The practice is the teacher — or not?

We bring you today’s online Ashtanga debate. First up, Ty Landrum — among Richard Freeman’s teachers — posted a piece titled: “The Practice is the Teacher.” I think the following represents the core, but there is a lot in it, and I encourage you to read it all:

In Ashtanga Vinyasa, there is a comparable saying, “the practice is the teacher,” and the meaning is more or less the same. The practice exposes us to our patterns of impulse, and to the tyranny of these patterns over our minds. When we submit to the practice, we learn to observe these patterns without enacting them, and we begin to release them into the emptiness of the breath. As in Zen, the purpose is to disabuse ourselves of distorting influences, to make our minds quiet, focused and lucid, so that we may begin to see for the first time. There is much to be said for having a competent guide in Ashtanga, someone who has been thoroughly tempered by the practice, and who can point one down the path. Eventually, however, one must learn to face the shadows of one’s own mind, and this is something that one must do alone.

Later, he adds this:

But all of this falls under the head of “supporting” our students in their own self-observations rather than actually “teaching” them things that they do not know. At the Yoga Workshop in Boulder, which is the Ashtanga studio where I practice, we teachers do not follow the orthodox method of “giving” poses to the students, nor then of “taking them away.” Instead, we start students with as much of the Primary Series as their bodies can presently absorb, and we allow them to decide when and how they should progress, with the simple proviso that they ask us for assistance whenever they feel ready to move forward. Our students, therefore, are tasked from the beginning to exercise their own judgment about the practice, and thus they begin, immediately, to cultivate that most important skill of finding balance. Though we recognize that it takes considerable practice to acquire that skill, we do not pretend that it requires some special technical knowledge or expertise. Our method most importantly, places the responsibility for the practice right where it belongs, in the hands of the practitioners. It makes the practice all the more potent for them because it fully engages them in the art of finding internal alignment, and it makes them less capable of hiding out from themselves. Our unorthodox teaching method is not above criticism, and it has it dangers and complicities. Most obviously, it exposes students to their own patterns of attachment and aversion regarding the postures themselves.

Surely you know that there’s a whole lot of weight to the question of “orthodoxy” among the Ashtanga community. (Edit: Note Peg’s comment below, so I want to clarify here.) So I expect you might see some responses. Our online friend Peg Mulqueen’s latest  is not, just related (she does mention Landrum’s piece). And it, too, is worth a read: (End Edit.)

Sure, I think the method itself is brilliant in its design and structure. It builds yet another trilogy (tristhana) in of postures (bandhas), breath, and focus (dristhi). Truth is though, it’s taught differently by different teachers. Not profoundly different, but it does vary – and yet, still does the trick. That says something. But to suggest, “the practice is the teacher” is incomplete. Without the inspiration of my community and the guiding force of a teacher, I cannot balance on the single leg. Literally and figuratively.

Peg poses some meaningful thoughts about community, as part of what she terms the “Ashtanga Trilogy” (Coming to a Theater near you this summer, in Real 3D!) along with teacher and method. I encourage you to read it, too.

Here’s where, I suppose, I’m supposed to suggest what I think: Is the practice the teacher — or not? My reaction may be too simplistic: Either they’re both right, or they both are really saying the same thing. That’s the maddening nature of Ashtanga: that it is simplicity in the midst of disorder, confusion, over-stimulation, disquiet. Do your practice, and all is coming. (Alternate version: Do your practice, teach, and all is coming. How does that affect this discussion?) Ashtanga — and accompanying philosophies, sciences, religions, social structures — is fun to talk about; it is helpful to talk and think about. But in the moment of doing, of being (if I can make use of that word), none of that stuff is there. But of course it all is there. It’s just settled and quiet, still utterly informing the individual moving about the mat.

That’s all pretty heavy stuff. So I want to end by pointing you to Eddie Stern’s latest blog post and his lighthearted description of Tim Miller. The thought of Eddie practicing with Tim is, I think, the right one with which to end this post.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

7 thoughts on “The practice is the teacher — or not?”

