Home Ashtanga practitioners may know better than anyone the real value of a teacher.
It’s just that knowledge comes from a lack, not a positive reinforcement of the practice. A lack of motivation, of encouragement, of going beyond the limits thanks to the teacher shakti.
Bobbie and I are now in the home practitioner camp, which makes the not-often-enough trips to the Ashtanga Yoga Center all that more valuable.
David Garrigues has a new post up about the role of the yoga teacher. Link is here, and the section that resonates the most with me:
Joy: But a student’s limit can change, correct?
David: Yes. Ashtanga yoga is potent because it helps you to do or be what you never even dreamed. But of course there are challenges involved, a lot of limits are also quite fixed, and thus they remain somewhat stable. And so as the teacher you must be patient, some of the instructions, the patterns you want to help the student change, the new thing you want to introduce to them, you must wait…and you can wait a long time— maybe.
Ashtanga is potent, that’s for sure — and it is most potent when the teacher is there helping and guiding.
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 learnfrom 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.
One of the things that I’ve noticed over my years of teaching writing is the delay time involved with learning. It’s true for writing. It’s true for Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.
Steve’s been pondering what makes a good teacher. I’vewritten about it. But one of the main qualities is a huge heaping supply of empathy for this slow burn, and, I believe, presentness. Exteme presentness, in fact. The kind of presentness that borders on mind-reading abilities.
When I was a young teacher, I had neither of these. I would treat each essay that crossed my desk in the same way, with the same set of standards of what was “correct.”
Of course, standards are..well, they’re standards and you have to have them. But what I learned as I grew more experienced is that there are many paths to “correct.” It takes a trained eye to take a good look at an essay and decide what’s needed to get the writers where they need to go.
This is where the long view comes in. And the empathy.
I had a student years ago, during my first year as a professor, who came into my office in tears. She told me my class was too demanding. That it was too hard for her. That she didn’t feel she could do it. She wanted to quit. I soothed her, I spent hours encouraging her, making sure she felt she could do it. But at some point during this meeting, I began to understand that all was not what it seemed.
Four years later, after she’d taken maybe six more literature classes with me—in crisis at the end of every one of them—and was once again in tears in my office, I looked at her, held out the box of Kleenex, and told her get out of my office and go finish her work.
It didn’t take me long to get to know her, and figure out that in order to do her best, she had to freak out.
There’s a phrase in Latin for this: modus operndi.
I’ve noticed that knowing when to spend hours supporting a student with encouragement, and when to say get the hell out my office—and knowing that both these actions will result in the same level of success—requires the ability to fully focus on that the individual student, and that it may take a while for what you’ve taught to sink in, and that until then, things might get a bit repetitive.
This is the explanation I have for the sudden understanding that comes upon me when practicing, that shock of what you might call the asanapiphany. You’re humming along, you’re doing your practice, when something that you’ve heard your teacher say what very well may be literally a thousand times, suddenly makes sense.
Or your body just slides into the place that your teacher has put you into over and over again—no teacher present. Like magic. And you go, “Oh!” in a little surprised internal voice. (Sometimes it’s an external surprise voice.)
Tim Miller, case in point, has, for years now, put his thumb on my sacrum in trikonasana, and pulled it (what feels like to me) down. Each and every time he’s seen me do that pose.
“Wha?” has been my reaction for years.
Tim patiently gives me this adjustment. No matter where in the room he is, no matter how long I’ve gone without seeing him, and no matter where the practice room itself is, he will zoom over and do this thing that I totally don’t understand—yet.
But I know, one day, I will be practicing, and through his patience, and his empathy (knowing that I will one day understand, because he understands me better than I do), I’ll get it. Until then, this bafflement is my modus operendi.
I’ll take this one step further. I know that I’ll get it, because it’s happened so many times in the past. Tim has taught me how to trust that one day I’ll get it.
Every term, I write up at the top of my syllabus a line from Bruce Lee: “One is taught in accordance with one’s fitness to learn.” A good teacher attracts good students. The experience of good teaching is what brings me to his shala. I know I will learn. But also, our patience as good students has taught Tim to empathize and be patient himself.
I used to think I wrote that quote at the top of my syllabus for my students. Now, I know it applies as much to me as to them. In order to teach, you must be ready to learn.
Last night, as I was chatting with my students after a great class, one of them asked this question:
“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!”