Jim Harrington: the timeless art of knowing Self through surrender

Jim Harrington shares his views on Teaching as a different kind of Practice in itself; where, by standing as the teacher, we are challenged to expand as the students develop.

What, when and where was your first experience of yoga?
My first yoga experience was probably when I was 11 years old in Australia. I learnt to do a progressive relaxation technique something like a yoga nidra. It’s like self- hypnosis and included visualisation. I used to do it before sleeping. It was a good tool because I was a pretty hyperactive kid. I only got into practising asana much later but I think being able to go into a quiet mind state felt very natural by then.

What made you decide to move from student to teacher?
The shift was a slow and organic one. I was committed to practice every morning and sometimes I would share it with friends. One day my flatmates said “Have you thought of teaching this professionally?” That sowed a seed I guess.

This was before the days of Yoga Alliance took over the world. I was not qualified to teach but I started to help an old friend in 94 who was really down with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. With daily yoga he made a full recovery in two months, so that got me thinking about the potential of yoga and healing. At some point I realised that being in the position of teacher would ensure my continued practice and exploration of the field of yoga. I was invited to apprentice with Simon Borg-Olivier and Bianca Machliss in Sydney in the late 90’s and I started using yoga exercises with my remedial therapy clients which went really well. Eventually I started teaching formal classes.

Teaching is a different kind of Practice in itself, and by standing as the teacher, we are often challenged to expand as the students develop.  In teaching, I am always open to learning, questioning and exploring. I try to convey that as a work ethic to students who are teachers in training.

What teaching tip has had the biggest influence on the way you practice? And the way you teach?
I think the words of Krishnamacharya: “Teach not what you know, but what you know as it applies to your student”. I feel that in teaching, we are trying to have a productive conversation with another person and trying to meet them where they are. A lot of yoga teachers spend too much energy on “putting square pegs into round holes” and I think this turns some people away from yoga. So the practices should be applied to suit the person’s individual needs, which is also a critical part of adapting yoga for sports. 

I think when people listen to their intuition they find their own inner teacher and that’s when the yoga journey really begins. At the same time, as teacher, we also have to play the role of a fearless leader and be a model for yoga and its beautiful possibilities.

What does your own self-practice involve?
I do what I feel is best for the body and mind on that day. My Practice is quite diverse, and includes Chinese Yoga forms, other natural movements as well as classical (mainly Ashtanga type) asana. I do follow structured asana sequences and work on them for usually 10 weeks at a time and then I change them. This keeps challenging the neuro-motor control centre and keeps my body balanced.

In the last 10 years my self-practice has shifted toward more subtle practices like Chi Gong, pranayama and meditation. I still enjoy a strong asana practice but I don’t take it too seriously. Asana tricks are all good as long as they are done in a way that is sustainable and leave me feeling good.

Depending on what I have been doing, the physical practice is a compensation mechanism or a preparation mechanism for the other parts of life.  For example, if I have been trail running a lot then I will spend more time on clearing tension from the hips and if I am planning to go surf big waves then I would do more calming pranayama.

If you only had 10 minutes to practice, what would you do?
My “Dharana” practice takes priority these days.  If I had ten minutes I would probably just sit. I find I get more benefit from doing less and just calming the mind and prana.

Who/what is the biggest inspiration on your yoga journey at the moment?
That’s a tough question. At the moment, I am loving the work of Doug Keller in his Yoga as Therapy, but also going through a Kung Fu Panda stage. I am inspired by Master Yu Guay. My 10 year old son introduced me to the Kung Fu Panda series and I found it has these beautiful little gems of wisdom. 

What role does yoga play in the way you live?
I aim to enjoy every day. Try to be present with whatever life brings, and to behave in a way that the yoga masters of antiquity would approve of.

I think the teachings that have been passed down to us from past masters are still the best guidebook for life. The Yoga Sutras describe the acts or actions of a Yogi as “Tapas, Svadyaya, Ishvara Pranadana”. This means: Tapas- Give your actions your full blazing effort. Swadyaya- Study the self and work to “know thyself”. Ishvara Pranadana – Surrender, and Give. To give energy and action wisely toward love and the greater good, then Surrender the results of efforts without expectation.

These elements also are a pretty close description of the “Flow State” that is available to the mind, so I would propose that they take yoga “off the mat” and into other parts of life like work or sports. I have long considered my trail running and surfing practice as a natural extension of Yoga practice, and I think many dedicated sports people are actually living as Yoga aspirants even though they may never have heard of Surya Namaskar.

What do you hope your students experience when they practise with you?
I hope that they feel good in their skins, and experience a moment or two of stillness and joy that is their true essential state.

Which yoga text could you not live without?
I can’t live without the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali which remind me that I am more than my thoughts and inspire me to keep looking beyond them.

What’s your favourite yoga pose to do and to teach?
I like to practice Urdhva Mukha Vriksasana (full hand balance) because it needs a sharp focus. I enjoy teaching people because it brings people back to the playfulness of childhood. There are three simple keys to the hand balance and people are often so surprised and empowered when they find that they can do it.

Describe the meaning of yoga in 10 words or less.
The timeless art of knowing Self through surrender.

Jim Harrington is teaching Yoga for Sports: Specialist Training for Movement Therapists, Yoga Teachers and Athletes on 8th-12th March 2017.