Earlier this week, I attended a Yin Yoga class with Chris Brandt. While Chris introduced the theme for his class as an exploration of the impact waking up with a good song in your head can have on your day (simply put: the value of simple pleasures), I experienced the class (as my second title suggests) as a comedy night. Chris was on comedic fire, and there were a few points where I was a bit worried that I was going to start laughing uncontrollably in class – like I used to at school in my pre-teen years.
Being on the brink of uncontrollable laughter really takes me back to memories of grade six: in the French teacher’s office after school with my friend, laughing so hard I could barely stand up straight, and trying to convince the teacher that I had no idea what the words I had written on the board before French class meant in French. Merde, that was funny.
But, side notes aside, since Chris’ class I have been reflecting on a comment he made about the sense of seriousness that can pervade a yogic, or spiritual, practice, but how, in contrast, one of the greatest spiritual teachers of our time – the Dalai Lama – is always giggling.
Reflecting on my teacher Yogi Vishvketu in India, he too seems to move through the world with laughter. I remember him laughing so much of the time – and sometimes for seemingly no reason at all. He has an almost ever-present twinkle in his eye, and I’ve come away from teachings with him with quotes like, “Life is for fun,” scribbled in my notebook.
What I have been wrestling with is the gap between the joy spiritual teachers so often embody and the laughter I find in Chris’ subtle warnings about the side-effects of wind releasing pose. Because, as much as laughter was exactly what I needed that night, I don’t believe that leaving my yoga practice behind and going to Yuk-Yuk’s Comedy Club five nights a week is going to bring forth the joy I see in teachers like the Dalai Lama and Yogi Vishvketu.
Though I haven’t yet found my way from the laughter of Yuk-Yuk’s to the giggles of the Dalai Lama, my instincts tell me that it is a dedicated practice that closes the gap. I am trained in a classical form of yoga, Raja Yoga (Royal Yoga, or Classical Ashtanga Yoga), and in this form of yoga, we work with the eight-limbed path outlined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. The second limb of this path, the niyamas (often translated as observances), outlines actions and attitudes to cultivate to reduce suffering; the third of these five observances is Tapas, which is traditionally translated as “fiery discipline.”
In an article in Yoga Journal, however, renowned yoga teacher Judith Hanson Lasater reflects on how the translation of Tapas to discipline can lead to an inappropriate association with being difficult or forced – which is, perhaps, where the seriousness that Chris was reflecting upon in class stems from. Lasater offers an alternate translation of tapas as “consistency in striving toward your goals: getting on the yoga mat every day, sitting on the meditation cushion every day—or forgiving your mate or your child for the 10,000th time.”
Being familiar with the depth of Chris’ personal practice and with his approach to teaching yoga, I interpret his offer of humour as a means of guiding students away from a “No pain, No gain” approach to their spiritual journey and guiding them towards a sense of tapas more in line with Lasater’s translation. The beauty I see in this approach – in laughing out loud while holding saddle – is the way it draws forth a sense of connection between laughter and a dedicated practice and reminds us that we practice yoga to find joy, to be happy and to giggle like the Dalai Lama.