I am on my way home from a 4-day retreat in Santa Fe, NM with Patricia Walden. I really can’t say enough about how great it was be there, to have a chance to learn from a master practitioner and teacher and to be welcomed into the Iyengar Yoga community for the weekend. I enjoyed just about every aspect of the experience- the asana, the pranayama, the company, the teachings, the weather, the food, the time as a student, the relaxed schedule of retreat, etc. It was awesome in so many ways.
There is a lot of information- both at the level of technical data as well as from reflections about my own sadhana and about teaching and learning--from the weekend I am still chewing on. I have so many impressions to digest and assimilate. I will be writing more about them as the weeks go by for sure. It was truly a great time.
One thing that is on my mind right now has a lot to do with lineage in asana studies, studentship and how one cultivates discernment in themselves and in their students.
A bit of the back story- I got started in my asana studies in Iyengar yoga in 1991 under the guidance of a great Iyengar teacher, Gayna Uransky. I also dabbled in Bikram yoga and Ashtanga vinsyasa yoga over the years and landed back in Iyengar yoga as a primary method of study until I met Desirae Rumbaugh in 1999 and John Friend in 2000. And while I went down the road of Anusara studies and followed it to certification in 2003 and taught it for years and in many ways still do-- I never lost contact with my ties to Iyengar yoga or Ashtanga vinyasa yoga. (and also, we can’t really say anusara is a pure lineage anyway, in my opinion. Once we stepped onto that path we were solidly in synthesis and I see that as one of John’s great talents and gifts. But that is a story for another day.) I even made some wonderful friends in the more free-style world of vinyasa and I had a great opportunity to spend time teaching alignment to many great Baptiste teachers. A few years ago, I walked back into Bikram yoga after a decade or more and found that I could get a lot of help with my practice from some of their long-time teachers and practitioners. I outline all this to say that while I have studied and practiced asana for a while now, I am not a purist and I can not claim a lineage when it comes to asana. (Ask me about my guru and I will tell you that despite all kinds of odds and absurdities, my eggs are in one basket. But in terms of asana studies, I am a mixed-breed.)
I didn’t plan it that way. I love lineage. I value tradition. I believe in the teacher-student relationship. The bhava of belonging to a group and sharing practice with like-minded people is one of my most favorite states. I am so pitta that I would love to adhere strictly to one thing and one way and have the certainty and even identity that sort of approach affords a person over time. In fact, I often look with admiration, if not envy, at those practitioners who have such a relationship to asana. I am into it. I really am.
And yet, here I am- in a yoga practice that is more about convergence and confluence than it is about swimming in a pure stream. Don’t get me wrong, I am not an “anything-goes-yogi” or a “do-my-own-thing- yogi” even though my mixed-breed label might imply that I am haphazard or even cavalier in my approach to asana study and practice. Nothing of the sort is true. I am very dedicated to being a sincere, respectful and earnest student of whoever is teaching me. I do my best to, as quickly as possible, grok the protocols of whatever learning environment I am in and to follow them as best I can. (For instance, in Iyengar yoga, if a pose hurts, you better ask for help in the moment. In Bikram yoga, stop doing the posture, stand in tadasana or kneel in vajrasana or lie in savasana instead of continuing in the pain and ask for help after class. I could go on about this at length but my point is simply that every system has a way of educating and I do my best to meet the system on its own terms, not demand the classroom experience conform to mine.) And when I am on my own mat, I am working to incorporate the teachings in as clear and unembellished way as possible.
Certainly, what I might be working on in any different phase of study varies, but that I am working on something is consistent. That I am practicing is constant. And no matter what content I am practicing I never feel like “Now I am doing Iyengar yoga” and “Now I am doing Bikram yoga” and “Now I am doing Ansuara yoga” when I am on my mat alone. All of those labels and titles are nowhere near my field when I am practicing the things I have learned in any of those styles or systems. To me, I am simply practicing postures and trying to get myself organized so that a certain recognition arises inside. (Of course, this is another topic for another day.)
At any rate, I am not suggesting that someone learn or practice or teach yoga like I have. My approach has plenty of complications, pitfalls and challenges. I honestly think learning one way- at least initially- is probably best- but that is not how I came to asana or how asana came to me. The way it all seems to have gone down with me is that I have, through a strange blend of circumstance, choice, personality and curiosity found myself a student of great teachers in a variety of styles and growing in the synthesis of what I have learned from each, rather than in the pure experience of one or the other.
