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My Opinions on Yoga and Such
April 18, 2016
April 17, 2016
Ashtanga Yoga asana, asanas, ashtanga yoga, Ashtanga Yoga Shala, Ashtanga Yoga Shala Toronto, flexible student, Guruji, India, Injury, Mysore, Paul Gold, Toronto, yoga, yoga instructor Leave a comment
I received a comment/question from my previous post, The Difference Between Trust and Surrender, last week. The gist was how do we not lose faith in a particular system or style of practice when a teacher we trusted proves to be untrustworthy? Furthermore, is it possible to really separate the path from the teacher?
It is very common for students to also lose faith with a particular method or system when they have lost trust in a teacher. I agree that there cannot be a total separation between teacher and path, but it is the way the teacher behaves and teaches that can help the student to avoid equating the two too much.
As I discussed in my interview in Ashtanga Parampara, as part of the Western educational system, we are raised on a diet of seeking approval and validation from teachers in exchange for good work. It is part of the paradigm of learning here and it makes students hungry for the approval of their teachers.
I was very lucky that Guruji deliberately sought to break that pattern when I went to study with him in Mysore. I was unconsciously applying the Western paradigm of teacher approval and validation to my yoga practice. Guruji was not having any of it and it drove me nuts on my first trip to India.
In the end, I finally learned the lesson from Guruji that my practice was my own, independent of him and his approval. I am forever grateful to him for this. I have always sought to emulate Guruji and empower students so they would not feel dependent on my or any teacher’s good opinion or validation.
Since we are all a part of this paradigm, teachers and students come to yoga practice and can unconsciously work in the approval/validation matrix. It takes a very aware and conscientious teacher to help students break this pattern.
In the worst-case scenario, a teacher will seek to create and maintain student dependence as part of the business plan and/or to feed an inflated ego. The simplest way to make a student dependent is to make that student believe there is no separation between the practice and the teacher. The teacher keeps the student desperate for his/her approval and fearful of his/her disapproval.
It is in these more extreme cases that students have doubts about the practice when they leave a teacher. The collapsing of the teacher and practice leaves a very bitter taste for the student. Many students simply quit after having a falling out with a teacher. Others persevere because they have a sense that practice still has some value despite the teacher’s behaviour.
As teachers, it is our job to earn the trust of our students and to keep it. In your case, a healthy dose of skepticism where teachers are concerned is understandable and probably not a bad idea. No teacher is larger than the practice of ashtanga yoga. Trust your instincts and know that you have a practice that is independent of any teacher.
March 29, 2016
Not long ago, I was asked whether it’s important for a student to surrender to one’s yoga teacher.
My answer was that a student should never surrender to his/her yoga teacher. Moreover, it is a massive red flag for any instructor to explicitly or implicitly suggest that surrender to him/her is part of the student-teacher relationship or part of learning Ashtanga Yoga.
At the heart of the question is a fundamental misunderstanding between surrender and trust. Often, trust and surrender are used interchangeably, however, there is a huge difference between trust and surrender. They are not synonymous and their equation can blind yoga students and lead them into deep trouble.
A teacher who demands surrender from students has misunderstood the purpose of yoga practice, has an inflated ego and is on a Guru Trip or, in the worst case scenario, is being manipulative and abusing his/her position of power as the teacher.
Trust is built over time based on a student’s experience that his/her teacher possesses the expertise to teach and has the ability to tune into what the student needs.
Surrender has the connotation of abdication of personal responsibility. It is handing one’s personal power over to another and giving up one’s innate intelligence and intuition.
In a healthy relationship, there has to be a spirit of dialogue between teacher and student that allows the student to both understand the process and to feel understood. Teachers cannot teach by fiat nor expect students to merely follow orders. That’s not teaching.
Now, over a period of time, a student can come to trust a teacher to the point where there appears to be the illusion of surrender, but deep trust is still fundamentally different from surrender. It is also the antithesis of what yoga practice is supposed to do. The practice of yoga is about becoming mindful and aware not about being mindless.
R Sharath Jois has my trust. So did Guruji. From my experience of practicing with Sharath as my teacher, I believe in Sharath’s expertise and I feel that he sees me and knows where I am in my yoga practice and can read my capabilities and limitations. So, I really trust him and I am able to “surrender” when he adjusts me in an asana and listen to his direction. However, surrender in this case is another way of saying “I really, really, really trust him.”
In all my years with Guruji and Sharath, neither ever gave me the feeling that they wanted me to surrender to them. I also never felt that they in any way tried to manipulate or dominate me as a student. They taught and empowered me and it was my decision whether practice had value or not.
Here’s another way to look at it. I trust my accountant because he has proven that he has expertise in tax law and accounting, has good judgment when he makes his recommendations about my needs and has knowledge of my assets and priorities. Because he meets those criteria, we have had a relationship that has lasted for almost twenty years.
