Categories
meditation teaching

yoga teachers and teaching philosophies

Old Site ~2007
Old Site ~2007

In oneself lies the whole world and if you know how to look and learn, the door is there and the key is in your hand. Nobody on earth can give you either the key or the door to open, except yourself.  ~Jiddu Krishnamurti

 A Q&A with students back in 2007

(I’ve taken the old site down.)

Q: How long have you done yoga? Taught yoga? What’s philosophy for teaching a class?    —S.L.P.

I took my first yoga class in 1993. Needless to say, I wasn’t hooked. I didn’t even like my first class, an alleged intro class full of pretzel-twisting poses that were way beyond me. I tried & liked other classes, though, and did yoga off and on (more off) until 2002, when I realized it was really quite nice. “Really quite nice” doesn’t merit much time on a busy New Yorker’s schedule. I practiced once every week or two, when time permitted.

During a patch of big stress early in 2003, I realized just how much yoga helped me relax. I began to practice twice a week, and by summer I decided to do a teacher training, not because I wanted to teach (I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t see myself as a yoga teacher at all) but because I wanted to deepen my practice. I trained that fall, and in January, I walked into a job in spite of myself. I’ve been teaching since, and love it more each year. (Short answer: I’ve been teaching a bit over five years.)

My philosophy for teaching a class? I want you to come in, leave your life (good and bad) outside, work hard, meet your body, relax, find your breath, and have fun. How do I encourage this as a teacher? I don’t know. Teaching is extremely intuitive. I practiced daily and have studied with some great teachers. I absorb what I do and don’t like, and try to pass this on to you.

Sometimes I worry that I should do more—go to more teachers’ trainings (I plan to this summer), more retreats, more classes, do more preparation, and so on. But I work full time, I teach about 15 hours a week, and I’m in grad school. Doing more isn’t possible at present. But everything I do brings something to my teaching in a way that living and breathing only hathayoga cannot. I did grad work in South Asian Studies, and now Health and Behavioral Studies/Heath Education. I draw heavily on both in my yoga teaching.

I want people to get into their bodies and be honest with themselves. We neglect and abuse ourselves constantly, and we numb ourselves to life. Yoga can reverse this habit, and it isn’t all relaxation, or love and light, because often we open to the pain we’ve been taught all our lives to avoid. Better to be real and move through the pain (and the joy), than to be rigid and constantly defensive, or bubbly and fake. Or anxious. Or depressed. I’ve found that coming into the body is a remarkable way to do this.

 

Q: A teacher talked about seeing the good in everyone, even the people you don’t like. That’s not easy. You know, sometimes I don’t want to see the good in someone. Sometimes I just want to hate them. —J.F.S.

While there is merit in seeing the good, it isn’t easy. On one level, I agree with you. I don’t personally find the “be good” lectures in yoga particularly helpful (and there are many). Some may, and that’s great. Use it. But be aware that translated to the western psyche, being good when it isn’t sincere often translates to more anger and repression. If we want anger and repression, why not stick with where we are and forgo all the trouble? Again, I find this true for many, but not everyone.

I, personally, would hate them, if that’s what I felt truly felt. And I’d observe myself doing so, and perhaps, watch how that feels in general, and in my body. While working myself up can feel good and righteous for a bit, when I watch the process of feeling hate towards someone, I find that it doesn’t feel that great at all. It feels hot, leathery, and cramped. If I can feel the anger, watch it pass, and feel my pain and the hurt beneath the angst, I may or may not feel compassion toward the other person, but I sometimes find some for my own pain. And bad habits.

When this happens, I notice all the stories I tell myself about this terrible person and his/her behavior aren’t accurate, or even the point. The point of the stories is to protect me from the pain that I’ve learned to push away and point at someone else.

Part of the brilliance of yoga, when done regularly, is that it opens the heart and clears the mind just enough to want to be good, to not want to hurt others (even if they’ve hurt me), and to be brave enough to face the pain that lies beneath my angry, depressed, or anxiously cartwheeling mind. It’s not about faking like or resisting hate. It’s about being strong enough to observe how my mind works, how my body works, and how I trick myself into more and more pain by trying to avoid the truth of the pain I have. No, it’s not easy, and no, I don’t manage it much of the time.

I didn’t arrive at this by wanting to be good, and even less because someone suggested I should be. I just came to the point, about six years ago, that the behaviors I used to feel good didn’t work anymore, and had never worked very well at all, though they did get me through some hard times. I was making the same mistakes, thinking the same thoughts, having the same conversations over and over and over again. I wanted out, and wanted something else. I knew yoga made me feel good, so I did more of it. That led to meditation, and an intimacy with my mind and how it works.

