A conversation follow-up to J. Brown article ‘Yoga teacher, Heal thyself’

The article I refer to in the title certainly touches on many interesting points.

I would like to begin with, first remind the reader that yoga is first and above all a spiritual discipline and encourages self-enquiry on many different levels. However, when one starts one may start simply to get rid of pain, or feel fitter and that is ok. Staying at that level forever, is also ok.  Also as teachers, when we begin our teaching journey, we are certainly not in the same place as we find ourselves in twenty, thirty or more years later. I feel we should remember that. We should remember that the practice works through us and takes up places and that Trust in the process is a fundamental pillar and Letting go and any attachment to specific outcomes another one.

Practice also creates changes, over years, that are physiological as well as psychological. Those are such that one, in tracing their own path/journey back may be able to see an incredible journey.

The main point I would like to discuss from the article ‘ Yoga Teacher-heal thyself’ by J. Brown, is the one about a teacher’s practice being different to what a teachers teaches the students.

Bearing in mind the premise I made that yoga is ultimately about the journey of the self – hence there cannot be a practice that is the same for even two people- I am going to go on and share my point of view, based on my personal life process, yoga journey, 30 years of practice and 20 of teaching- where a lot has been taught to me by learning ‘to read the asana in the bodies’ of the students (even there, there are never ending lessons and layers to be learnt, constantly).

I sometimes practice Sirsasana (headstand) wrapping a bandage around my head and eyes before I even sit to prepare for the pose. That day, I may go up, or not even, or I may go up and stay for a long time. Like Arjuna with his arrows and arch, I have shot mine several times, and I have learnt to be focused and yet open, fearless or open to acknowledge and gauge the level of fear and make a discerning choice. I have, through years of practice, refined the spaces in my brain, breath, mind, enough to be able to watch, observe, feel, welcome and, hopefully, respect. Above all, I have learnt the existence in the body, although not always be able to have it instantly, of the feeling that the peace of watchful acceptance has within, and the integrity and honesty in asanas that comes with that.    ‘Performance anxiety’, or attachment to a result or external shape of an asana  disappears as one learns to feel and to take each step for each step, not caring about the end result. The most important thing that I also learnt in that, is to observe the same in life and its challenges and when acceptance is not possible, be open to welcome the journey of working through what is there and then.

One day I may start my practice and feel my lower back feels so tight that that morning my uttanasana will need to be different. I may bend my knees for a while. Allow my spine to release, my abdomen to find its place, my breath. Over time and repetition or sequencing, that initial uttanasana will change, but I am not even grasping after that. I am feeling, I am working from perception. I am watching things like: tight/dense/light/ free/constricted/balanced/ rhythm in the breath/how does the head feel…so many things.

This level of practice takes maturity. It takes patience.

A teacher watches the class in front.

You look at everything. On so many levels as your vision grows as a teacher.

Some things are basic.

Age/ Mobility/Their nature and energy/ The energy of the class as a whole through the class/Is it cold ?/Is it hot?/How often do they practice or are they likely to practice?/ What time of the day is it when you are teaching? -All of these things change our choices, or they ought to.

For me, in that I decide how to take the class that day. Like a chef with many spices available you make a dish on the spot which will never be repeated again, and you also let it go after.

Because practice is for my body and consciousness and my own life process, it cannot be the same as anyone else’s.

Teaching how to develop sensitivity. How to learn to be in the body. How to recognise elemental feelings. How to open enough to one day connect with vibration, prana, sound..is a journey. We all come through different lineages, which have then be digested through our consciousness.  Thankfully the subject is huge and we each have only one drop, as Iyengar used to say, we can pass on.

In an ideal world there should be no trade marks- that is my simple view. No name of yoga styles but a respect and acknowledgement of the lineage that has allowed one to come to presence with their sacred nature. There should be no exams, no performance anxiety, but a sharing with those who sincerely want to learn. But we do not live in that. The path also teaches one to look at what is. And one does the best one can. With that.

Our society requires complying with rules and insurances and other things, which, quite often, contradict the spaciousness of the practice itself and put it in a cage.

Is that a conflict? For sure.

It that the product of institutionalisation of sacred work, which, by nature does not belong to anyone or anything that we are only humble cathalists for? To me it seems. Other people are welcome to their own views. I have, over years, developed mine.

How does one live with the instrinsic contraddictions of where the practice takes one and how to live in the present context with that? Again, that is a personal process in one’s life, and a very interesting one. Certainly g-string on fancy yoga poses in Instagram are a far cry from the nature of the practice, but it may be that through repetition, that person’s journey will unfold, and maybe they will practice completely naked. Who knows? No one starts knowing already. And we learn forever, that is the beauty of being alive and alert.

Saying yoga teachers get injured etc.