Now, if my accountant started to give me advice that made me uncomfortable, or advocated something that seemed questionable in its legality or intelligence, or no longer seemed to understand my situation and priorities, and/or had no ability to hear and assimilate my concerns, it would be pretty stupid of me to stay with this accountant. The smart move would be to fire him and find somebody new.
So, it should be no different with one’s yoga teacher than with one’s accountant.
Guruji and Sharath and my accountant, as examples, have my trust because they earned it and they continue earning it as a result of their behaviour.
So, why do yoga students give over their personal power? Yoga practice, particularly Mysore Ashtanga, is an intimate endeavor. There can be closeness between teacher and student not unlike between doctor and patient or psychologist and patient. As such, there is the strong possibility that a student can experience transference.
Students come to practice for many different reasons. Often, students bring to practice their own sets of desires that can be grafted onto a teacher. When a student starts to see and feel the benefits of yoga practice, he/she can be particularly susceptible to associating the benefits with the teacher specifically rather than attributing it to his/her (the student’s) individual efforts or to the practice itself.
Students also have the tendency to mistakenly assume yoga teachers are more evolved spiritually than we really are. Some aptitude in asana, a few Sanskrit chants and some knowledge of philosophy do not an enlightened person or yogi make. When students are looking for answers and start to feel like they are finding them, they can easily put their teacher on a pedestal.
A good teacher, like a good therapist, is prepared for the possibility of transference and will see a student’s adoration for what it is and will not step up onto the offered pedestal.
On one of our trips to study at KPJAYI in Mysore, Rachelle and I were sitting with Sharath in his office and catching up while registering for classes. We remarked to Sharath that he has become very popular and famous. Sharath put down his pen and answered, “it’s not me that is popular. It’s the yoga.”
From my experience, Sharath has no interest in being put on a pedestal. He gives any praise or accolades to the practice itself and to Guruji who taught him. Similarly, Guruji would say that he was doing what his guru had taught him.
The mistranslation of the opening chant of Ashtanga Yoga is another potential source of confusion to students. In some translations, Vande Gurunam has been mistranslated as “I bow to the Guru’s lotus feet” This, however, is incorrect.
Gurunam, is a plural noun which means Gurus’ or of the Gurus. There is no suggestion or implication of surrender or bowing to an individual teacher in the opening chant. We bow to the lotus feet of all the Gurus as recognition of lineage and appreciation for all those who have taught the method so we can practice it. It doesn’t place any individual teacher on a pedestal. This is Parampara and it serves to remind all teachers to remain humble and to cope with the likelihood of students’ transference. So, Sharath gives the praise to Guruji who gave the praise to Krishnamacharya.
In a perfect world, the onus should rest on each teacher to anticipate and manage his/her student’s transference. Teachers should see their students’ enthusiasm and adoration as a symptom of the yoga practice starting to work and not as a result of their own abilities or charisma. Put another way, it should not go to a teacher’s head.
Teachers, however, are not perfect and are susceptible to falling into a “Guru Trip”. A yoga teacher with many students can get an inflated ego and start to see the students’ hard earned trust as a given. With a class full of adoring students, it’s tempting for the ego-driven teacher to just want the students to do what they’ve been told, to surrender to him/her.
A teacher on a Guru Trip who begins to expect and demand surrender and obedience from students is a ticking time bomb. Students who give up their power to such a teacher are left feeling angry, hurt and disillusioned when their teacher eventually goes too far. The news and internet, sadly, have ample evidence of what bad teachers on a Guru Trip are capable: injuring, sleeping with or conning students to name a few.
In a perfect world, yoga teachers would abide by the same code of conduct that applies to psychologists and psychiatrists. Unfortunately, many teachers do not.
Because trust is not something that’s set in stone, students need to continually evaluate for themselves how things are going with their yoga teachers. When things between a student and teacher have soured, what often happens is that students can get stuck reminiscing about the relationship they once had with a teacher, which obscures the realities of the present. So, the student stays with the teacher even though the relationship has become negative and the trust is no longer being earned.
As a student, if it feels like the trust between you and your teacher is being corrupted into a demand for surrender, you can try to communicate this to your instructor. Maybe you can help snap him/her out of a rut or bad pattern. However, if you find resistance or a threat to do what you’re told, you should probably get out before things get even worse.
*as always, many thanks to Rachelle for her editorial insight and support.
January 7, 2016
This clip is so awesome.
December 1, 2015
I wonder if there is any relation between a 6-day practice and addiction (if the practice can somehow turn into another way of purging the body for the people with eating disorders, or another addiction for those with addictive personalities)… What do you think? I’d love to hear some comment on this. I love my practice (5 days a week) but I do not want to turn it into an obsession or addiction, or a way to prove something, either to myself or to anyone else…
Thank you for your question.
I can’t speak from personal experience about how the practice can be useful to those who are overcoming or coping with addiction. However, there are several very qualified teachers who can.
I would recommend visiting the Ashtanga Parampara website and perusing the interviews. You could then reach out to specific teachers/practitioners who have had this experience. They might be happy to share with you.
