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Where and Who We Are

Teachers of asana experience an interesting moment as we cross the threshold of the yoga studio; the details of our lives stay behind on the street as we enter a space of silence and concentration. A practice room is not any old place, just as the photos on the altarpiece are not merely decorative. The practice room is a sacred space, and the teacher who inhabits it should be able to maintain a state of calm and equilibrium both internally and in his or her interactions with students. If we have just had a fight with someone on the phone, we try to let go of the drama while we are teaching.

This is one of the greatest reasons to teach yoga. After spending several hours in silence, breathing in synchrony with other people, and focusing on their wellbeing, our personal stories dissolve and we forget what had us so tightly wound when class began. This also happens when we practice, but in teaching the effect is more profound. Vairagya, abhyasa’s subtle twin, is easier to experience in relationship to others. We are not invested (hopefully) in our students nailing a pose; we just hope they will find some peace, their own inner strength, the truth of action. Teaching also reminds us that being kind to others is the secret to happiness; or, as Patanjali would say: maitri karuna muditopekshanam sukha dukha punya apunya vishayanam bhavanatas citta prasadanam.

But we teachers aren’t always filled with equanimity and, as they say, the cit does hit the fan. For those of us who teach Mysore-style classes, it’s easier to hide the fact that our marriage may be in the toilet or that our bank account is in the red. Students stare at their own navels and there’s not much chatter. But guiding a led class during an emotional crisis is slightly more challenging. That’s why I always try to get to the studio 20 minutes early on Fridays. That extra time is like the bridges that connect traditional Japanese houses to their communities. As men cross the bridge in the evening, they leave behind the workplace and prepare to enter the private, domestic realm. Although practice has transformed me over time, I’m still an emotionally labile person. Those twenty minutes allow the inner silence that I need in order to teach. I sweep the floor, make sure the bathrooms are clean, change the candle on the altar and, most importantly, leave behind everything that has led up to that moment: my work as a writer, squabbles between my children, a financial worry, the front page of the New York Times.

Last Friday, my husband was away for work, and I hadn’t slept enough all week. I had been working too much and resting too little, but I knew that I would drop the kids off at school, go to Starbucks (as the Sutra goes: abhyasa, vairagya, cafeína), and still be twenty minutes early for the guided class. I would have more than enough time to leave behind the untied shoelaces and lost sweatshirts, lunchboxes and morning mayhem.

But when we got to school, my daughter realized that she had left her backpack at home. Since it had her lunch, her library books and her homework, the only option was to return home and then return to school. This is about as fun as getting to the airport and learning that your flight had been cancelled. However, a true yogi is unmoved by such minor events. A true yogi would not go to Starbucks anyway and then realize there’s no gas in the car. A true yogi would remain detached and rest in her true nature and arrive unruffled to teach, albeit a few minutes late. But I am not a true yogi, but rather a practitioner in progress, and I arrived at the studio like some desperate cartoon character with only a minute to spare and people waiting at the door.

In these moments, one must rely on the American saying: “Fake it till you make it.” I found myself in front of the class after a quick pass with the broom, bile in my throat and the abiding thought that my needs always come last, that the children are eating me alive and that it’s all my husband’s fault. Luckily, I decided not to share this tantrum with my students. Instead, we inhaled and exhaled; we chanted the opening mantra, and I began to count the vinyasas. It wasn’t my best class, and I did lose my way a few times, but I decided not to hide my muddled state, alongside the crucial decision of not muddling myself any further. You could say that I accepted what was happening and it even made me laugh.

During the class, I remembered something that Richard Freeman likes to say: that yoga means not having to present a face that’s not our own. Instead, yoga allows us to be honest and sincere with ourselves and with others. While I lost track of which vimshatih I was counting in Supta Padangusthasana, I felt the great relief of not holding on to my own mistake and also not hanging on to the mistakes of others (poor Justi—she is only seven, and Juan had been up all night himself working on a presentation). I didn’t feel embarrassed that I was a little wobbly, because I wasn’t trying to hide it. Once more, the practice itself—the movement of the vinyasa, the rhythm of the breath, the students’ concentration, everything that we know as the Yoga Chikitsa—cured me (if only for a while) of thehalahala.

This experience reminded me of several emails that I received over the past week from anxious practitioners enrolled in Ty Landrum’s upcoming workshop. All the messages express the same worry: I’m embarrassed to do the workshop because my practice is so elementary, or I have an injury and I can’t do my regular practice and I don’t know what to do; everything is so hard for me right now. I had caught myself entertaining similar thoughts: since my sacrum is stiff from an injury, what will Ty think of my kapotasana? The last time he saw me practice that pose was going so well…

Ty Landrum has a PhD in Philosophy and he does the fourth series, but his excellence as a practitioner and as a teacher has nothing to do with his physical prowess or intellectual achievements. He isn’t coming to Buenos Aires all the way from Boulder to inspect our practice and declare that we suck. He is crossing the world to share the teachings that have changed his life and have transformed him from the inside out. His teacher, Richard Freeman, points out that our initial motivation for practice can be selfish or embarrassingly neurotic, but if we can be honest about this, than that’s a great place from which to begin. In other words, we have to stand up from the ground on which we have fallen. If we are injured or tired in our practice, that is exactly what we need to show Ty Landrum, instead of hiding our real state and injuring ourselves further. A good teacher wants to help his or her students, not give them a grade. A good student accepts a few mistakes from a teacher if his or her heart is open.

It is so important that we embrace where and who we are. Our agility in asana and supposed achievements do not make us genuine practitioners or sadhakas. Even Ty Landrum will one day lose his strength and physical grace. But he will not be a less earnest or devoted practitioner if he can no longer rise into Urdhva Kukutasana.

We don’t need to ‘prepare’ ourselves for Ty or be perfect as instructors. All we need is to be honest and to keep each other company when we feel lost or tired, defeated or stressed. That’s why we have a community of practitioners: a teacher who inspires a student, a student who inspires a teacher. One practitioner who breathes beside another. One practice that, if we sustain it, will sustain us for a lifetime.

Ty writes:

“Where do you find inspiration for practice? Do you seek it from the words of others? Do you seek it from poets, philosophers, friends? Sometimes their words are all you need. They remind you of what you are missing. And thank God they abound. But real inspiration comes from inside you. Set aside your resistance, stare openly into the abyss of your soul, and it will be there. It rises up from some unseen source, warming your body, steadying your breath and quickening your senses. This is not resolve but intelligence, waking up inside of you. It meets you like a faithful friend to walk you through the darkness of the early morning, into the sweet and silent ritual of practice.”

We’ll meet soon in that silence: fallible, vulnerable, open and honest. Where and who we are.