I spent the weekend in Minneapolis teaching at Yoga Garden. This weekend was my second visit there to teach and I always enjoy returning to teach at places I have been before. I know Laurel, the owner and director of Yoga Garden, from our days in Anusara yoga together so it is very fun to be continuing our association in this next iteration of practice and teaching. In addition to her in-depth studies in Anusara, Laurel is a fantastic gardener, artist and a certified Jivamukti Yoga instructor. One thing that is super fun about talking with someone of diverse creative interests and experience is that they tend to be very comfortable with experimentation, organic unfolding and not having all the answers pinned down and neatly wrapped up. That kind of orientation to life, practice and learning is very refreshing and invigorating.
I have been thinking about creativity a lot these days in relationship to yoga because it seems that we are always in a dance between traditional prescriptions and the creative process where we explore what it means to live and work within the boundaries and beyond them as well. I think of so many of the great yoga icons who pioneered modern trends in yoga and it seems obvious to me that even folks who now seem to hold down the conservative end of the discussion were controversial in the beginning of their work. Listen to any of the Senior Iyengar Yoga teachers describe what it was like to be around BKS Iyengar in the early days and you hear things like "mad scientist", "radical approach" and comments such as "you just never knew what he was going to do or say when you walked into class." However, my somewhat educated guess is that if someone were to try that teaching approach as one of their certified teachers the chances are high that one would have to answer to an orthodoxy.
I am not grinding an axe here at all nor am I trying to criticize one system over another. I saw the same dynamic in my many years as a practitioner, teacher and trainer in Anusara yoga. What I think began as a new iteration and a creative unfolding/synthesis became filled with a kind of orthodoxy such that now many (and certainly not all) former or current Anusara yoga students often have trouble integrating/trusting/understanding alignment cues if they do not come packaged in what has become the "traditional 5-step process." And I am not criticizing the method, the "5 steps", or the structures of that orthodoxy that helped me and so many others. I am actually very fine with, and very grateful for, all of that experience and training. I really am. Nor do I think it intended to find itself as an orthodoxy. I think it is the nature of systems and not anyone's fault and so on.
I am simply exploring a really common dynamic in yoga where the tension between tradition and innovation is a hard one to hold. We learn to recognize value because something is "tried and true" and defined by certain parameters that we accept as authoritative and so when something falls outside those lines it can be unsettling, upsetting and hard to know what to do with. I think the value of the "tried and true methods" and axioms that come along with tradition is not that they give us certainty and answers of what is the only truth but that these structures give us models of certain truths that can become models of a process of learning, discerning and exploring new truths as they arise. We learn the subject and how to learn the subject.
For instance, one of the most important things that the principles of Anusara yoga taught me was how to make sense of the experience I was having in my body and how to understand what I was feeling and it gave me a language through which to articulate what was happening which was very valuable. The system gave me such tremendous structure that I was able to clarify my experience and have a set of tools to evaluate information that came my way in the future. Sometimes the information that came my way was contrary to the system but because I could listen to my body, not just my intellect, I could make distinctions about whether I would incorporate the new and sometimes contrary information or not. I am also not afraid to try something out if it seems reasonable, even if it is not what I already know. I truly love learning new things, not just hearing what I already know. I am also happy to throw somethings out when evidence suggests they are not for me. My point is that I used those principles to help me listen to my body better and to listen to my experience more closely. (Not that I did it perfectly or without some serious mistakes and oversights either, mind you... It's a process.)
And, of course, the process can be a bit dicey since once we get map for the inner journey we step onto a razor's edge because there can be a tendency is to script our experience to fit the map instead of use the map as way to compare and understand our experience. And while that is perfectly normal and appropriate as beginners it become problematic for a whole host of reasons over time. But when we get really practical about this with asana, my prayer for us is that we all relax a little bit about right and wrong and work instead to keep the rigor of responsive exploration.
Every system I know that has lasted over time continually refines its thoughts about what works based on evidence it is receiving. Any time a teacher steps up to give a teaching, there is a side of the teaching not being discussed, which will eventually come calling. The opposite is always lingering near and since we can not say everything that is relevant each time we open our mouth to teach, we have to know eventually we are going to have to speak to the other side of the coin. For instance, make a point about effort and your students miss the message of surrender. Make a point about taking the thighs back and the students miss the message about opening the front groins. Talk about taking the shoulder blades down the back and your students might miss understanding how in many poses the shoulder blades actually move toward the head. Make an issue of keeping the abdomen soft and everyone loses out on core strength and integration. Always and only talk about tone in the belly and people never learn the relaxation that comes for letting that chronically tight area let go.
However, try to say everything and watch your students understand nothing.
As a teacher and a student I am very aware that this vast sea of knowledge is parceled out in small nuggets a little bit at a time. As a student and practitioner I must must build my matrix of understanding piece-by-piece in what feels sometimes to be an excruciatingly slow, trial-by-fire that asks me to traverse a terrain of seemingly contrary ideals and expectations. I am charged with the opportunity to sift through my own experience in the light of age-old wisdom, modern innovations and the many layers of intelligence and blind-spots that exist within me. And this is my work to do for myself as my teachers, no matter how good they are, can only point the way to how to work and to what I might find along the way. No teacher can do my work for me, or have my experience on my behalf or integrate my insights for me.
Yoga, for me, is a means of exploring, not a prescription for what I will find.
These days I am enjoying engaging an inquiry into the postures themselves and what helps them unfold and me unfold in them as opposed to a making them fit into a system or a prescription and that has opened up a place of fun in asana again. I am also finding that my inner life is more enjoyable when I become very curious about what is actually going on as opposed to what I think should be going on based on an outer ideal. And I find I like being with people a whole lot more when I can get into relationship with them as they are as opposed to them as I wish they were.
We had a good time with this kind of theme throughout the weekend and even though it might be a big heavy topic, we had a fun, light-hearted weekend full of laughter and a hard work. We had a huge storm that made the roof leak, the roads flood and the power go out all over Minneapolis so there were some fun environmental challenges as well.
I had a great time and will be looking forward to my next visit.
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