Give a guru a try

The water is 74 degrees (F) here.

That’s my, our, excuse for the lack of posts thus far.

Perhaps, really, the fact that I’m here, with Bobbie, is the culprit. Rather than return to our lodging and transcribing parts of the Tim Miller’s Third Series Teacher Training, she downloads it to me. So I can tell you this: On Monday, they started with Surya A. It’s fundamental, right? Rather than jumping right into “Third Series,” it sounds like Tim is leading them through how one would practice it. And that starts with Sun Salutes. (We also are making it a habit of getting her into the water to cool everything down; harder when the water is so balmy.)

I also can say that I forget the power of the teacher’s presence. I still don’t really think of myself as a “home practitioner,” that strange subset of the Ashtanga crowd. But I am. It’s probably going on four years, in fact — perhaps half of my Ashtanga “life span.”

And for many reasons, this past year has been one that we’ve been unable to make it down for a “recharge” with Tim — even a Sunday Led Primary does the trick. It’s a reminder of where you might be slacking, what you might be starting to do wrong and how long you really can hold those poses.

It’s more than that, too. It’s the teacher shakti, the will or force that compels you to twist just a little more, to find that deeper place in the pose, to do Vrksasana because the guru says so. (Today after pranayama — again, hard! — was a Primary class that Tim practices along with you. So he calls out the pose names and when you’re to breath five.)

I was wrecked going in. Holly’s Intro to Second followed by Monday morning Mysore (Ashtanga confession: I actually did the first three poses of Second and got away with it; it helped there were approximately 800 people in the room) and the two pranayamas and a bad first night’s sleep conspired to make me feel stretched thin. Oh, and the couple hours of surfing on Monday.

By the time we were to Trikonasana, I realized my shoulders were exhausted, along with my quads. Later, I’d realize my forearms also were tired. (Today was more beautiful than Monday, the waves cleaner with less wind, and so despite my best intentions, I was in the water another couple of hours. Woe is me tomorrow.)

But I soldiered on. And I wouldn’t have at home.

As I bobbed in the water, checking the shifting breaks, I realized once again the absolute value of having a teacher and a place to practice, even if it is just sometimes — even rarely. I know there are lots of home practitioners out there, of various stripes and connections to shalas here and there, and to none at all. And I know there’s anguish about practicing at a shala, or not, or whether to try, or how best to maintain a home practice.

I’m biased here, given I’ll argue I somehow lucked into the best yoga teacher there is. But I really really urge everyone to give a guru a try. There is, without a doubt, something magical and wonderful about a solitary, focused, contemplative home practice. But it’s even more so with the invisible hand of the guru guiding you.

Posted by Steve

Mercury day poetry: Shankaracharya’s ‘Thy Guru’s Feet’

Our trip home is about to start, and so it seems appropriate to be thinking about gurus and teachers and learning.

Here’s a short poem by one of the great gurus: Shankaracharya. It’s titled, “Thy Guru’s Feet.”

Thy body may be beautiful and glow with flawless health,
Thy fame colossal and thou mayest have won to fabulous wealth,

But if to the Guru’s feet thy heart untethered still remain,
Then all thou hast achieved on earth is vain, is vain, is vain.

Thou mayest be deep-versed in all that scripture have to tell
A beacon of light, a master of prose and verse delectable,

But if to the Guru’s feet thy heart untethered still remain,
Then all thou hast achieved on earth is vain, is vain, is vain.

That about sums it up.

Posted by Steve

Simple: How not to get suckered in by a false guru

We all know there’s a healthy history of false gurus, or fallen gurus, along the yogic path.

The docu-something Kumare looked at this. There’s been the whole John Friend issue. People slap the “cult” word on most anything different, including Ashtanga.

As I was traveling for work yesterday and reading old Namarupas on the plane and I read through a piece, titled “Guru” by H.H. Sri Swami Sivananda. As in Sivananda Yoga. And, as in Sri Swami Visnhu-Devananda’s guru.

It is in the Issue 11, Volume 04, from April 2010. It is all about the importance of having a guru — a topic close to many Ashtanga practitioners — and is well worth the read. You know where to find it.

Under the topic of how to choose your guru comes the following, which struck me as a very simple, and very good, litmus test for whether you have happened upon someone who shouldn’t be your guru (or probably anyone else’s):

He who is able to clear your doubts, he who does not disturb your beliefs but helps you on from where you are, he in whose very presence you feel spiritually elevated — he is your Guru.

It was especially the middle of that sentence, the part about not disturbing beliefs, that caught my attention. If a “guru” is throwing everything out of whack — telling you not to see family and friends, saying what you know or have been doing is all wrong — you might want to pause.

And reconsider the path you are on.