  1. first, love the movie trailer! (and you shouldn’t give me ideas like that! like i need any encouragement!)

    but no, my blog was not a response to Ty’s piece. though there must’ve been something in the air … i posed the question on my FB 2 days ago. so it was already brewing. and (as you pointed out) in a way, we DO actually do end up saying much the same. he did inspire the one line you quote, however.

    here’s a link to the original FB question:

  2. The practice being the teacher is something i think and talk about frequenly. It’s something we hear in various iterations. I took a Dharma training with Ty four years ago. I was just starting to do Ashatanga then and Ty taught a Dharma class that was in a lead Ashtanga style. That class inspired me to pursue Ashtanga further. I would venture to add that the practice teaches you about a number of things outside of yoga… Patience, slowing down, moving inward, connecting, harmonizing, breathing through difficulty, living through difficult circumstances… As such, I would like to venture to respectfully add that the practice as it relates to postures is just a piece of the puzzle but I do agree that it is in the hands of the practioner to determine what exactly they need to learn…starts with posture stuff but expands to a whole lot more in my opinion.

  3. Thank you Steve, this is a great article. To my mind it’s about balance. I certainly needed the guidance of my Ashtanga teacher to appreciate that practice is the teacher. However, moving away from the teacher to self practice is another testing and growing journey all of its own. Always learning from every practice. I also intend to return to my teacher at some point when I feel I have acquired more balance within my own self practice. Peace & love, wishing you a wonderful day, Sky, x

  4. All experience is the teacher not just asana practice. Many of the great Indian Saints are self realized, no guru, no formal teaching, just poof! “Find out what you’re not” ~Sri Nisgardatta Maharaj Life is self teaching if you are aware. In that documentary Enlighten Up Norman Allen is asked what does asana practice have to do with enlightenment and he said, “Absolutely nothing.” Some people only have a self practice and have reached high levels of asana practice while others are shala goers and don’t progress much. Like anything you just have to work at it and sometimes having a good teacher can show you short cuts. Being pushed further into a pose will also open you faster than practicing on your own. There are obviously benefits to all types of practice options. “The rules are there are no rules.”

  5. I guess I am in the camp of the practice being the teacher. I love community. And I believe in the necessity of a good teacher, absolutely.

    Yet…everything changes. That’s the nature of this world. Even if you have a knowledgeable, loving teacher available to you every day, and a loving community to practice with, it can be gone in an instant. Eventually, one’s teacher will either move away, or perhaps choose to stop teaching, or, sadly, pass away. Or, it’s possible you might move to a place with no Ashtanga community. Your Ashtanga community might dissolve, too (we were just talking about the trauma of this last week, right?) Or, maybe the nature of the community you’ve been sharing changes – it gets too busy, teachers get caught up with new students needing more help and the seasoned practitioners may get short shrift for a while. It’s rare that all factors are ideal. (Be grateful when they are!)

    And then what do you do? Are you stuck, in limbo, until you find someone else to show you how to practice? Will you no longer “advance” because there isn’t someone ahead of you on the path, showing you where to go to next every day, or there isn’t community there to bolster you?

    This is the biggest challenge that every Ashtanga practitioner faces at some point during their practice life – being alone on their mat, at home, with no one else around to guide them or encourage them.

    Yet, as long as you keep practicing and persevering on your own, I don’t think you stop evolving, or learning.

    The practice IS your teacher, and the possibility of lone, teacher-less practice will ultimately come to all of us. It’s what we are being taught to do with this method – dedicated, reverent, consistent SELF practice, done for a long time. Your practice, more than any other person, more than any community, is what you have access to EVERY day, whenever you want it. (And, even when you don’t want it!) Your own practice is what ultimately helps you…evolve. Community and a teacher are beautiful and necessary, yes, to learn and to find support. But not essential if you must persevere when you have no other choice BUT to practice alone, without a teacher.

    And sometimes, the most profound lessons are learned when we are truly alone with ourselves.

    The method, the practice, is always available, even when everything else is in flux. Eventually we tap into the intuitive true Self within us through this method…it’s in all of us, and it’s permanent, has always been, will always be. The practice is one of finding yourself, and learning that you are your own best teacher.

    You CAN stand on one leg 🙂

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