’ve gotten some experience, then you can learn from videos, etc.
What are some of the differences that you’ve seen in yoga between the Western world and in India?
The biggest difference is fitness versus wellness. I feel that yoga, here - in the popular context - is very body centric. While I enjoy the physical practice of asanas, it’s not meant to be limited to just that. It’s not about how you look in a certain pose - does your teacher know what to tweak if your back hurts, or you’re jetlagged, or your digestion is slow, or if you’re pregnant or post partum? It’s hard to fit everything into a 60 minute class at the gym. I’ve seen some teachers cherry picking what they like, understand and will sell well - overall this has created more confusion than clarity.
Yoga teaching is very informal here in the west - I am used to a more formal style of teaching, but I welcome that and am very informal with my clients. There’s a certain reverence that we have towards the practice in India, that you don’t see here - but a lot of it is cultural.
Hot yoga is not a thing, it puzzles me till date why somebody would do that to themselves.
Tell us how you really feel about it. :) Is it still yoga?
I think it’s great that so many people have exposure and access to explore the tools of yoga for fitness and wellness. It’s better to do some tiny part imperfectly than not do it at all. Keep an open mind - if you like the physical practice so much, then you will love what comes next. But awareness has to come in from the teacher, I don’t expect the students to know what they don’t know.
How you think about the practice of yoga as a way of life?
This is challenging to answer, because yoga is so experiential. For me, yoga has a few different roles that it plays in my life - it helps me keep physically well and age gracefully. This is important to me because I grew up around older people who had lot of health issues.
But the part that really surprised me was what it did for my mind - and no amount of reading about it can actually prepare you for it. It brought me clarity - a sense of space, and what I appreciate most is that it has enhanced my ability to fully experience and embrace the present.
Where should someone start - either a beginner or someone like me, who has learnt some yoga but hasn’t had the best experience.
Beginners are the most important set of students- how they start can make them continue or run away. Think about where do you want to start - do you want something physically challenging, or not? It’s okay to be unsure - give yourself the freedom to ask those questions. But if you don’t know, go to a beginner’s class, not level 3, where everybody is so bendy and fit - I’ve had that experience too!
Practice and get a little confidence. The first thing you’ll encounter is how tight you are. If it’s too challenging, try props. It takes time.
No one should feel pressurized to do all of it at once. All our lives are full, we’re trying to make them less full. Say you want to invest in your physical well-being, start with the poses. Then if your life allows it, and you’re naturally drawn to managing your mind, then get to breathwork. Then if you’re curious about meditation, go there. Find a place where you feel like you belong, a community. Yoga should be relatable at all levels of practice.
Arundhati Baitmangalkar is an Indian yoga teacher, host of the Let’s Talk Yoga podcast, studio owner at Aham Yoga, mentor to yoga teachers & blogger. With 17 years’ experience teaching experience, Arundhati’s mission is to help educate people about the significance of yoga in their lives. Whether as a wellness practice the modern urban dweller or a yoga teacher seeking high caliber yoga education. Arundhati currently lives in Seattle with her husband and dog, Munch. Find her on Instagram, YouTube and on her blog.