And I am not complaining, mind you. I am happy with the education I have received and I love my asana practice and what I have learned in and through it. I have found myself at this convergence of rivers or yogas styles at a time in the history of yoga where factions are rising and falling within traditions, where icons and luminaries are passing, where styles are blending and merging, where yoga has become a “healthy entertainment industry” as much (if not more) than it is a spiritual pursuit and where old structures of authority are colliding with new paradigms of leadership, transparancy and authentic expression. Because I have had so many positive experiences in many different styles of yoga I find that a respectful regard for difference has come naturally for me over the years because I have met amazing practitioners and wonderful teachers in every system. I have seen people in every system heal. I have taken some nugget of gold from every stream I have swam in. So I have been forced, time and again, to remember the first piece of advice my guru ever gave to me directly: “Don’t become a fundamentalist.”
One of the definitions of fundamentalism is “a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles”. Another definition reads “a usually religious movement or point of view characterized by a return to fundamental principles, by rigid adherence to those principles, and often by intolerance of other views and opposition to secularism.” To me, the problematic issue of yoga fundamentalism is not the lineage, the structures, or the sanity that one-way-over-the-long-haul affords. The problems with yoga fundamentalism is in the “literal adherence”, “rigid adherence”, and “intolerance of other views” that marks that particular viewpoint. And perhaps the “intolerance” part might be the most toxic, if I had to pick one thing with which to take issue.
Certainly, one can be a whole-hearted subscriber and adherent to a system and tradition without being a fundamentalist. So too, can someone be a a “yoga mutt” like myself and be sincerely committed to the art of asana. As I see it there will always be the purists holding down one end of the conversation and there will always be the mad-scientists exploring the boundaries, experimenting with the alchemy of elements involved and sometimes discovering great new advances and sometimes making something different but not necessarily better. I suppose, too, there will always be the anarchists who like to do their own thing just because and there will always be the profiteers who only want to package things and sell them. So, every group has every archetype.
What I object to these days is the intolerance and lack of regard for either pathway. I suppose I am growing a bit intolerant of intolerance. (oh, the irony...) In our little corner of the yoga world here in Austin, TX there has been a lot of drama and upheavel around some of these issues and more than a few misunderstandings, name calling and hurt feelings. I had a bit of a mama-bear feeling arise in the midst of it all knowing that so many of my students- who I think are some of the most sincere people around- are in the front lines of teaching yoga, day in day out, in Austin, TX and living in the real-life tensions of making a living, offering something of value, teaching too much, not practicing enough, and the ongoing sorting-through of the myriad of issues that arise personally and collectively in this seemingly-wonderful thing called teaching yoga. And in the midst of those tensions, criticisms- even when they hold nuggets of truth- land hard in the heart of a hard-working teacher.
The new yoga student today is starting teaching in a completely different world than the one in which I was learning when I got started. When I started yoga was not cool yet, there were a handful of videos out but no online classes, no facebook, no studio on every corner. Nor were there so many stylistic options- you had bikram, sivananda, iyengar and ashtanga to choose from. If you wanted to learn yoga, you did what was offered and chose from what was available. And there were only a few classes a week at most places so you were expected to practice on your own and come to class, not for practice, but to learn how to practice. And as far teaching goes, no one, in those days expected to make a living from it. Studios were rare, senior teachers hard to find and workshops were so occasionally offered that people came from miles around to attend when a visiting teacher was in town.
I started teaching yoga in 1998. Manouso Manos was my primary teacher at the time and I went up to him at a workshop and asked him if he thought I was ready to teach. The conversation went something like this:
Me: “So my friend is opening a yoga studio in January and she asked me if I would teach there. When I got out of college and I was a counselor for teenagers, I thought I was really ready to help people but as soon as I was into it I was like, “Jesus, I am in over my head. Why in the world have they given me human lives to deal with when I am only 22?!” Is teaching yoga going to be like that? Is this going to be the kind of thing I look back on and say, “What was I thinking teaching yoga when I didn’t know anything?!”
Do you think I am ready to teach yoga?”