Posted by Steve

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

Blog highlight: A Vedic perspective on Ashtanga’s 1% theory

Note: While we are in India, we intend to post new items if we have the Internet access. In the meantime, to keep our mojo going, we’re running some of our most popular posts. This post ran a year ago — in other words, it’s been a year since the whole “how yoga can wreck your body” kerfuffle! Time does fly.


In one of the first books I’m reading in preparation for our December Yatra, I ran across a very clear and straight-forward description of the Vedic perspective on “the nature of the ultimate” that struck me as perhaps something that would add a little to the well-known formula: Ashtanga is 99% practice, 1% theory.

We typically interpret that saying of Guruji (or any of its similar ratios — 97/3 or 95/5) as meaning that practice deserves the overwhelming majority of our attention. “Do your practice and all is coming,” right?

I’m sure it is because the practice comes so painfully that I’m always looking for a way to emphasize the mental side of Ashtanga as much as possible. So, I’ll admit I might be grasping at straws here, but…

According to Alain Danielou in the omni-present “The Myths and Gods of India,” Indian philosophers conceive of an infinite, undifferentiated space underlying all perceptible forms. What we see and perceive is part of the illusion of the division of this space. Here’s a “traditional example” he cites:

Space within a pitcher is not really separated from the space outside. It was not distinct before the pitcher was made; it will not be distinct once the pitcher is broken and is not therefore really distinct while the pitcher exists.

Danielou goes on the explain this: “All the divisions of space into atoms and heavenly spheres are mere appearances. The space within the atom can be as immense as that within a solar system, and there can be no limit to the number of possible worlds contained in another.”

First off, I should note that Indian philosophers seemed to have grasped the fundamentals of quantum physics pretty well.

I’m also reminded of a high school physics test. You put two people at opposite sides of a room (in this case it was a classroom). Then you have them move half the distance closer to each other. Then you have them do it again. And again. And again.

The point? They would come infinitesimally close to each other but never actually touch. An infinite number of “half the space” always remains.

Now, to the 1%. Here’s my thinking: “The space within the 1% can be as immense as that within the 99%.”

That formulation maybe begins to upend our emphasis and focus on practice, especially a very militant one. (A separate question, of the same vein, might be: What do we mean by “practice”? Is our reading part of our practice? What off the mat activity may be part of yours?)

Now, my intent here is not to dismiss Guruji’s formula. And I don’t intend to follow it any differently than I have. It is just a reminder, to me at least, of our habits and preconceptions and the, perhaps, rigid thinking that we can fall into at times.

How you see and approach things depends on your perception. And, perhaps, your practice.

Posted by Steve

Blog highlight: Who is the teacher and who is the student?

Steve’s Sunday Conversation topic got me thinking about teaching. It’s been much on my mind, because I’m in the middle of revising the writing course I teach at UCI. Part of my job is to not just run the course, but to train new teachers of writing, and every time I teach my Led First class at Jörgen’s, I ponder the meaning of teaching because, although I’ve been teaching writing for 28 years, I’ve only just started teaching Ashtanga. So I draw on my knowledge as a mentor teacher (of writing) to inform my role as a new teacher (of Ashtanga). I have a few observations that may answer Steve’s question.

There’s a difference between a guru and a teacher. In one of my teaching circles, in academia, we never use the word guru, of course. It carries some powerful colonial connotations, and none of them wanted. But we do mentor. I can say unequivocally that in every case where I’ve had a mentoring relationship with students, they’ve come to me. Some of these relationships are fifteen to twenty years old now, and I’m always a little astonished by it. I believe the student chooses the guru; the reasons have to do with the guru’s weight and light, but they have even more to do with the student. I used to put a quote from Bruce Lee at the top of my syllabus: “One is taught in accordance with one’s fitness to learn.” I’ve chosen my guru, I have no doubt.

But let’s just stick with the second word after Steve’s slash: teacher. At the start of each quarter, I pass out a long document listing the requirements of the course, my aforementioned syllabus. I always tell my students my syllabus is my contract with them. It’s not just what they’re promising to do in good faith (come to class regularly, work with focus, participate actively, etc.) but also what I’m promising to teach them. They should come to class with an expectation to learn from me. They should tell me when they don’t feel like I’m serving them well, so I can be better. A teacher recognizes that responsibility. When I show up to class, I am there to give knowledge. By showing up, I’m agreeing to do that. I want to do that for my students.

In the same vein, a teacher has to recognize the best way to impart knowledge to any given student is going to be different each day, each meeting, each student. A teacher has to demonstrate alacrity and adaptability, and a keen evaluative eye. One student may require a lot of, shall we say, firm encouragement—you might need to kick some ass. Another student doing the same task, even the same way, may require more support and compassion. You can never do the adjustment the same way twice. Knowing how to adapt requires a lot of experience.

