This year makes 17 since I took up the practice of yoga. It was the year 2000. “Y2K.” Sometime around 2006-2007, I thought I might be ready to teach. This readiness wasn’t the result of anybody’s encouragement – teacher or friend. But I found myself in the quiet of my own practice, or in a class where I thought to myself, “I would’ve taught that differently”, imagining myself in the role. Rehearsing. So in the space of six months, I got married, entered a training program, finished, quit my day job, and started teaching yoga. I’ve been teaching for 10 years now. Some days (a lot of days) I’m quite sure I’m still nowhere near ready. I carry the gnawing sense – sometimes to the point of an overwrought, existential dread – that I don’t, and possibly won’t ever, know enough. Haven’t experienced enough of my own practice. Haven’t meditated enough, haven’t read enough, haven’t retreated, haven’t studied with a master teacher, not deep enough, not broad enough. And every day there is some experience, some realization that continues to spark a little self-doubt. As well, I think “student” is just hard-wired into my physiology. Or I am simply humble to a fault.
Add to all of that angst around being “enough” – and it must be the tale of many a teacher – that once she begins teaching, the personal practice and/or relationship to teacher, the role of student is at risk of taking the back seat. It has happened and continues to happen to me. I seek out, learn and absorb in as many ways as feel right for me at any given time. I also at times feel very alone in this endeavor and without a teacher or a community. In whatever ways I continue to reach out for instruction and go deeper in my own practice, there is always this: a tension around being both things – student and teacher – simultaneously. I can say now that the nagging “What can I possibly give this person?” doubts are slowly evolving toward a settling and a distillation in me of an essence of these gifts that are uniquely mine.
I brought up this ambiguity around the teacher/student roles with my therapist some months ago. How being a yoga teacher requires that one also, always be a yoga student, a practitioner. In this, teaching yoga is probably not very different from other professions in which you are on one hand the practitioner, performer, doer/maker, and on the other the instructor of what it is that you do. But there isn’t any such thing as a “professional yogi” in the way that there is a “professional oboist.” We don’t get paid to practice – in fact we pay to continue education – we are only paid to teach. And we aren’t ever not still students, people who practice. And rather than the increasingly rare master/apprentice relationship of old, you attend classes, you work privately with one or another senior teachers, you workshop, you video, you read. You cultivate your personal practice. What you teach comes out of this patchwork apprenticeship. There’s always more to experience. How we translate our own knowing into guidance and sequencing is part of the art of teaching yoga.
I’m constantly aware of the shift of perspective from receiving to giving. And establishing a comfort level with what I know from experience and can then impart as a teacher, but where I can also allow enough discomfort to begin teaching something still a little new to me. And yet, there is also this gulf: my practice is often very different from what I do on any given day as a teacher, and I still want what I’m doing and discovering to be known, seen and accessible. Or just plain seen and accepted. I’m just more than a little cautious in how I bridge one to the other in the context of a classroom or a one-on-one lesson. And that’s normal and okay. I’m focused on the person or the class. And what’s appropriate for him, her or them in that time and space may not have much to do with what’s lighting my own fire that week. Whatever burst of insight I might share shows up in my teacher persona in tiny pieces, a single chip of a jewel. When I want to give is the whole treasure chest, sometimes even when the deeper stuff is still a little new, a little raw for me. Even when I risk the vulnerability that comes with offering more of the things that make yoga more than exercise: connection to breath, presence, witnessing mind, chant. Those things are always there overtly in some way, and I’m sure I’m not alone in my desire to make those things more foundational to the student’s practice than the asana.
In light of this discussion, my therapist and I moved into one about spirituality and religion. There is a line on her intake form for prospective clients to indicate “religious orientation.” Most of them write “spiritual,” she said. I put “Yogic.” “Spiritual” could very well have been my answer, but I knew my answer meant something more specific than that at the time. Or something I wanted her to know about me, this restless questing, from the get-go. One way we often hear yoga described as a spiritual practice is in our view of the body as sacred, as “temple,” as a locus for an interiorized practice. What do we mean by that? I have some ways of understanding that, but still, 17 years in, struggle with my own interior, un-intellectualized experience that is both an “experiencing” and simultaneous “knowing.” Or perhaps I’m just missing a way of more habitually recognizing and acknowledging it. And by “it” I mean something like the experience of “what is in here as also what is out there.” Connectedness, unity. An embodied sense of an infusion, or joy that is akin to what I experience in relationship, in the experience of art or music, or of being in nature where the air is perfectly charged.