Manouso- “Of course you are ready to teach yoga!! Who in the small town where you live knows more about yoga than you?!!” (Big tall greek man, big loud booming voice.)
Manouso-- Look, if you lived in Berkeley or San Fransisco (which is where he lived) I wouldn’t tell you you are ready. But you live in the mountains of Arizona! You can help people there. (Then his voice softened and the mood changed a lot...) Look, we all start teaching too soon. Everyone starts teaching too soon. Those are the terms of the game. You will absolutely look back and see it was too soon. My advice to you is this: Start teaching. Teach only the postures that you can do. Maintain a relationship with a teacher who is senior to you that you can ask questions of. And safeguard your personal practice.
So, that was the blessing my teacher gave me. A year later, I saw him again and he asked me how it was going. My classes had gone from 3 people (Mary Kate, Sunny and Barry) to 6 after about 3 or 4 months. And by the time I saw him one year later I was amazed that most of my classes had 9-12 people in them. He told me that was wonderful. I was very pleased.
So like I was saying, it is different now. And in case I am misunderstood, this is not some treatise on “the good old days of yoga” as much as it is a way of outlining a few differences that I think influence- not the practice itself- but the conversation around the practice and the teaching style through which we share the practice with others.
The way I see it, my generation of teachers stands on the shoulders of some giants who made sacrifices to pursue this art and science before it was cool, when it didn’t provide a career, when nothing was entertaining about it and when it was hard to find a good yoga teacher becuase there were so few people teaching yoga. Nowadays, it may be hard to find a good teacher because there are so many people teaching yoga. (But I digress.)
Anyway, new practitioners are entering the stream every day. And these students are teaching way too early. (But we all have always started too early. Remember, those are the terms of the game.) In fact, the criticisms about yoga abound these days. Seems like you can’t get on Facebook without an article on “The 10 Cues Never to Give Again” or a survey about “What Drives You the Most Crazy in Yoga?” and “We Hate Rockstar Teachers and Here is Why” and “How Bad the Yoga Sucks Here” and some other commentary about what is f-ed up in yoga these days. And while I have a list of pet peeves about yoga the length of my arm and I have my own concerns about how all the yoga options may actually be hiding yoga, still I am bit fatigued these days by it all. In my more generous moments (of which I have many) I can see the value of the swing to some criticism. I mean for years, yoga, yoga teachers, etc. lived shrouded in a mist of “It’s all good” and the guru model of “Don’t question authority just assume if you don’t agree there is something wrong with you you need to change” and so I think there is value in a bit of taking the curtain away from OZ and for saying “The Emperor is naked, ya’ll”, I really do.
But the thing that I keep coming back to is, how, as a student can I grow? Where and with whom am I finding the best support for my practice?
And how, as a teacher, can I inspire and educate people in those aspects of practice I find important and meaningful without shaming, bullying, or creating unneccesary harm from my conscious and unconscious biases and fundamentalist intolerances? Can I be happy when they come to my class and happy when they leave if what I have offered is not for them? As a teacher who works a lot with teachers, I am very interested in how I can bring the next generation of practitioners and teachers up in a way that is intelligent, respectful, effective and relevant for them without sacrificing what I think are the fundamental aspects if asana practice that need to be preserved.
Anwyay, these are not an easy questions to answer and lord knows, I have made a lot of mistakes along the way as a teacher and a student. Most insight I have about teaching yoga has come from my mistakes and from recognizing the many ways I have missed the mark over the years. I have my own list of casualties and people I have hurt in the process of growing up as a person and a teacher.
But look, I am not without hope. When I am involved in my work- in the actual work of practicing and learning and in the actual act of teaching people how to practice asana intelligently- I am very happy with what I see in front of me. In the efforts we make on the mat to get our arm straight, to learn how to stabilize and stretch and even in the struggle to get out a mat and do a few poses in the midst of our busy days, something is happening in the lives of my students and friends that seems meaningful. People may comment “it has no lineage it might not be real yoga” or “it is in a hot room it is not real yoga” or whatever else they might say about whether what we are doing is “real yoga” or not. Some days I think, you know, this might not be yoga but it does seem to be helping people get through the day.
And today, that is enough for me.
Follow This Blog
"There is a light that shines beyond all things on Earth, beyond us all, beyond the heaven, beyond the highest, the very highest heavens. This is the light that shines in our heart."