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

 

Q: What is the ultimate goal of Western-style yoga from the instructor’s perspective? —A.T.

The ultimate goal? Hmm. “Western-style yoga” is extremely diverse and yoga instructors come in many stripes and colors.

From my perspective, the goal of yoga is to connect deeply with myself, to see life more clearly, and allow this connection and clarity to guide my behavior. I ultimately believe that yoga and meditation belong together because they balance one another. Those who only do hatha yoga can unwittingly get locked into physical habits or the exhilaration of the experience. Those who only meditate can unwittingly get stuck in mental habits—or the exhilaration of the experience. But together, they keep a check on the other and balance mind and body.

That said, most of my students don’t meditate. I did yoga about a year before I could sit still long enough to even attempt sitting meditation. For Columbia students, who are already way up in their heads, hatha yoga is very grounding. Sure, meditation would be great for them, but at this point yoga may well be enough.

 

Q: Given that everyone is different from another, how do yoga instructors evaluate their students’ progress?    —A.T.

Most of my students are grad students and with me two years, at the most. They are busy, and most aren’t dedicated to a yoga practice, so even getting to class is an accomplishment. This can make “progress” seem quite slow from where I stand, but they may be getting more benefits than the manic-yogi who shows up each day and rips through the practice out of addiction or habit.

What is progress? I may define progress one way and the student another. My goal of yoga may not agree with a student’s goal, but it doesn’t mean that we are mismatched in the studio.

The idea of a linear progression toward a specific goal doesn’t agree with my perception of yoga as a practice that is at least as cyclical as it is linear. I could evaluate progress along the lines of my last response (“From my perspective, the goal of yoga is to connect deeply with myself, to see life more clearly, and allow this connection and clarity to guide my behavior”). The student who does this may hit a huge crisis and feel as if life is falling apart. From this perspective, that may be the best thing in the world and just what s/he most needs. Ergo, fantastic progress!

If a student wants me to evaluate her/him, or we have a long term relationship, I’d need to know the student’s goals, abilities, and dreams (nothing less!) before I could do so, and even then it would be more about helping the student evaluate her/his practice on her/his own terms.

What about on a simply physical level? I’m not sure there is a simply physical level. Yes, I notice how someone’s down dog is coming along, and can give pointers, but I’m not sure that this is an evaluation of progress. Simply showing up to the mat with a sincere effort to focus on the body and breath is, to me, the biggest accomplishment for any student.

Categories
asana favorites meditation what is yoga

tradition: ashtanga, vinyasa & 8-limbs lite™

Mysore Practice at Ashtanga Yoga Sadhana
Mysore Practice at Ashtanga Yoga Sadhana

The yoga history thread is on hold as I’ve picked up too many books on the subject to continue until they’re parsed. Much has been published since I first read up on it ten years back. If you must read something now I suggest Joseph Alter’s Yoga in Modern India. For a break, I’ll address a subject that’s come up a few times this year, that of how Hatha Yoga traditions should change.

Sometimes I explain that a way of doing an asana is a more traditional form of the pose, for example parivrtta parsvakonasana with the heel down, unbound. By “traditional” I mean over fifty years old, usually in the manner of Ashtanga or Iyengar.

There are arguments within these yoga communities about how the lineages should evolve, because as we hopefully know, most of the asanas we practice are dynamic creations of the modern era, rather than an unchanging set of postures created in the Indus Valley way back B.C.E. As Richard Rosen admonishes in his book Original Yoga, “You may have heard or read somewhere that yoga is five thousand years old, a number that’s continually cited by people who should know better, since there’s not a shred of evidence to back it up.”

Exactly.

Both Ashtanga and Iyengar are somewhat regimented practices that tend to attract intense and dedicated practitioners. While Iyengar is strict about his teachers following his method, e.g. one can’t engage in Iyengar teacher training if she doesn’t commit to teaching only Iyengar, I’ll focus this piece on Ashtanga because that’s what I practice and pay more attention to at present.

While I admit to heretic tendencies, I lean toward traditionalism when it comes to following a living lineage. One of the many things I love about ashtanga is that I know what I’m getting. I trust the wisdom of the asanas and sequences that come from Krishnamacharya, K. Pattabhi Jois, and Sharath. I can walk into a Mysore room from Rio to Seoul and know what I’ll get. We have a common language.

