A decade ago, when my sons were adolescents, I would drive them to their Tae Kwon Do classes and watch them train. It looked like fun, so I joined the adult classes at the same studio. Two years later, we all took our black belts together.

One of the primary lessons from that experience was that the punches and kicks were secondary; what mattered most was becoming what our Grandmaster called a “Tae Kwon Do person.” In other words, exemplifying the mentality of the martial artist was as important, or perhaps more important, than mastering the physical moves.

This concept has been on my mind over the last few weeks as I began my online Yoga Teacher Training with Yoga Farm Ithaca, an Ithaca, New York-based nonprofit whose mission is to eradicate the causes of depression, anxiety, addiction, loneliness and self-harming using the tools of yoga, meditation and awareness. I expected that the bulk of the 200-hour training would focus on the structuring of yoga classes, cueing breath and movement, and the fine points of yoga instruction.

While this training does cover all of that in detail, the real discovery in my Yoga Farm Teacher Training is that I am becoming a yoga person, just as Tae Kwon Do trained me to be a Tae Kwon Do person. So the question arises: what does it mean to be a yoga person?

The Yoga Farm Ithaca educators are training us, via Zoom classes, written materials, online office hours, and our private group, to practice and teach yoga on the mat and also to understand and practice yoga away from the mat. Indeed, physical yoga—the asanas, or positions with which we are all familiar from yoga class—are really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding yoga. The word yoga itself means unity or ‘to yoke’, as in unifying or bringing together body, mind, and Soul. So how does that translate into being a yoga person off the mat, in my life?

It turns out that the asanas (poses) are only one aspect of what the yoga masters discovered thousands of years ago in India. Instead, as I’ve learned at Yoga Farm Ithaca, yoga is a philosophy of life and not just an exercise option at the gym, as some in the West tend to think. It’s about being conscious of my physical body, my mindfulness (or lack thereof), and my breathing at all times, not just when I am practicing or teaching! Who knew? Together, these practices and awareness are helping me in my day-to-day life in ways I did not anticipate.

One of the fundamental aspects of off-the-mat yoga is asteya, the concept of not stealing. Obviously, you shouldn’t need Yoga Teacher Training to tell you that stealing is wrong. Instead, I’m learning that ‘not stealing’ as a yoga person means, for example, protecting the environment in small ways—turning off the lights when I’m not in the room, so as not to steal from the energy of the earth. To watch my words as I speak with loved ones or even strangers, so as not to ‘steal’ their peace of mind. That’s one small example of what it means to me to be a yoga person.

We all know that breathing is an autonomic process—it happens whether we think about it or not, whether we are awake or asleep. But for most people, myself included, what passes for breath in our stressed, technology-fueled, COVID-driven society, is shallow breathing, as if I am constantly seeking to avoid the attention of some imaginary predator.  Am I nourishing myself with full, diaphragmatic breathing? Or am I taking quick, mad gulps of air, failing to sustain myself as I could and should? I’ve discovered I have a choice in how I breathe, consciously, and that this helps as I navigate my busy life.

And then there comes the mind. In my coursework with Yoga Farm Ithaca, I learned that I think approximately 80,000 thoughts a day, or in my case, the same eight thoughts 10,000 times. Am I actually thinking or am I just regurgitating the same fears, expectations, and resentments endlessly?

‘Yoga off the mat’ asks me to be conscious of what I’m thinking, and to pay attention to the space between thoughts, the emptiness from which everything meaningful springs, as well as underlying beliefs and expectations that contribute to the seemingly endless mental loops.

Put all this together and I find that I am becoming conscious of how I go through my day, I’m conscious of how my body moves, I’m conscious of my breathing, and I’m conscious of my thought patterns.

Three weeks into the course, and I would still describe myself as being in the conscious incompetence phase—I don’t know what I don’t know. On the other hand, I’m opening up to the reality that whether I may or may not ever teach an actual yoga class, regardless of how well I learn to cue breath and movement, the surprising, indeed unexpected, takeaway from my experience with Yoga Farm Ithaca, is that if I stay the course, I will become a yoga person. 

And in these unusual, even crazy times, what could be better than that?