Of course it happens, like in all ‘professions’. Yoga teachers have ‘work’ related injuries like someone on the computer in an office develops rsi. Yoga teachers can also have a car crash. Yoga teachers may have a family and suffers watching their dear ones die of cancer or develop dementia or watch their children going through trauma. Are they immune, detached spiritual bypasser? Maybe some. A lot of us are not. The more practice works through you, the more one integrates their being and starts to feel more, not less. That is part and parcel of the lot. We heal ourselves. In the backdrop there is a clear empty sky. In the foreground, you may have a storm, or you may have the pink clouds. In the front we are human in the background we are consciousness. Isn’t this human place wonderful? And difficult? Are we not lucky to be here?

BKS Iyengar recommendation, if I remember correctly, from maybe 20 odd years ago in teacher training 1, was that one had to practice 2 and ½ time the amount one taught to avoid injury teaching asanas. Look at life, look at social status, look at society, look at gender, look at personal circumstances. How many have circumstances in life supportive of that?  Does that mean one stops teaching? Does that mean one is not practicing when chanting or reciting sutras or observing life, or becoming peaceful within to truly  listen to another? We are always practicing if we are teachers, not just when we perform an asana. Do we teach from what we learn?

Is yoga just asana?

In injury there is a well of learning and deepening.

The thinking of ‘how an asana should be done ‘ and the attachment to that. Is that not in itself a grasping and a limitation? Injury can set one free, interestingly. Although I have learnt my ABC first, and well.

One of my injuries, in 2009- meant I became so fragile I could barely breathe. I was lost to myself. Luckily I had enough yoga behind me to realise that. I wrote maybe 10 hours a day for maybe a month, maybe two, forgetting to eat often I was completely absorbed by the writing. Is that not practice?

Also from that, for a two year period, I watched two sutras in my behaviour and processes every moment of my aware life. The sutra on the obstacles of the mind and the sutra on how to overcome them. I watched the physical sensations as I unknotted from one mindset to another mindset, to no mindset as space came. I practiced savasana (the corpse) one hour a week to help me honour my grief anger and pain and survive it.

Is that a practice for sharing in class? No. I had to teach my beginners the sensitivity of the rotation of their hips, the openness and strength and courage that comes from jumping with wide feet from feet together. The joy and reconnection of opening the armpits when lifting up the arms. I had to bring them to their body and teach them connecting sensation to movement to feeling, and I had to take time aside for me, to practice differently.

Yoga as I see it brings one to integration. You may be a yoga teacher or become something else by the time you blossom. Again, who knows and how much does it matter?

When I practice I never know what is coming. I sit still for a while and feel. Do I teach that? Yes, as much as I can I try and instill the freedom of self-enquiry, perception, and the giving oneself permission to feel and trust-peacefully and passionately both.

In the past I taught women who had been abused, domestic violence and more. I remember one woman who could barely stand on her two feet from fear. I started from watching her body and over time, we worked through to her being able to jump, it was maybe only two feet apart. But those two feet were more than a mile as the journey I shared alongside her. Jump. And return. And again. And look at me. And jump. And spread your arms. And feel your feet. That took a long time. Would I have asked that woman to sit still with a bandage wrapped around her head and eyes? No!  Did I teach her to watch her breath, tiny amounts, through her nose? Yes. But that was not the first thing.

So….the article that started me off on this sharing highlights some potentially good points, although I could not help feeling a finger pointing and a judgement coming from a grasping at a fixed reality of how things have to be to be correct.  That is not where the practice took me.  Practice took me to a place of embracing it all. How big is the attachment to fixed ideas of various sorts? Equinimity, I have come to believe for me is the temporary place where I sit in complete peace, aware of my sacred  nature. However, I have also come to realise that there is a boundary between empathy and compassion and that boundary sits in compassion to oneself -oneself with shadow and all. In that place, equanimity becomes a temporary feeling of peace in practice within oneself, but not always a possible reality of what required by life and its circumstances. In that place there are times where one simply has to survive, act.That simple. And to breathe, again.

There is for many a non-monastic-choice with family and children and the priviledge of the challenges and pain that come with that choice; the rawness of emotions without spiritual bypassing and the use of wonderful tools to help holding all of us in life denying none of it.

The core value at the base of all other is AHIMSA TO THE SELF, without which, all others fail. Where is that when we have all of these rules of how things have to be to be right on such big levels? We have to come from a place of openness, not knowing. Then see, hear, and travel with what is, day by day, step by step. What is this perfection seeking obsession if not another grasping?

Sutras:

II.3

Avidya asmita raga dvesa abhinivesah klesah

The five afflictions which disturb the equilibrium of consciousness are: ignorance or lack of wisdom, ego, pride of the ego or the sense of ‘I’, attachment to pleasure, aversion to pain, fear of death and clinging to life.

I.33

maitri karuna mudita upeksanam sukha duhkha punya apunya visayanam bhavanatah cittaprasadanam

Through cultivation of friendliness, compassion, joy and indifference to pleasure and pain, virtue and vice respectively, the consciousness becomes favourably disposed, serene and benevolent.

As I said, since 2009 I have also developed my own ‘critical’ view of these sutras, applied to my own life experience and processes.

In Yoga

Annamaria Sacco – with gratitude to all the teachers that have come before me and to those who have shared their knowledge with  me.