I don’t know what it is about the Mysore style of the Ashtanga practice but sometimes it can bring out not our best – but our worst.
The progressive series lends itself to some established hierarchy in our minds as a dictator sits at the helm, determining our rank. It’s like my Catholic school upbringing all over again where we’re either too timid to ask questions or brashly figuring out how much we can get away with.
I’ve seen both extremes. A student so worked up about talking to a teacher about their practice, for fear of appearing disrespectful and suffering the wrath of insubordination … to a student literally sneaking postures the way an insolent teenager steals beer from his parent’s fridge.
Either way, these behaviors rise from a feeling (real or imagined) of powerlessness. These stories leave room for two ways to proceed: either passively submit or shamelessly rebel.
Yet how about this third option? Grow up!
One of my favorite teachers, David Keil, says this in a much kinder way: we need to become adults about our practice.
“You’re an adult” in the context of practice this means that you have reached a certain level of maturity in understanding what the practice is about. At that point, you are just as responsible for your practice as you have allowed your teacher to be. It means, you have to own it.”(David Keil)
We are not born adults. So in the beginning, we ARE just learning and depend so much on the rules of safety and the guidance and experience of our teacher. Luckily beginners don’t have a problem being curious, asking questions, or messing up.
But once we hit adolescence … holy cow! Some of us really struggle. It’s that time we don’t know what we don’t know and it tends to either breed a sense of entitlement and arrogance or a timid and undeserved insecurity.
Like most, I have probably teetered on both sides. Some of you may argue that my Rocket practice of yesteryears was my more rebellious face followed by the flip side, perhaps a blinder reverence to atone for such sins.
Either way, I was confused when my own teacher expected me to know the next posture in my series before it was given.
“Guruji was funny on this: he fully expected you to know the next posture in the sequence you were learning, but he also wanted you to respectfully wait for him to ‘give’ you the posture. And this juxtaposition is where I line up on this question. In a general sense I do like the student to defer to me on the decision about when to add a new posture or start a new series. I base my choices on many factors … but also I think that each student ought to naturally want to take full responsibility for their learning and for their journey in yoga.” (David Garrigues)
I was fortunate to have lunch with beloved teacher, Tim Feldmann, last week while he was in DC teaching. I was bemoaning perhaps a bit, the special kind of awareness my practice requires as I age. He understood and in fact, had this conversation with Sharath on his last visit to Mysore.
Tim shared with his teacher that as of late, he was experiencing more aches and pains than usual. After all, third series is quite demanding. Sharath’s response to his student? Do more primary.
Because even though the practice appears linear, maturity requires us to see outside this limited box and transcend any idea of levels and rank. In fact, an adult would recognize – learning remains continuous and has nothing to do with postures and series.
Part of the method is repetition and repetition means circling back around to rework entire series even after you have learned further series … The first time around in learning a series you can extract a certain amount of juice, nectar, knowledge, or suffering (ha!). You do the work extract the sap and move on knowing that on the next round you will extract something different that you couldn’t have accessed the time before. (David Garrigues)
Bottom line, this is not a competition towards a finish line. Just as there’s no award for the overly compliant teacher’s pet. Each of us may have a tendency to err on one side or the other – with either an impatience that fools us into thinking that just because ‘we can, we should’ OR with a fearful caution that keeps us as life’s forever passenger.
Hopefully, as we grow up we also take responsibility. We move forward, keeping our inner child in check and develop a sense of maturity that keeps us healthy and balanced.
Come to think of it … I suppose I’m not talking about Ashtanga anymore at all. And maybe once we can truly become adult-like in practice, we might be able to apply this acquired maturity to the rest of our lives as well.