Ashtangis live long and large; ideally practice refines the personality into a unique, perceptive unit that is more than a little trouble for whatever status quo. Our social nervous system hugs the planet. When a drama ripples through the subculture, it can be intense.
There have been some epic moments in the practice in the 18 years I’ve been around: Sept 2001 in NYC; August 2008 when Patthabi Jois sent a letter to his students asking them to teach traditional Mysore programs and continue coming to India every 18 months; June 2009 when he died; Dec 2017 when #metoo came for said dead man. These last two months in Mysore, I went ethnographic. Listened without much responding. Asked open questions, stayed curious, took notes– the way my ethnography teacher taught me. I don’t personally perceive a threat in these times; I do perceive a new global awareness of patriarchy. This winter, I was in a place to listen.
When I landed in Mysore in late November, my teacher dropped me into a node of the social nervous system—assisting him for the first few batches of practice each morning. First I’m going to describe my position there, then I’ll write a tiny bit from my notes regarding patterns in the patriarchy.
I’m writing on a plane home to Detroit, and now as we begin our descent I see this document has reached 25 pages. Before I post, I’ll cut out 90%. I’ll edit out comments on the Code of Conduct, and about healing broken gender dynamics, and post those in March and April when these topics are not so hot on the internet. Those will go up on time on the first of the month, since they’re already written… and since I won’t have a crew of beginners those months like I do in February.
Though I want to share my experience, I’m not trying to contribute to or feed off the drama; my motivation is to keep my personal writing practice alive, and as a by-product of that, to share some of my perspective with those who read here.
Here’s an old post about assisting my teacher in 2014. I’ve studied with and assisted with him quite a bit since then, and this time around was different from everything before.
Most days this season, for the first time here ever, the teaching hours were consistently mystical. Not spaced out and dissociative, but sensorially sharp, non-narrative, and hyper-connected with people and objects around me. There was a sensitivity + stillness in the center of my chest. Afterwards I’d have a shower and a dosa and reflect on the quickly decaying experience.
Like leaving a great concert. Lots of nights, you go to a show and the energy doesn’t quiiiite come together. But then there are the epic moments when grace comes down. As a connoisseur it takes years of music study to really appreciate the art; it takes making peace with the awkwardness that attends your attempts at sonic creativity; it takes finding presence in playing scales for their own sake. But at random intervals you just merge. Absorbtion happens. And you don’t know it cognitively until you’re out on the sidewalk after, or in this case you’re at Sri Durga waiting for a dosa.
This season, day after day, the primary residue was a sense of connection. So many nervous systems, so much feedback between them: in influence given and received, in shared breath, in the singular feeling-tones of subtle emotions, in a sense of relationship that resonates almost as deep as kin. Sometimes yoga is art. Each day I was increasingly moved by this experience, grateful just to have the capacity to appreciate it all to some degree.
As for taking action, I wasn’t really. I was resonating with my teacher. At the very best, extending his intuitions and intentions, based on my knowledge of a head tilt, ability to follow his gaze, and rafts of pattern-recognition data stored up in my subconscious. Teaching at home is exhausting insofar as I have to make decisions. Responding to whatever’s coming up for a student, working with them co-operatively to pace their learning process in a way that supports their daily life – everything in this domain requires that I discern, weigh options, navigate consent. Assisting is just this: blanket the room as evenly as possible with your awareness, and be moved. Respect and care and love were there, irrepressibly, as you already know if you were in the room.
If hearing the description of something beautiful makes you angry, because there is anger on the internet, I am really sorry. It feels dishonest, though, to pretend it wasn’t healing, to pretend there wasn’t so much genuine connection—for many, not just me there riding the morning waves.
The good conditions were just luck, I suppose. But, preparation helped. I see two most obvious things that opened the door for assisting to be an absorption event: crossing a threshold into strong mutual trust with my teacher … and something about my hands.
I started teaching after a decade of practice, and after apprenticeships with two certified teachers. The jyotishas say my hands are star-blessed. Still with this preparation, and maybe a predisposition, I feel now how little I could sense those first couple years of teaching. My hands didn’t hear. But in recent years, rate of change in my receptivity concerns me – how much more development is still coming? What do I fail to perceive now, simply because I’m still so inexperienced?
A person who is teaching hand-blind may try to make things happen with their fingertips. It’s impossible to describe this, but intuitively we sense that non-feeling fingertips are creepy. Not empathic. Sometimes sexual. There are exceptions, but in I have learned it, most movement comes from soft palms. I often keep the fingertips barely off body, sensing the emptiness in the space between. Hands live-wired can find this yabyum of fingertips receptive, palms a little bit active. The balance favors holding space, not touching much. What’s a lot of work in teaching at home is setting up fields of awareness and safety where consciousness might move itself. I trust that when it is time, consciousness will move. As it is moving now, everywhere.
