Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Not My Yoga!

Yoga is way too big to ever be called, "mine".

I love yoga. I practice yoga. I read about it. Dream about it. And I teach yoga.

Yet, if someone were to ask me about what is my yoga, my inclination is to answer that it's not "my yoga". It is way too big for that.

Yoga is not "mine". I cannot give myself or another person yoga. What I have learned from teachers is technique. I can apply this technique to myself, and I can teach it to others, but the yoga itself is not mine to have or mine to give. I can only participate in the experience.

Whenever I have asked Gabriel Halpern (a yoga teacher who has had a profound impact on my understanding of yoga and on how I see myself as a human being) about something amazing and insightful he said during class, he always says that it came from Mr. Iyengar. I recognize something truthful in this strategy of teaching beyond what might be immediately apparent. It could be true that every time I have commented on what Gabriel said in class that it came from something he learned from Mr. Iyengar, the man. However, what this kind of deferral has taught me is that the teachings of yoga come from a source that is beyond us. This brings a sense of diligence and service to the teaching of yoga. It is beneficial to individual people, but it is not about us as individuals. We are working to maintain an ideal of service and care for humans through yoga.

One time, years ago, while assisting Gabriel in a Gentle yoga class, a student I'd been assisting spoke extremely glowingly about an experience she had had in a pose. When Gabriel came over she shared with him the wonder and revelation of her experience and my part in it. I was smiling and feeling very pleased; she felt that I had done very well was what I was telling myself. (Yes, I had done very well...) Gabriel, who can be quite theatrical, then turned to me and made a funny face (like maybe he had crapped his pants—it was hilarious, but I was too stunned to laugh...), turned his eyes upward, waved his hands in the air, and stepped from one foot to the other. His stature seemed to be shrinking during this strange and playful dance of adoration. Then he got down onto his knees, paused and then kissed my feet. I was embarrassed and felt myself shrink inside a little. I got it. This wasn't about me. It was about her experience of herself, which she happened to be projecting onto me in that moment. I had lapped it up like a kitty drinking milk, but that wasn't the whole story.

You see, it's easy to become confused when it comes to yoga. I was offering some points on technique that I had learned from Gabriel, that he had learned from Mr. Iyengar in India, that he had learned from... (and so on...) So when my head was expanding with delight, and Gabriel knelt down and kissed my foot it immediately dawned on me that this was not a situation to buy into. Sobered, I turned to the student and continued our work.

And the lesson has stuck with me to this day, approximately seven years later... I honor the experience of students, and at the same time I know for myself that the blessings of students are reflections of their gratefulness about their experience with yoga—it's not about me. I only strive to serve the process of life and yoga in a helpful way.

* Simul-posted at Elephant Journal *


Unknown said...

i love gabriel. i apprenticed at yc with patrina back in the day. i learned so much from both of them. i consider him one of the most important teachers in the area. a pioneer & his studio is the best. i always encourage people to go there. i also like that they do only one style. i am not into mixing at all. i believe in strength coming from concentration in one path. HOWEVER, us astangis & iyengars come from krisnamacharya, so we are KIND of on the same path. just different ways of doing things. i use what i learned at yc a lot because of the obvious limitations astanga has on the average person.

it's all absolutely lovely!

Anonymous said...

Whenever I say "my yoga", it is coming from a place of what yoga means to me. I could never contain everything that yoga is, nor does it belong to one person or one culture (IMHO).

Any realisation I could possibly have, has already been had by numerous yogis lost in the mists of time before we obsessively wrote everything down, or had the technology to record it.

We are having human experiences, and they aren't personal (as much as we might believe otherwise).

Sounds like Gabriel demonstrated this for you very succinctly. :)

Linda-Sama said...

I wholehearedly agree with svasti. I use the term "my yoga" and like svasti said, it also comes from a place of what yoga means to me. While yoga is yoga, IMO, i.e., it all comes from the source even beyond Krishnamacharya, "your yoga" won't necessarily be "my yoga."

As you know, I study at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram and that style truly becomes everyone's individual style depending on what they need, how their body is, etc. While Jois and Iyengar were both taught by Sri Krishnamacharya, they interpreted his teachings for THEIR own yoga. I think you would agree, Brooks, that a pure astanga class is different from a traditional Iyengar class in the same way they are both very different from a class that I do at KYM with Desikachar.

So while it comes from the same source, which in this modern yoga age is Krishnamacharya, each of us makes our own yoga. Otherwise, we are merely mimicing the teacher.

just my opinion!

Eco Yogini said...

yes yes yes.

what a humbling experience for you- but you're right. i think some teachers do get stuck there. and it's perfect to remember not too.

loved this.

Brooks Hall said...

Thanks for commenting, everybody!!

I understand the tendency (necessity?) to personalize a yoga practice and teaching practice, but I’ve found myself not jiving with some of the “my yoga” language because it can over-sentimentalize a practice that is intended to help us let go of attachments. If we are defining our relationship to yoga as if yoga were a cute puppy, it is a flawed understanding. This dawg has teeth!

And Linda, I think that some people can get boxed in by “their yoga”. What is appropriate at one time in life for someone, isn’t necessarily helpful at another time. Even our physiology changes as time passes… Things heal, change and become injured or compromised, heal, change again... So I am suspicious of systems that say, “this is the right way.” The right thing changes, so even if a teacher gives me helpful instruction in a particular moment, I might find myself weeks or years later needing to do something different because the situation in my body/mind/life has changed. No handholds last forever… Yesterday’s handhold can become today’s crutch if we are not mindful of the process.

One more thing: The piece about “mimicking the teacher”… When we are starting out that’s what we’ve got, I think. So mimicking the teacher in itself is not bad, but I also think that as we practice and teach over time we can definitely develop ourselves and take responsibility for teaching what we know.

Thanks again, everybody, for helping me to think further on these things!

Linda-Sama said...

actually, Brooks, I think you've misunderstood what I was saying. as svasti said "it is coming from a place of what yoga means to me."

so no matter how much yoga is about connection, neither you nor anyone else can ever know what "my yoga" means to me or what informs my personal practice because we all different and unique.

actually my yoga is informed by my spirituality which is Buddhism. I have found that concept almost verboten to talk about in workshops and teacher trainings and I thank the Goddess (!!) that I found the training that I did at Spirit Rock that combined both classical yoga and Buddhism -- because that was definitely "my yoga"!

as for mimicry, of course students do that in the beginning. that's why I tell my students that I just give them the road map, but they have to drive the car themselves.

Brooks Hall said...

Linda, I know you think that I misunderstand, but I really think that we are both honoring different facets of the same jewel.

Linda-Sama said...

as I commented on EJ, it's all just words....;)