“Someday You Teach”

This week, one of the editors of The Confluence Countdown—namely me, Bobbie—has found herself in a Primary Series Adjustment Clinic run by Nancy Gilgoff. Our friend Jodi Blumstein, in yet another amazing get, is hosting at her shala.

I didn’t meet Nancy officially at The Confluence (although she dropped me back in one practice), so I’ve been looking forward to it. The group is small (only 20), and I realize, as a new teacher, I have a lot to learn. Hands on stuff is very important, you know. But it’s already been a lot more than that, and I’m just on Day One (of Five).

Readers of The Countdown know that I also teach writing, and that I mentor new writing teachers. One of the things that I encourage new teachers to do is to develop a teaching persona, a personality to use as a way to reach students, which can be tough with something as personal as writing. I encourage them to stay true to themselves, but to select qualities they found inspiring in the best teachers they had themselves. This sort of thing is really only done half-consciously, but you have to bring it to the fore to let it inspire your teaching.

So I actually teared up a little when Nancy began this morning by correcting an often-quoted line from Guruji, “Practice and all is coming.” Nancy:

What he actually said was, ‘You practice. Someday you teach, and all is coming.’ In order to connect the practice with the higher self, you need to share it.

Then, she asked us to reflect for a moment on the qualities we most valued in the teachers we’ve had, and what qualities we’ve liked the least. Before we began to talk about teaching, we thought about how we like to be taught.

The journey that has me sitting listening to Nancy Gilgoff talk about the teaching of yoga has been a long one. When I started Ashtanga, reaching my hands over my head was searingly painful. Forward folds hurt so much I used to have nightmares about them. The very idea that I would be thinking, over a decade later, about how I should teach—what kind of a teacher I’d like to be—is so remarkable to me I’m in a kind of shock. But I’m very grateful that teaching itself is familiar enough to me that I can recognized the value in observing a master work.

The value is not just in improving my own teaching, but in understanding my own practice, and through that understanding, to become a better teacher.

More to come.

Posted by Bobbie


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.

Jupiter, or "Guru," is mighty, mighty heavy. Via Wikipedia.

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

What Am I Saying? The Opening Prayer

There has been a surge of new students at Jörgen’s lately. A good number of them are not only new to Ashtanga, but new to yoga. I have the daunting task of introducing them to both. I’ve had to negotiate the fine points quickly, and without personal experience (I’d been doing yoga for seven years when I landed in my first Ashtanga class, and had researched it enough to know it was hard). I stress the breath most of all, then follow with Bandhas 101, and let them know that because they’ll be focused on a gazing point, they shouldn’t look to me to demonstrate the pose. Listen, focus, practice, and all is coming. And don’t fear the Sanskrit.

So they really get thrown into the Sanskrit fire when class begins. Out of what must seem like nowhere:

vande gurunam charanaravinde…

It’s at this point in the post that I’d ask you, dear Reader, to remember that I’m also a writing teacher and a poet, and to imagine what that might mean for me to recite such melodious and evocative poetry aloud, and the hefty respect this gives me for it. I also ask you to consider what effect this might have on me when it comes out of some corners of the room sounding like this:

man-made goo-rah van chair-y near-a windy…

So I learned pretty quickly that I was going to have to break line integrity (something that infuriates me no end) and say it slow, say it loud, and say it proud.

All the same, I realize that I’m asking students from all walks of life to recite something in a foreign language without knowing what it means. I also realize I like that. My Sanskrit teacher, Sunandaji, taught me that it’s not just a language; it’s a thing. Each word is an evocation of the thing itself. In other words, it’s magic.

So I’ve put my faith in the magic of its ancient sound. The yogi will somehow know that he/she is thanking the teacher for the knowledge and healing being offered to them in the practice, thanking Patanjali for the fire of purification they are about to receive. It’s daunting, seductive, and, what’s more, it works.

In all its beautiful forms, the opening mantra.

Posted by Bobbie

Watching my teachers teach

I’ve been a poetry and writing teacher for 27 years. This summer, my teacher Jörgen Christiansson surprised me with an offer to teach an introduction to Ashtanga class at his shala. Suddenly I was faced with learning a new teaching style, new teaching methods, new kinds of students.

Years ago when I took my first teacher training with Tim Miller, I did it to, as we say, deepen the practice–to apply the principles of Ashtanga to my own body and mind. Now, I’ve been asked to teach others what I know.

In my current teaching position, I also mentor new instructors of writing. One of things I emphasize is developing your own “teacher persona”: an extension of your own personality that you can use to effectively impart information. You can also use that persona to comfort, to motivate, to entertain. Find your persona, I say, in the personas of teachers you’ve had that worked for you.

Tim teaching teachers, including Bobbie.

When I was with Tim this past week at Mt. Shasta, it was like watching Tim teach for the first time–this time as a teacher myself. I realized, in my scramble to find ways to teach the Primary Series to new Ashtangis, I was heavily stealing (some might say “borrowing”) from not just Tim, but all my Ashtanga teachers. From the opening mantra to the little jokes (“Your boats are sinking!”) to easing the students into savasana, I’m almost unconsciously taking a little here, a little there, and working to blend them into my own style.

When I realized this, I got excited about the Confluence all over again. It struck me that it’s the commonality of all my teachers, the strong bones of Ashtanga that Guruji gave them, that allows the fleshing out of the teacher. Each class the same. Each class, different. What will I learn at the Confluence, I wonder, that I can in turn impart to my students? The teachers I will meet there are conduits for the methods of their teachers. That’s exciting stuff.

Posted by Bobbie