I learned last month that in the corporate yoga world, there’s a move toward consent cards for touch. Excellent. You’ve got various people you don’t know dropping in for a class after probably tough days; the relationships aren’t grounded in mutual receptivity or a sense of long-term care; there’s talking and/or music; and you’re a 200-hour trained teacher who might not have a decade-odd daily practice to draw on. Why touch people in such a context? The hyper-sensitivity of Mysore style in 2018 is a beautiful counter-point. Ideally, relationships are years-long; and teachers are long years into daily silent practice practice. If they don’t perceive what kind of day – and what kind of year – you’re having based on the resonance in their body, then something’s off with the situation. Like maybe it’s a workshop, or there are tons of drop-in students. Commercialism and consent don’t mix well. But the grounded, stripped-down context of a 2018-era Mysore room is there precisely so a student has verbal, facial, respiratory, emotional and bodily avenues for expressing how they are doing in great detail over the course of a morning.
If I was a live wire this winter, my worlds broadcast three different wavelengths. Mysore; my home shala in Michigan; and the ashtanga internet. All was well in the first two practice worlds; the internet was different.
The feeling in Mysore this winter was one of epic connection. You know the experiences when you make life-friends and you’re never quite the same – maybe the first weeks of college, or some camping trip, or an epic intermural season. Lots of years, Mysore’s not like that. This year, I knew we were making history for better or for worse; there was some presence of the past, but much more heavily a presence of the future.
Looking at my notes, the most meaningful conversations this season centered on two themes. First, the importance of voice and self-respect in the practice, a whole new conversation for the subculture about critiquing the kind of “surrender” that takes your discernment down a notch. About taking responsibility for one’s own path. About understanding the goal of practice as discernment, not bliss. That was last month’s post.
Second, and most meaningful for me, there was a lot of reflecting on motivation. Actually taking the teachings of the Gita seriously, without half-assing it. About practicing for insight, not to get things. About reflecting strongly on the things that darken the heart – jealousy, greed, laziness, hatred, whatever –rather than acting on them. About what service really is, and how little recognition is needed for service to happen.
I didn’t say much in these conversations, concerned that I’m too passionate on the topic to be credible. But consistently the inside of my nose would tense, then I’d be moved to bite my lip or look away.
Thursday I went to see Narasimhan, to thank him for all the knowledge he shares with my students when they visit him. He prompted me to ask the question on my mind because of all this: Why do I cry when I perceive that truth has been spoken?
“Because of the resonance,” he said. “There’s a vibration in the spoken truth that causes a vibration in your consciousness.” And sometimes the pitch is perfect, and then it moves you like nothing else can.
The chord was struck for me this winter. Again, and again, and again.
In the past, the ashtanga-conversation around motives of greed for getting things (postures, authorization papers, favor from a teacher, social media attention), and around teachers objectifying their students, has often taken on a “let’s be honest” tone. This valorizes the “authenticity” of just accepting that this is who you are. Who you are, if you are honest, is someone who is motivated by moving up a social hierarchy. Who you are, if you are honest, is someone who uses people for personal gain.
This has been painful to hear.
In my mind, there is an illuminating distinction here, between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation for practice. Extrinsic approaches involve achievement goals. Intrinsic motivation includes self-understanding, healing of harmful thought/action patterns, finding joy of others’ happiness. With the Mysore social nervous system alive with conversations about the motive for practice, and the value of sadhana that’s not done for personal gain, I felt this incredible deepening of my friendships.
In recent years, Mysore has felt like a scene. A lot of people here to recruit new students, advance careers, get in with the teacher, have good stories for social media. It’s not subtle – these motivations scream themselves, and around town these are the voices that tend to get amplified. This year, a lot of reflection on extrinsic (hierarchy and stuff-driven) motivations have given strength to a counter-movement of investment in relationships for their own sake. Who around you do you find beautiful in their way-of-being? Who has a soul-level understanding of some life lesson that you’re learning now? Who is brilliant in ways you can’t possibly want for yourself, but just appreciate so much?
We know what friendship based in outer connection looks like – it’s the norm in social media land. It’s ally energy, in-groups, social hierarchy drives. Meantime, teh inner motivation I’ve experienced around me this season, it seems, has a potential to foster friendship based on profound inner connection. Simple, non-instrumental admiration, adoration and care. I witnessed life-long friendships taking birth all around me this season; I know you did too if you were there. Am I mistaken to read this as an outgrowth of a surge of commitment to inner work?
All this was going down while the internet ashtanga world, and my email, were blowing up. The global if not cosmic context here is not to be ignored: for example, the secret FB page for ashtanga teachers blew itself up the same day the US government tried to shut itself down. The practice/internet disconnect was disorienting and harsh; it’s that other set of conversations through private message and on comment threads that prompted what is below.
Disconnected notes from my journal: December 2017 – January 2018.
– The body teachers us that it is a gift when old pain speaks. People with a body practice know what old pain is, and that opportunities to heal it are rare. If there’s a suppressed woman’s voice, something new, the restorative move is to listen. Because it’s compassionate. Because it’s a gift to know what we did not know.