The only way to get experience is to fail and learn. This means that all good teachers are first and foremost good students of their own art. When you set the right learning environment, students are willing to join you on this journey, accept your failures to serve them well, accept your apology, and try again with you. That process of learning the best way to learn—together—is an amazing experience, a sort of electric moment when the student no longer needs you, and you will now know more about how best to teach. The posture is now done with lightness and joyful confidence, and you can both move on.

So ultimately, the goal of all teachers should be to teach yourself into redundancy, to let go and point the way forward, beyond you as a teacher, into the art itself—to teach the student to be his/her own teacher. This is really the goal of learning to write well. It has some similarities to being an Ashtanga teacher.

Posted by Bobbie


A Few More Words on the Vanity Fair Article

Steve’s posted his thoughts on the March Vanity Fair article titled, in full, “Yoga for Trophy Wives: The Fitness Fad That’s Alienating Discipline Devotees,” with the online title, “Who’s Yoga Is It Anyway?”

I have a just a few things to add. As you might guess, it’s about the title.

A few friends have asked why in the world Vanity Fair would care about the Ashtanga world. The answer, of course, is it doesn’t. It cares about “57-year-old Paul Tudor Jones II,” who “runs the multi-billion-dollar hedge-fund empire Tudor Investment Corp.” and, apparently, his “trophy wife.” I don’t know about how they feel about that title (“trophy wife,” not “II”) on the east coast, but out here it’s an insult.

Granted, journalists rarely get to write the titles for their articles–editors to that. This one seems to be designed to sell magazines and get web hits, since I’m not sure it makes sense. Technically, it means Ashtanga is alienating me, as a “discipline devotee.” Not so, Vanity Fair.

But, really, I’d like to address “Who’s Yoga Is It Anyway?” and Sharath’s comment, “Everyone has their own rights to share the knowledge with others. Nobody owns this.”

Standing on the porch of the Mercantile in Mt. Shasta with Tim last summer, I said to him how much I admired Guruji for his choice of name for the practice. He didn’t name it after himself. When Sharath Ragaswamy changed his name to Jois, and the word got out that the studios would be called Jois Yoga Shala, I got nervous. This was beginning to feel like branding. When I heard from the Millers last summer how things were going down with the opening of the studios–the things reported in Vanity Fair–it began to act like branding. Branding means ownership, by definition. And often leads to declarations and exertions of power without acknowledgement of equal worth.

So my thought is this: How different it would have sounded if Guruji had not said, “Ashtanga yoga is Pananjali yoga,” and had said instead, “Jois yoga is Patanjali yoga.”

Posted by Bobbie

Wednesday with Timji: Jupiter turns retrograde

Here’s your weekly link to Tim Miller’s blog post, once again at Facebook, so I hope that doesn’t limit you.

Link is here.

And a tasty little morsel:

The specific effect of Jupiter on each individual can be assessed by looking at what astrological house it currently occupies in your chart and how it aspects your other planets.  In the Vedic system Jupiter currently resides in the nakshatra called Bharani (the bearers).  The symbol of this nakshatra is the vulva and the presiding deity is Yama, the god of death, who is also known as the King of Dharma.   The symbolism of the womb indicates changes that occur within, suggesting personal breakthroughs that are often preceded by struggles and must be nurtured by self-discipline and perseverance.

Go read it all.

Posted by Steve

“You come!”: Newbies at the Confluence?

Last night, as I was chatting with my students after a great class, one of them asked this question:

The author with Tim, not too cool for school.

“Would it be o.k. to come to the Confluence even if you’re a new student?”

I pulled up a bench and told a little story. Back in 2005, I was a brand new, shiny Ashtanga student. I had strong feelings of loyalty to the practice, but was still very uncertain of my ability to “do” it. I was still at what I call the self-denegrating laughter stage: When my teacher would say, “Jump your feet to either side of your hands,” I would sort of snork. As if, I would think.

So when the Ashtanga world was abuzz with excited word that Guruji was coming to Los Angeles, I was all, “Gu-who-ji?” In spite of multiple offers of rides and places to stay (I lived in Orange County at the time), I didn’t go.

You can imagine how I feel about that now. When my student asked that question, I could see the same look I must’ve had on my face back in 2005. I was intimidated by students I thought were “more deserving”–you know the ones I mean, the ones that send off that air of privilege that can make Ashtanga feel like a private club. I was more scared of looking stupid than I was of actually learning. From the master!

So should you come if you’re new? YES! Especially if you’re new! My shala in Los Angeles is new, and it’s a total joy to see new people walk in the door and experience Ashtanga for the first time, to see Jörgen explaining a suryanamaskar–something that seemed an impossible task for me when I started–and to see that clean, shining look of..well, shock at the end of class. Something learned. Imagine. To be brand new, learning from Eddie Stern, David Swenson, Nancy Gilgoff, and my own guru. From Tim Miller. Yes, in my best Guruji voice, “You come!”

Posted by Bobbie