There are some major criticisms of ashtanga. It’s dangerous and unforgiving. It’s monotonous. It’s not for everyone. These are leveled from inside and outside the community. Several friends forwarded me a piece by Matthew Sweeney earlier this year called The Evolution of Ashtanga Yoga, which is an interesting piece, and I agree with most of it, except what we would call Ashtanga and the Ashtanga method, and who exactly should be evolving the practice. And, perhaps, on what Yoga inherently is. Sweeney argues, “Ashtanga Yoga does not suit everybody. It is not possible to teach it to everyone, despite what some teachers may say. If you consider the truth of that, therefore, it is a responsibility as a teacher to try to learn what you need to be able to teach anyone. Otherwise it is not Yoga, and too limited.”

I find the idea that any kind of yoga (much less Ashtanga) should be suited to everyone ridiculous, as well as the argument that a teacher should aim to teach every population at large. Otherwise it is not Yoga? By what definition? Hatha Yoga was developed by a fringe ascetic population, and definitely not available to or desired by everyone, and the Yoga of Patanjali’s Sutras was aimed at and permitted for the Brahmin (highest) class alone.

AYS-2If you’re bored of teaching Ashtanga sequences and want to shake up the method and the type of [aggro!] students you attract, do it. But when you’re adding moon salutes and yin yoga into the same practice, it’s no longer Ashtanga. It may be incredibly valuable, but it’s now vinaysa, or moon unit yoga, or even Reform Ashtanga. But it’s not Ashtanga. That on some level Sweeney agrees is obvious here: “For me it is simply a matter of timing, of when it is appropriate to introduce either the tradition – the Intermediate Series, for example, or an alternative such as Vinyasa Krama, or Yin Yoga or meditation.” Exactly. Vinyasa Krama and Yin Yoga are not the Ashtanga tradition, but traditions of their own.

Sweeney also argues:

In terms of human evolution and holistic development, sooner or later any technique or tradition you might adhere to becomes limiting, and a lessening of your full potential. For you to embrace a true spiritual perspective, you will need to move beyond a single method or one dimensional view.

Let’s break this down. First, to argue that Ashtanga (or Iyengar, or Yin Yoga, or Zen, or whatever) is “a one dimensional view” because it is a single method, is simplistic and incorrect. Further, to create a patchwork of practices sooner rather than later is tantamount to disaster, because as soon as things become a little bit difficult, uncomfortable, or boring, you will continue to seek distraction elsewhere, most likely at the moment you were starting to get somewhere. This is why most mature spiritual teachers and traditions advise making a commitment to one practice. For a long time. This is not to say that we as practitioners discount other practices or perspectives, but we know temptation when we see it. That said, when a certain level of mastery has been attained, after years and years of practice, it’s very helpful to see what other traditions can offer your own.

Sweeney finds it:

…curious that I am one of the few traditional Ashtanga teachers to actively embrace different sequences and encourage many students to practice them – without abandoning the standard Ashtanga.  Alternative sequences can enhance the Ashtanga method without altering or threatening its form and function. Why are the Ashtanga sequences treated as a sacred cow? It is a wonderful practice, but just Asana sequences at the end of the day.

As I understand it, the holders of the lineage, first P. Jois and now Sharath, have explicitly asked teachers not to change up the sequences. So, it’s not so curious as to why most teachers don’t. While I don’t hold the sequences sacred, I’ve taken enough bad vinyasa classes to know the genius of good asana sequences. I question the suggestion we all change them up at whim. At the end of the day, a good asana sequence is a rare thing, and the Ashtanga series are integral to the Ashtanga method. Altering them is a threat because if “It is up to each of us to work out what the advantages and disadvantages are,” then before you know it, anyone teaching anything can and will call themselves Ashtanga. And where does that leave us? With another vinyasa practice, now called Ashtanga, whatever that means to each of those who’ve redefined it.

And that, I suppose, is my real issue. Again, Sweeney:

I use alternative sequencing to aid and enhance the Ashtanga practice rather than to replace it entirely. It is all about what is appropriate and practical, rather than blind faith, dogma, or just doing random stuff because I feel like it – though honestly, sometimes the latter can be really useful.

So, we’re back to the alternatives being alternatives to Ashtanga rather than being Ashtanga, and I’m fine with this. While Sweeney likely has the wisdom and experience to change things up for the better of his students, some 23 year old who just finished a weekend workshop in Ashtanga may well not. But he’s certified! Do I really want to walk into his class and learn his new variations on secondary series? Do I want him teaching others this brave, new Ashtanga? No. Beyond no.

b10009
Poster care of Ashtanga.com

This is why Ashtanga is a lineage trad and vinyasa is not. Yes, the method should change, but that change comes from the holder of the tradition, which is at present, Sharath.