– Because the truth of others is not a problem.
– Because there is nothing to defend.
– Or is there? If there is defensiveness, that is important informaiton. Where there is defensiveness in the body, often there’s some history. Maybe there’s energy that’s not moving. Same in other layers of reality. Defensiveness is of interest when it comes to contemplative practice.
– I have not learned so much about Patthabi Jois this season as I have about my senior colleagues. There is heat around the idea of patriarchy. Protective energy. I don’t fully understand it, but I do sense it. I respect my seniors, so much, and have focused on perceiving them.
– It feels informative to empathize with their protective energy. It is important to believe those who have a bad experience to voice. It is also important to believe and not repress those who have a positive experience to voice. In my world, the vast majority of voices about Patthabi Jois are extremely loving stories of connection and healing. If these stories are used to quiet someone else who has been suppressed in the past, well, now is not the time for them.
– But also – and this is key – any effort to silence loving, grateful narratives is extremely problematic. Who would suppress such life-stories, and why?
– We know from George Lakoff’s public work that most thinking is subconscious and scripted. There is a script in ashtanga for silencing difficult narratives. This being 2018, you know what DARVO is. For anyone who teaches, it might be useful to use that as a manual for picking out the exact script used to suppress some women’s voices. There are three or four standard responses that proceed with escalating emotion, ending with an attack on the integrity of the perceived other. We always think when we’re making an argument that we are thinking it through, but if we’re repeating something we’ve plucked from the collective consciousness, most likely the thinking has already been done for us. Shoring up subconscious scripts is good for discernment in a time when negotiations about collective memory have hidden agendas. I’ll talk about this later when it comes to the Yoga Alliance.
– In 2018 I sense that one of the keys in my teaching practice is respect for the new generations of practitioners. I encounter a lot of milennials, the people the internet tells me to write off. Can you believe this (?): they’re the most morally intelligent generation I’ve found. I intend to pay attention there and give energy to supporting their growth. Ashtanga’s current obsession with the past is understandable, but very soon, consciousness needs to move. FORWARD.
– Charisma’s stock is crashing. Well unless you’re a racist nationalist – then this is charisma’s hour. But charisma is over for the rest of us. We’re learning to distrust it and critique it well.
– Western yoga teachers aren’t gurus. Yet there is a crew of white, European and American men who have grown accustomed to being treated as gurus the past 30 years. Some have expertly refused this power dynamic; a few have enjoyed it. Those who refuse to be treated as gurus consistently depict their own teacher as deeply flawed. Deconstructing the projection of perfection empowers students. This move also diminishes every teacher’s authority.
– Party line thinking will always present itself as a comfortable option in chaotic times. This looks like any culture of silence and complicity around a teacher past or present. Like any attempt to carry out a line of defense on behalf of an authority figure. This shows up in different ways depending on one’s positionally, but the energy is usually the same. Party liners facing off leads to factionalization. But seriously, true believers. Christ was not a Christian; the Buddha was not a Buddhist; no true teacher wants self-appointed para-militaries. They want students to walk their own path, in their own style, with their own steps.
– One of the most senior certified teachers made a strong comment about a situation in which one might perceive her as a victim. She said that social media promotes a culture of victimhood. It can be an intensely disempowering zone.
– The notion of discontinuity between old and new generations of ashtanga is based on lack of experience. Some young teachers are alarmingly inexperienced. Senior teachers have tons of know-how but might be incredibly out of touch with what’s amazing and super-intelligent in the younger generations. But there are those whose practices combine study with first generation teachers, and time in Mysore. There are dozens of us. From a methodological standpoint, we can tell you there is a continuity of development in this practice. It’s bizarre to hear so people act out and give power to narratives of “before and after.” I wish the young ones would have the respect and curiosity to meet and listen to their seniors, and equally I wish that the seniors would come to Mysore like their teacher Patthabi Jois asked them in 2008 to do every 18 months. This is one continuous family of practice. We are in it together.
– Who is carrying the moral burden of reflecting on the history of ashtanga and seeing to it that vulnerable practitioners are honored, heard, and safe? From my perspective, this moral labor is being shouldered by devoted practitioners who have come to the practice in the last 10 years. They plus a few of the most senior practitioners whose voices are strong and clear. I see a lot of complexity in the relatively new, devotional practitioners: integrating different versions of ashtanga history requires significant moral, intellectual and emotional discernment. Caring for others in a moment of narrative conflict requires empathic strength and a sense of personal security. My deepest love and respect is summoned now by colleagues happy to step in to that space of non-defensive, curious growth and care. There are a lot of you who care for students and community in this way; I’m so grateful to know you.
We don’t get to live in 2018 and also be super happy about patriarchy. We can love patriarchy and protect it with all our psychic resources, but this means living in 1980. Maybe 1980 is better in some ways. But I dunno. 2018 is a damn mess so far, but it’s got me intrigued.
They say evolution is never really pretty. A big question for us, in the long view, is whether it will be beautiful.