I am home from Tucson from the 4th Annual New Year’s Intensive at Yoga Oasis. This intensive has a lot of back-story and quite a history of intensity, truth be told. Originally, Darren, Noah and I conceived of the intensive as a way to offer some of the juice we felt like we had received in the early days of Anusara-- back when rigor was high, learning environments were intimate and innovation was unencumbered by systems, certifications and trademarks. We each felt that we had made so much progress in practice and as teachers from our experiences during that time in the school’s history and we wanted to offer newer students a way to experience something similar. Looking back at past intensives, I think it is safe to say that we probably offered more fire than we did nectar and while I do believe we did more good than we did harm, the program has always been intense on a lot of levels for a lot of different reasons.
What stood out for me this year was that, while the work we offered was strong and intense, the weekend was permeated with a feeling of freshness and receptivity from the students and a mood of generous honesty as opposed to a quality of intensity for the sake of intensity or pushing to prove a point. The tapas performed in the room was marked by the distinct absence of egoic ambition and the sweat was tempered with laughter and spaciousness. My personal experience was that I felt able to teach in that sweet spot of looking forward to a new year with new possibility in a way that didn’t resist, deny or apologize for the past. (And, if I dare say so myself, I think I actually made good use of what has come before.)
When my teacher, Lee, used to visit his Master, Yogi Ramsuratkumar, at Yogi Ramsuratkumar’s ashram in India, Yogi Ramsuratkumar would always have Lee give talks in the darshan hall. He would tell Lee: “Say something useful.”
Think about it. Never once did Yogi Ramsuratkumar tell Lee to say something that “people will like”, or to say something “pleasing”. He never suggested that Lee should say something “inspiring”, “helpful”, “encouraging”, “meaningful”, etc. Without fail and over the course of many years he said the same thing: “Lee, say something useful.”
Obviously, inspiration is useful at times. As is encouragement. And without some meaning, the inevitable challenges of the Path can wear a person down. So it might be that what Lee would say would fall into the categories of inspiration, meaning and encouragement, and yet those qualities emerged as the answer to the invocation of usefulness, not as the primary value or the purpose of the message itself. Obviously “what is useful” for sadhana is a massive question and could be a subject of many long blog entries and perhaps even a book or two . And while there is no way to cover the topic of usefulness in its entirety here, it is a worthwhile contemplation nonetheless.
I used to think more magically about what yoga, spirituality and consciousness might offer me. I read all kinds of books and attended all kinds of seminars and joined all kinds of groups about how I might “create my own reality” and “vision an optimal future” and “manifest my perfect destiny” and so on. And all that stuff is great. But when I met Lee I started learn something disctinctly different from those lines of inquiry. What Lee taught me wasn’t so much about how to change reality and how to be in charge of my life or how to craft a dream. What he taught me was how to make use of what life was offering me and how to participate in a learning process that was somehow both impersonal and yet perfectly designed for me to grow.
And so as time goes on, I find the consideration of “useful” more and more interesting and the longer I teach and the more pressure I feel to conform to the expectations of the ever-changing landscape of popular yoga culture, the more important I think clarity on this point has become to my ongoing sanity. What is useful might not be popular and what someone needs to grow might not be marketable and what is ultimately meaningful may not feel encouraging in the moment. And yet in the midst of all of that, I do believe that the simplest, most sane path for me to take as a teacher is to help people practice because I believe that an honestly-engaged practice is one of the best teachers out there.
So this year, personally, I got on a plane with a very strong intention about being useful and about serving people in their practice. Darren and I discussed how we wanted to structure the day and we struck a balance with me managing firey mornings with his assistance and him taking the more nectarian afternoon with me being the assistant. He was happy. I was happy. And in the midst of all of this- the reflections back to past intensives, the musings on the year’s life lessons, the clarity of my intention as a teacher, the navigation of teaching responsibilities and so on-- I felt a grace, a softness, and a humor descend and come to live amongst us during our time together as a group.
Years ago, at an immersion Darren and I taught in Tucson, Paul Mueller-Ortega talked about how, as students, we are held in the grace of the teacher. To be clear (or so that we know that I am clear) I believe he was talking about capital “G” grace and capital “T” teachers primarily. I think he was speaking from his own direct experience as a devotee of his guru for many years and from his direct embodied and abiding gratiitude for what he had received by keeping their company. I think he was talking about the kinds of teachers I call “the heavy hitters.”
However, and also, because of the way spiritual principles often operate, what is true on very high levels often lives as truth on the lower levels. So when we are taught well, when we find ourselves in the capable hands of a competent teacher--no matter what the discipline and no matter what the subject of study--- I believe we are held in certain grace of the teacher as students. There really is nothing like it in my opinion. It is a delicious state in which to be.
Paul went on to say that, as much as the students are held in the grace of the teacher, so, too, is the teacher held in the grace of the student. In a certain way, any of us who teach are only teachers because people are willing to be our students and on one level, as teachers, the passion we have for the subject we teach is only as relevant as we can make it available for others to engage for themselves. And so in these ways and more, we, as teachers, are held in the grace of our students.
And this is the thing about teaching yoga that is hitting me hard in the heart these days-- we, as teachers and students, are in this together. This weekend there were students in the room I have been teaching since 1999 along with folks I have known for many years and hundreds of immersion hours. There were some students I know only virtually and some I was meeting for the very first time. I have always been grateful for the students who are in the room and as time goes by the power of grace in which my students hold me seems more tangible to me than ever before. I know this grace has always been there and I have my share of stories where the chemistry between me and different students was difficult for me, for them and perhaps for us both and the grace in which we were holding each other was hidden from us both. After all, in the teacher-student relationship we are dealing with the karmas and tendencies of people. And people come with personalities, expectations, needs, abilities and limitations. And so, unfortunately, misfires are certainly part of the deal when it comes to working together.
And sometimes outer circumstances have come between me and students and sometimes changing interests, needs and demands on time, money, attention and so on have taken us in different directions. Some students and I remain very connected even though we haven’t been in the same classroom together in years- such is the power of this grace in which we hold each other. And in other cases the drifting apart and/or the definitive choice to sever ties was lawful, congruent and necessary. And yet it seems to me that all the different processes and outcomes along the way- the good, the bad, the beautiful and ugly- has been part of this very same field of grace .
I do my best to keep growing in my work as a teacher and to move through the various stages of my own prickly patches as well as I can so that I can be of continued service to others on the path. I have certainly made my fair share of mistakes along the way and there will be more to come- of that we can be sure. And yet as this yearly cycle draws to a close and I am reflecting on the fullness of the year’s lessons, I am blown away at the generosity of the people who call themselves my students and who are willing to minister to me in the way that only students can and who continue to usher me into new places of growth, understanding and clarity.
The weekend was the perfect close to the year and an excellent way to plant some seeds for what is coming this year.
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