My teaching is not in any overt sense, “spiritual.” I am not currently under the tutelage of a guru. My own spiritual education grows out of personal experimentation, wide ranging reading in yoga and other philosophies, mythologies, psychologies and other contemplative traditions, my struggle to discipline myself to a an asana and meditation practice, my work with my therapist, and a healthy dose of both skepticism and faith. I’m resistant to the term “spiritual” itself – or to the fact that the use of it rarely conveys the essence of a way of knowing that I want, but that still eludes me. I’m resistant to the awkward ways it is often used by others, in how it shows up in the broader culture. So often “spiritual” is used as a stop-gap, a placeholder for something that’s doesn’t carry the dogma of religion, but could be any one of a number of other paths. One of the things I look for and respect in a teacher perhaps, is how they embody and describe “spiritual” themselves – how they present what they know and mean through the expressiveness of their person. Possibly they never use the term. And I look for something that mirrors something in myself. Serious and sensible, searching. Genuine. Not superfluous or flowery, but also not un-poetic. It doesn’t call attention to itself; it’s not given cover by language, voice or speech that grates and doesn’t resonate. You know it when you hear it (or don’t), in other words.
For me “spirituality” is seeking to understand the experience of connectedness, of unity in the sense I tried to describe above. Neuroscience and metaphysics are getting it; and the foundational texts of the contemplative traditions like yoga get it. The poets get it. Tom Cheetham and the psychologist James Hillman get it – this attunement to and engagement with the created world, an earthy resonance, anima mundi, beauty, the terror of overwhelm and the symbols we create around or images we call forth in relationship to those things. I think I’ve for so long understood those things as more “out there” than “in here” though: that’s the natural, primal, pre-verbal world. Flora and fauna; toes in grass, an animal’s instinct for storms. Those things that can’t explain themselves. Nature and wildness are outside, out there. I still struggle with the experience of that – that stuff out there – the engagement of outward absorbing senses – that interplay with what I find so beautiful and engaging about the external world – as also interior. My rational resistances, my “logos” brain that so wants language around that experience as explanation – have erected a fine veil. These days I want to get the veil out of the way; therein lies the unique tension of my practice.
On the other hand, I think I have a pretty finely attuned sense of the interior that comes from my practice. Somatics. Off/on switches. Embodiment. Pulse and release. Maybe it’s as simple as a mental re-frame, a re-orientation, a shift – of what I’m experiencing in here as beautiful, natural, mysterious, as part and parcel of the world out there, too. Rather than as something more often clinical or mechanical. Balance all of the autonomous “soma” with more imagistic “psyche.” But how? What’s that method, tool or technique? Is it mental or physical or both? Is it more emotional or is it studied? How can it be both?
When we first opened up the body – turned it inside out to study – to see with our outward looking eyes – we de-mystified it. That’s now an easy hook for learning yoga. Anatomy. Look at the body in these poses. Even, look at these muscle groups, illustrated without skin so you can see with your eyes what it (action – what’s going on in there when you do these things) looks like. So you have something to hold in your mind’s eye, in your ability to imagine, as you move and hold and reach and release. It offers both a way for teacher to impart and for student to grasp. It’s a bridge.
And as much I am fascinated with anatomy, I’m seeking other kinds of bridges. Cheetham and Hillman talk of the primacy of images. Of creative imagination. Images as they arise in dreams, for example. I put a lot of stock in this as a teacher – in an ability to see, in whatever way makes sense to you as a student – what you are also simultaneously feeling. An inner visual, imaginative “hook.” Maybe that only works for more visually oriented people. Some people are more attuned to what is actually felt in the body or the body in a yoga pose, in asana with no more need for additional cuing. One of my students gets it by going through her mental checklist of verbal cues I’ve given and she then feels that by putting 1 + 1 + 1 together to get 3 (or for her a sense of unity in the pose).
Before we knew what we looked like on the inside, what stood in the space of that blank? Mystery. Accidents and death revealed blood and bone and surely organs and entrails. But the mechanics of life and bodily existence – respiration, circulation, digestion, locomotion, reproduction – were great mysteries. And to mysteries we assign symbols and ritual. Totem animals. Colors and minerals. Constellations. Gods and goddesses. Blood sacrifice, fertility re-enactment. Currents and energy channels with associated symbolism. For all of the qualities of the natural world we could observe, all these things that impacted our ability to thrive and survive, we needed a “how” and a “why.” Story, myth, ritual, practices. Something to tell ourselves what those things could not, or so we thought.
