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The Path, The Teacher and Losing Faith

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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?

My answer…

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.

My Interview on Ashtanga Paramapara

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My interview is live on the Ashtanga Parampara website. Thanks Lu Duong for the opportunity. It was a lot of fun to participate in this project.

To read the interview, click the image above.

Balancing Practice and Life

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Not too long ago, I received a question asking about practice and ageing. Without going into the details, I answered that since ageing affects each person differently, it all depends on the individual’s energy level measured against one’s responsibilities off the mat.

I replied that if you feel like practice is exhausting, depleting or leaving you without the energy to fulfill your other life responsibilities and activities, then it’s time to look at whether your practice suits you or whether you have pigeonholed yourself into a practice that is no longer appropriate.

Then, I thought that this is good advice for anyone in just about any circumstances, not just with respect to ageing. It can apply to school, work, family and traveling to name a few.

Ultimately, the question is one of balancing Practice and Life and it made me think of two attitudes on the uses and benefits of yoga practice.

On one hand, there is the attitude that practice needs to be intense and challenging so it can press our buttons, shake us up and give us insight into the workings of our minds, emotions, etc. Put another way, practice needs to produce a lot of tapas to be effective. In this case, practice is a crucible for our personal evolution and the breaking down of old, conditioned responses and patterns. The catch is that this type of practice is very high maintenance and can be very tiring because of the tapas generated.

One of the great things about taking practice at KPJAYI in Mysore is the ability to “leave everything on the mat” because there are very few if any other commitments outside of practice. It doesn’t matter how tired we are because we can dedicate a lot of time to taking care of ourselves afterwards. Without the burdens of running a yoga shala or holding down a job, we have a lot more time to rest and recuperate. Nevertheless, trips to Mysore end and we all return home eventually and have to reintegrate into our “real” lives.

As best I can, I’d like to preempt comments from Ashtanga parents who will assert that, since starting a family, their days in Mysore post-practice are no longer simply about long rest and recuperation. I wholeheartedly acknowledge that your days in Mysore with your family are radically different from how they were before you had children. That said, from discussions with parents in Mysore, it still seems like things are relatively more relaxed than they are back home where one has to juggle jobs, shalas, kid’s activities etc.

On the other hand, one can also approach practice in a way that it functions as a support to our daily routines and responsibilities. Practice would still give us an awareness of where our minds and emotions are as well as keeping us honest about what we’re thinking and feeling. However, it would leave us with enough energy to fulfill our other responsibilities.

There must be balance between these two attitudes.

A person who tries to leave it all on the mat without budgeting the time and energy required to fulfill one’s other responsibilities will probably find oneself unemployed, injured, sick, burned-out or any combination of the above.

That said, a yoga practice that isn’t enough of a challenge could start to feel empty or boring. Without enough tapas, our time on the mat isn’t going to serve the role of practice. Put another way, practice needs to be challenging enough to create the conditions for awareness and insight without exhausting us. If taking it easy were a viable yoga practice, we’d all be enjoying long hot bubble baths rather than sweating on our mats.

Holding down a job, raising a family, having meaningful relationships automatically create tensions between practice and life. Practice requires a level of intensity to be practice but without being so intense that we cannot function off our mats. It’s a duality and a paradox, but certainly not the only one that exists for the Ashtanga practitioner. Ashtanga Yoga forces us to recognize, integrate and find balance between many dualities such as Strength vs. Flexibility or Determination vs. Non-attachment.

Finding a happy medium so we can have a meaningful practice and a meaningful life off the mat is just another balancing act that we can master if we remain open to the idea of change and adaptation.

It’s not uncommon to falsely approach practice as a set-in-stone collection of asanas that remains constant. As yoga teachers, we will often say “no matter what is going on in your life, practice. It will benefit you.” But what does that really mean? If we consider the act of showing up on our mats and the generation of tapas as the important factor rather than the specific asanas we perform as yoga practice, we can find balance and practice diligently without exhausting ourselves or driving ourselves crazy with false expectations.

Eddie Stern’s Letter to Barry Silver on Moon Days

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This has been well circulated and shared on Facebook, etc., but I wanted to leave a link here as well. If you missed it, it’s worth reading. Click here.

Reply to a Comment on my “Healing Injuries” Post

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I wanted to share a comment and my reply from my recent post, Healing Injuries with Ashtanga Yoga.

The comment:
Sorry mate – you could not be more wrong – when you have a muscle tear caused through stretching too far in ashtanga you should not try and “HEAL” yourself by doing more ashtanga. I disagree entirely, my wife who is a yoga instructor injured herself when another instructor pushed her too hard in an adjusted ashtanga position and as a 30 year old female, it took her 18 months to get back to where she was before.

My reply:

Your comment is an expression of anger recalling what must have been a very trying time for you and your wife.

I’m truly sorry to hear that your wife was injured as a result of an adjustment. It’s unfortunate when that happens. I don’t know the details of what happened to your wife. I don’t know which asana she was doing or which teacher was helping her and went too far.

There are some asanas that I don’t often adjust because students are too vulnerable in my experience. I also measure my adjustments based on the relative flexibility of a student. It’s often the case that a more flexible student risks over stretching and injury far more than a stiffer student. My teaching style has never been based on only deep adjustments. There are some instructors who make a name for themselves in that way, but it comes with inherent risks as your wife learned.

I’m going to have to disagree with your comment, though. Here’s why.

Your comment is a logical fallacy. You propose that if one gets injured practicing ashtanga yoga then one cannot heal oneself doing ashtanga yoga. This is 100% incorrect from the standpoint of logic.

In addition, citing the length of time it took your wife to heal is not at all relevant to the ability of ashtanga yoga to heal injuries regardless of their cause. As a result of suffering an injury doing the ashtanga practice, she and/or you may have chosen never to practice ashtanga yoga again. That’s fine and maybe reasonable under the circumstances particularly if the teacher involved wasn’t able to restore your trust in him/her and the practice itself. However, it still doesn’t alter or weaken the point of my post.

My wife suffered from wrist and knee pain in the past and used ashtanga yoga to heal herself. It took her about eight months to heal her knee and about a year and a half to heal her wrists. During this time, she had to back way off in her practice. It wasn’t easy and she had her doubts at times about whether it was ever going to get better. Both injuries healed as a result of practicing ashtanga yoga.

I want to again offer my regrets that you and your wife had to go through her injury. That completely and utterly sucks. I hope she and you are still practicing yoga regardless of method or lineage and are finding it useful and beneficial to your well being.