What I can say, though, is that it is almost impossible to simply stop a bad or unwanted habit. The same goes for negative or unwanted thoughts and emotions as well.
What we can do, however, is replace negative thoughts, emotions, habits and behaviours with positive and productive ones. In the practice of doing something more positive, we can slowly reduce and mitigate the effects of the negative until we ultimately replace existing predispositions, patterns and samskaras. It takes a lot of effort and diligence to make this kind of change.
Ashtanga yoga practice is such a useful tool because it is a practical, nuts-and-bolts means of examining and reconditioning ourselves. Looked at in a particular light, ashtanga yoga is a new habit creation laboratory where we seek to forge a better version of ourselves.
This may be one reason that those with past addictions have found the practice beneficial.
That said, yoga practice exists in our imperfect world. Despite all of the positive benefits that can accrue to those of us who practice, and despite the best intentions, under certain circumstances, it can be just another arena where our egos assert themselves and our predispositions and other crap can run wild.
Every method of practice is imperfect and has its blind spot. Ashtanga yoga’s blind spot is the tendency for many to get lost trying to perfect and master asanas.
How then do we prevent yoga practice from devolving into an activity that causes obsessive or addictive behaviour?
First, we need to make sure we have a good teacher who understands that the practice is just the means or vehicle for us to create more balance, peace and equanimity in our lives. One’s yoga practice is primarily a tool for mindfullness, self-analysis and self-awareness. A bad teacher who emphasizes the performance of asanas as the ends in and of themselves will not be doing his/her students any good whatsoever.
A good teacher will help a student cultivate a greater self-awareness using the asanas and teach in a manner where the other limbs of ashtanga yoga can be experienced using the asanas.
Each of us must also remain vigilant and aware of why we are practicing and what we get from practice beyond performing asanas. If you are worried about not wanting daily practice to turn into an obsession or addiction, or a way to prove something, don’t lose the forest for the trees. This understanding is ultimately a difficult practice in and of itself. Think of positive ways that yoga practice helps you that would still be there if you never perfected or learned another asana. Perspective is the most important thing.
I have already written about The Obsessing Ashtangi, which looks at the problem of students overworking in a desire to perfect asanas and advance. It may lend some insight as well.
Thanks again. Hope this helps some.
November 26, 2015
Lady’s holiday refers to the convention of women taking rest during the first three days of the menstrual cycle. However, I have it on good authority from my wife, Rachelle, that it is no “holiday” at all.
Guruji and Sharath have always encouraged women not to practice while on their periods, and to take “lady’s holiday”.
It recently came to my attention that an ashtanga yoga teacher here in Toronto has been pressuring female students to practice while on lady’s holiday and making them feel guilty or bad about themselves if they took rest.
I vehemently disagree with this behaviour. It makes me very angry to learn that an authorized teacher is spouting such garbage that contradicts what Guruji and Sharath have always taught.
There is a very eloquent answer to why women should take rest during their periods at http://joisyoga.com/practice/ladys-holiday/. I’ve also included it below. The italics are mine.
“It is recommended that women take three days of rest – often referred to as “ladies’ holiday” – during their menstrual period for several reasons. The purpose of the menstrual cycle is to prepare the body for pregnancy; when conception does not occur, the thickened lining of the uterus is shed through menstruation.
“One reason to take rest during the menstrual period is that the downward and eliminating flow during this time may be counteracted by inversions such as sarvangasana and sirsasana.
“A second, more subtle, reason is that engaging mula bandha may be more difficult and/or may counteract this downward flow. Without engagement of the bandhas, vigorous practice can be physically unsafe.
“A third, more general, reason is that excessive activity can lead to an irregular menstrual cycle or the cessation of menstruation (amenorrhea).
“Menstruation may therefore serve as a convenient time to rest as the body begins the next cycle. Though taking rest is recommended, it remains an individual choice. As the external and internal practice changes over time, the physical and spiritual importance of taking rest for a particular woman may change as well. If a woman decides to observe ladies’ holiday, she is still very much practicing yoga during this time, as yoga is far more than just asana.”
Any women who have experienced regular menstrual cramps can testify that engaging bandahs would seem an obvious common-sense bad idea during one’s period.
It is a woman’s individual choice whether she wants to observe lady’s holiday. However, I always encouraged female students to take lady’s holiday regardless of their menstrual symptoms. Even in a scenario in which individual women may not have strong symptoms of fatigue or cramps, I still have suggested rest as a way of practicing non-attachment. In rare cases when a student came to class while on her period, while I wouldn’t send the student home, I would encouraged going very easy, not engaging bandhas, not doing invesions. I would let her do what she could without pushing deeper, etc.
So, if there are any women in Toronto who have been feeling that practicing during their periods is counter-intuitive, physically exhausting and/or making their menstrual symptoms of cramping, etc. worse, you need to listen to your bodies and take rest.
There is not now nor has there ever been any prescription in Ashtanga Yoga practice for women to practice during the first three days of their cycles.
Hope this helps. Just trying to do my part to encourage sane practice in Toronto.