Teacher, student, Ashtanga

Last night, Steve and I finished the second DVD of the set, Raga Unveiled, on the Indian art music form, raga. Much of this part of the film was about the guru/shishya relationship.

It’s a difficult concept to grasp for those of us in the West, where learning is highly structured, formalized, and regulated. “Total surrender to the guru” is a suspicious phrase for us. Heck, so is the word “guru.”

“Guru” has common usage in English now, usually with vaguely comic overtones, as in this headline from The Globe: “U.S. investment guru says silver a good bet.” Basically, it seems to be used as “a knowledgable specialist who hands out advice in a pompous way.”

The teacher and the student.
The teacher and the student.

I encounter this definition occasionally when I describe Tim as my guru. I use the word in defiance of the English definition (one of the privileges of being a poet) because “he’s my yoga teacher” doesn’t quite cover it. I’ve learned a lot about how to live my life from Tim; yoga asanas are just one part of the whole.

Our ears perked up in the film when the raga masters began describing how improvisation happens in the context of the guru/shishya relationship, and what that means to parampara (often translated as “lineage”).

There are three stages of learning in the transmission of knowledge. In the beginning, the shisha devotes all his/her energy to imitation. The guru must be able to demonstrate, and the student works to replicate exactly the guru’s style.

In the second stage, the student must be able to face a new situation, and be able to answer the question, “What would the guru do here?” They didn’t say this in the film, but I think of this as the stage where knowledge becomes internalized. Being able to perform tasks with not just by rote execution–how–but with true understanding–why. It’s a stage where ownership of the knowledge begins to transfer from teacher to student.

In the third stage, once the student has full understanding of the form, improvisation can take place. One vocalists described it as a lifetime of learning the rules so you can bend or break them. This is how innovation happens, and how new forms emerge.

My mind went immediately to the relationship between Pattabhi Jois and Krishnamacharya. But also to the talks at the 2012 and ’13 Confluences by six senior teachers, to the way they described the guru. They lived with him. They did exactly what he told them to do. Did they learn exactly the way Krishnamacharya taught Pattabhi Jois? No. Do they now teach exactly the way Guruji taught them? No. They learned the form, came to understanding, and now, in a new situation, with new students,  each of them innovated. And they innovated in ways that suited the students. To put it in musical terms, Tim’s raga is not the same as Richard’s or Nancy’s, but it’s still raga.

More importantly, it would not be an experience of parampara for me if the student-turned-guru (in my case, Tim Miller) did not innovate in his execution of that knowledge. Exact imitation is only the first stage of learning.

One of the characteristics of a guru in Raga Unveiled is his/her ability to change the method of teaching to suit the student. It’s very clear to me that Guruji taught his small classes by carefully adapting his methods to each of them. They in turn adapt to suit the students they encounter. In this way, the practice of Ashtanga remains a living, breathing tradition.

Posted by Bobbie

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

4 thoughts on “Teacher, student, Ashtanga”

  1. Music, the trades and even medicine still have the guru disciple relationship here in the west. The arts and trades still take a certain amount of apprenticeship to master the subject. There are a few sat gurus that achieved enlightenment spontaneously on their own and there are many artists that achieved great mastery on their own but they are few. Most artists and tradesman can always direct their knowledge back to a teacher. Many people that are in an organized religion can do the same in the West and almost anyone that has played organized sports usually has great reverie for a coach that greatly inspired them on and off the field. We just don’t seem to like to give much credo to these encounters here in the west and that might be because of the great wealth we all share. When I say great wealth I mean we have roofs over our head and food. In countries that have massive poverty the one thing people do have that can’t be taken away from them is their beliefs. No matter how poor you are materialistically you can still be spiritually rich. While we have a higher degree of safety where we live in the West materialistically we lack spiritual safety. To some degree I believe democracy and justice make up for a blatant outward spirituality like many third world countries have. In the fields of justice and politics though there is also a guru disciple system. I think the guru system is part of the collective unconscious but it shows itself differently country to country, as well as ethnically.

  2. At what point does the student work out that they have come “to understanding”? Does it not fall on the student to revisit the source in order to recalibrate their understanding? The raga they think they are playing may just no longer be a raga. The corollary is that in order to learn the raga one must go as close to it as possible. A version of the version of how I was taught may just not be close enough.

    1. I can only answer from a Western perspective when you know you are ready. During the big band era you were usually called up to bands. Your reputation would get around as a player and you would be referred or called up. For symphony work the same would be true but they also hold auditions. I’m studying Bansuri flute right now and learning technical aspects as well as Ragas. We are always learning versions of the versions of tunes unless the composer is also the conductor but even in these circumstances the outcome can often be different than what is heard in the mind. From what I understand the Guru will give you permission to perform when he thinks you are ready but that’s a good question i’m going to speak to my Guru and ask him as he studied with one of the heavy weights of traditional Indian music. On another note (ha ha) Ragas have a musical form and this form can change by region. Since many Ragas are ancient there are many ways to play each Raga but there are rules that are followed when playing Ragas depending on the section you are in, time of day, the occasion etc.

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