In “Imaginal Love,” Tom Cheetham’s comparison of the ideas of the depth psychologist James Hillman and the religious historian and Islamacist Henri Corbin, Cheetham references another historian, F. Edward Cranz who describes a former “way of knowing” that he calls “conjunctive,” where an “ancient, extensive self” was in “union with sense objects.” Some faraway mode of experience we assign to pre-literate cultures. Our modern “intensive self” (separate from, interior oriented) on the other hand, now divorced from a reasoned “vision of what is”, has embraced a more “systematic coherence of what is said or thought”: language, in other words. This results in the inevitable “split between knower and known.” Cheetham feels (and we run into trouble with this in practice when we rely on texts more than direct practice and experience) that “knowledge lacks immediacy” and laments the “loss of an Aristotelian ‘continuum of capacities – sensation, perception, fantasy, memory, passions and intellect that are continuously interactive’.”
Henri Corbin says poetry captures the space in between these two ways of knowing and that it should give us a “noetic” or “cognitive” function, it should give us access to a different “region of being.” Cheetham expands on that: “Poetry, the arts; creative activity binds body and mind, thought and being, soul and world, human and god.” Jung bridged that gap through his psychology. The Jungian analyst Jerome Bernstein writes about “borderland” experiences – a sense some people have of being in communion with the more “unspoken” capacities of the larger web of existence. The East sought perhaps to quiet the mind in order to retain this more “extensive” or unitive capacity with contemplative practices. How can my modern practice of yoga do this?
Maybe I’m creating an unnecessarily complicated route toward satisfying my yearning for more meaning, more depth, more beauty, more creativity, more “in between-ness” to this thing I do called “practice,” which can become both overly physical, or overly intellectual. Dry, either way. I have both a musician’s and a social scientist’s background and ways of looking at experience, expression and knowledge. Most days I still can’t believe I’m earning a living not doing either of those two things, but of all things – building a knowledge base around and engaging with the body. And as intimate as I’ve become with it, it’s still at times such a foreign thing to me. It was always, “There’s my head, and there’s the rest of me.” I was forever stubbing my toes and running into things.
Maybe I’m looking for a way to “confuse” those ways of knowing with what I do on my mat. Or is it just taking longer for me to submit my intellectualist, literalizing tendencies to the felt psychology of my body? To the beauty and mystery I know must be in there? When I entered the path of the academic, I left that of the musician behind. When I entered the path of the yogi, I seemed to have left both. Or didn’t consider that there was space for those former selves on my mat. Or that the yogi was back there from the beginning, in both the wordless flow of notes and the dispassionate witness of culture. I’m seeking a way toward more consciously intertwining those paths somehow in my practice. To the surety that beauty, capacity for both awe and observation, emotional affect and study is already in the experience of practice.
Cheetham’s work is such beautiful advice not just for practice, but for practice as co-extensive with life, love and and just being in the world:
“Salvation it seems to me is best understood, not as an escape from the world, but rather as an intensification, an increase in our loving, our care, concern, and compassion that results from an increase in the depth and degree of our incarnation.”
If ever there were an admonition to daily practice that might be it. Our incarnation, our body-ness. And that incarnation as a vehicle for saving ourselves, more fully knowing ourselves and loving the rest of the world. An embodied transcendence.
I’m so often working with people brand new to yoga. Brand new to their bodies, in a sense. Though they often come because their bodies have called their attention to some hurt, some part of them out of sync. Brand new to breath – breath so foreign a process there’s an almost immediate frustration with it. A block. They can’t get it. Why does it matter? Why is it so important to this work? And these are people whose lives have already encompassed a lot of Cheetham’s love, care, concern and compassion – they’re parents, grandparents, care-takers. They’ve witnessed and seen a lot of the world, beauty and celebration and loss and anguish. They get spiritual. They have religion. But they’ve become disassociated from body and they’re drawn to a practice that invites them not just to stretch, find balance, strength and ease, but to look at closely, and to allow themselves to rest. Those last two parts often being the most uncomfortable, the hardest to get.
I’m interested showing my students where practice – this physical thing with its roots in the art and work of contemplation and body – is co-extensive with art, with psychology, image, symbol and anatomy – with humanities, humanity. And in seeing in my own practice the things that sing to me from the world.
Cheetham says, “…a temple is anywhere there is a clearing, where the spark and flame are found, where the world is fully alive and present to the imagination … the clearing is what Robert Duncan has called ‘the place of first impression.'” I can begin to sense that co-extensiveness in things I am already doing. Things I like to consider as complementary ways of practicing. Cheetham suggests that travel, the study of history, conversation with people who are different, literature and reading outside your comfort zone, the collection of treasures as if you were a naturalist – these things create the bedrock of connection. And then, I would say, to know those experiences as embodied. To check gut reaction, heart reaction, awe – in the body. To know those templed places and experiences as simultaneously without and within.