Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Svadhyaya and the Art of Self-study

During a recent dinner conversation, a friend made a distinction between teaching and living through students that made an impact. Teaching conveys the tools of a given subject, but doesn’t dictate the usage of the tools. Living through students is happening when a teacher says, “do it like me,” or, “do it this way.” The example follows:

Imagine a painting teacher who teaches students exactly what colors to use, and how to move the brushes across the canvas so that the resulting works look like an extension of the teacher’s portfolio. And the teacher looks around and thinks, “Ahh, good, I am impacting the world.” In this case the teacher is seeing more of his or her self in the work of the students, and even living through them.

Now imagine an art teacher who teaches about the brushes, paints, and the possibilities of painting, allowing students to communicate themselves through their paintings. In this case the teacher would look around the room and see a community of selves in the resulting paintings, rather than mimicry of style.

To beginning yoga students as well as beginning painters it is appropriate to show a path, but the goal is freedom (in art as well as in yoga). How can we learn to live as true expressions of our selves, whether it is through art or through the way we live our lives?

In yoga philosophy, Svadhyaya, or self-study, is fourth aspect of Niyama.

There is risk in knowing yourself. What if you discover that you are fundamentally different from someone else when your friendship was predicated on feeling the same about things? Or what if you find out that you are very similar to someone that you had decided was an enemy?

Nevertheless, this is an important part of being an artist or yogi: knowing your self. How else can you express who you are?

Svadhyaya includes all the ways we can know our selves: as individuals, in relationship, as a species, as culture, as spirit.

Teachers: Are you teaching to empower students to know themselves?

Students: Are you living through the teacher’s practice, or are you learning to deepen your experience, and to find your own expression and use of the tools?


Flo said...

I really enjoyed this analogy. It makes perfect sense. I am not a teacher, I hope to be one day if my path leads there. This is a great reminder.

RB said...

"There is risk in knowing yourself. What if you discover that you are fundamentally different from someone else when your friendship was predicated on feeling the same about things?"

Thanks. This really clicked for me. I've been trying to decide whether to pursue a path as a teacher.

Anonymous said...

Good questions--one of the most frustrating experiences I had as a teacher (of writing and literature, not yoga) was seeing students insist on simply throwing back what I gave them, handing me papers full of my ideas, undigested, often misunderstood. One of my greatest thrills, actually, was when someone engaged with what I put out, turned it around, disagreed with me (or, in the case of one really brilliant creative paper, created an utterly hilarious parody of me)--showing that they were really thinking, and really learning, really discovering their own thoughts, rather than mind.

Unknown said...

Great post. I am so glad that I picked up on this so early on in my teaching. I noticed the frustrated question - "why isn't s/he doing what I told her/him to do?" - arising, often after calling out a verbal adjustment from seeing them doing something "wrong". When I started talking to students asking them why they were doing this or that, more often than not I found out they were adjusting for something very individual to them, an injury or spimply just a body that worked differently than many others.

Now the first thing I ask when I get the urge to correct someone is, "Is this coming from my ego?" Many times it is, other times I just ask what is going on. I think it takes a bit of evolution for a teacher to develop a trust in each student's intuition for what is right or wrong for them as individuals, your post will hopefully help many teachers to start this evolution :-)