If we want to change up the series, perhaps we should call what we’re doing Reform Ashtanga. If we want to make it “accessible” to those who, in reality, don’t want to make the commitment that the Ashtanga method requires, perhaps we should call it YogaWithBenefits. If we want to break down the sequences and asanas so they can be taught by teachers who have never had a Mysore practice and students who don’t even know what that is (they’re out there, and certified as Ashtanga teachers by YA to boot), perhaps we should call it 8-Limbs Lite™. There is probably a lot of value in all of this. But it is not Ashtanga-Vinyasa Yoga.  I have no problem with changing things up, I just want to know what I’m getting. And that’s really the biggest problem with vinyasa yoga now. You really have no idea.

The Ashtanga method is impressive in part because of just what is accessible to someone who makes the commitment to Mysore six days a week. I once thought that Ashtanga was not for everyone, and I still do. I don’t believe that anything, aside from clean air and water, is for everyone. But I believe it’s available to far more practitioners than I did before I practiced it. And that is part of the beauty of Mysore Ashtanga. When it is watered down, it is lost.

It’s difficult to make this rigorous commitment, and it might not be possible for most householders. Maybe we do need a more accessible, codified Reform Ashtanga or 8-limbs lite™. But, please, call it what it is.

I wish Sweeney had been a little more clear on whether he thinks that Ashtanga + yin sequencing (etc) is still Ashtanga—in some places it seems yes, in others no. I also wish that he’d put his last paragraph first, as maybe we agreed all along:

It is not a question of right and wrong, it is a question of whether you can admit that wherever you sit on the spectrum, can you embrace both ends of it? Are you closer to the traditional centre, but do you deny the importance of those who change, explore and adapt? Or are you closer to the edge, finding new ways and expanding your horizons, but you find it hard to accept the strength and clarity of those closer to the centre? Embrace all of it and you embrace your full potential.

Other than the last line coming off like a weird platitude, and that I’m confused by the spectrum-both-ends-centre-edge-dichotomy metaphor, I agree. I practice Ashtanga in the morning and meditation, yin and restorative later in the day. I teach vinyasa, which is a little bit of everything I practice. I quite like it that way. It is important to be clear about what things are, and what we, as teachers, offer. It’s also important to respect the wishes of lineage holders as best we can, even if that means leaving the lineage. It is lovely to have lineage traditions, even if only as a point of reference. It’s equally important to have adapters and pioneers. But if we aren’t clear about which is which, in today’s yogamarket, it becomes impossible to discern.

Categories
art & yoga meditation yoga practice

stone age mind in a digital world

As with yoga, I wasn’t so sure I’d like Jon Kabat-Zinn. But when I did a retreat with him a few years ago, he was fantastic. Many yogis/Buddhists/etc feel he’s stripping the practice down too far (it’s secular). I don’t. Further, as a person, he exemplifies what he teaches, and that is far, far too rare. This podcast, Opening to Our Lives, is worth a listen.

A few highlights:

  • Kabat-Zinn talks about our stone age minds operating in a digital world. We’re not programmed to handle the sorts of stresses that we’re creating for ourselves and we are not considering the consequences. Nor have we fully explored what it means to be human, having very little understanding of how our minds work or who we are. He suggests that it is crucial to do so before we start inserting microchips into our skulls. I agree.
  • Humans have a natural tendency toward empathy. The economic theories that drive our culture, which support the ultra-wealthy and have proved once and again to have dismal consequences, would have us believe otherwise. We’ve been culturally brainwashed by them. But more and more scientific evidence backs both human and primate drives toward empathy. I am not denying tendencies toward violence, but that gets more than enough of our attention.
  • Stress dampens natural tendencies toward empathy. Again: stress dampens our natural tendencies toward empathy.
  • Kabat-Zinn explains that the word for mind and heart in Asian languages (at least, he’s been told) is the same. Mind and heart are the same word. And the mind, in Buddhist traditions, is taken to be a sense. Something by which we perceive the world. This is important to understand, because in the West, we tend to think of our minds as organs of knowledge and truth, rather than perceptions. And, again, the word for heart is the same as the word for mind.
  • Ergo, when you hear be mindful, or mindfulness practices, “if you are not hearing heartfulness, you are misunderstanding.” Mindfulness, heartfulness, is a way of being. (This is around 13:30 in the podcast.)

Categories
favorites meditation yoga practice

on meditation

We’re still on break and you just want to relax a bit. But you can’t without your yoga? You don’t say. Watch this then. If you don’t wanna watch the long I’m-a-scientist-I’m-not-into-meditation-or-heaven-forbid-yoga intro, JKZ begins at 7 minutes.
..

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qvXFxi2ZXT0&w=480&h=385]

 

Though Kabat-Zinn is known for his work with meditation, his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program includes yoga and body awareness as well as meditation.