Sunday, February 20, 2011

Leaving Traces

Sunday is yoga day. In addition to my own practice, I teach two classes. It all adds up to about 4 - 4.5 hrs of yoga, that is to say: doing it, talking it, demonstrating it, and trying to live it. My own practice, as I have mentioned, is the ashtanga primary series. I don't teach this to my classes because they are both "beginner" classes (not that beginners can't take up ashtanga! You can! Please do!) but these two groups have made it pretty clear that they are not interested in that version of yoga, which is rather physically demanding and is better taught one-on-one. I have found some resistance when I push the class a bit (almost had a mutiny when I took them through uttitha hasta padangustansana). In my defense, everyone had been doing really amazing work in that class AND they were standing against the wall, not in the middle of the room. I am not Attila the Hun of yoga teachers! I swear.

I think it is this dance between finding places to push the student's limits and acknowledging that the physical part of yoga is just that - a part not the whole of it - that makes it such a wonderful challenge to teach. As I was teaching people to spin, I was thinking about how different it is. For one thing, spinning is a skill and a rather simple one at that. Children learned to spin as young as age three or four in them olden days. I say this with some reluctance because I think there is a spiritual aspect to spinning. I have been told that St. Teresa of Avila said that, next to praying, spinning was the only thing worth doing.

Of course, it is quite possible to spin yarn without having spiritual revelations, just as I suppose it might be possible to go through a series of yoga asana-s like one might any physical exercise routine and not engage in any of the other aspects of it. But I wonder about that. One of the last things that was said to us before we were let loose into the world as newly minted teacher trainees, was that we were teaching people something very powerful and to treat it as such - with care and respect. That really took me aback, not because I was unaware of how yoga can be powerful, but I wondered how it would work with people who come to it strictly as a fitness routine. Does it catch them unawares? Sneak up and bite them on the rear end? How is it powerful for someone who says they aren't interested in the other seven limbs?*

Most of the people I have taught have started out saying that they are not interested in the rest of it. Sure, who doesn't want to be slim, calm and sexy? But interested in attaining a state of samadhi? Samadhi who?

To be honest, I am not so sure how much beyond asana practice can really be conveyed in a group class. There is only so much I can do with 15 different bodies, lives, personalities. I guess the goal becomes to hope that people will feel something. Something that is a little different from a workout at the gym, something that just might make further investigation worthwhile, something that might mean looking into this thing on their own. Having a teacher is important but a huge amount of it needs to come from the individual.

There is a saying around the Zen center, "leave no traces". Usually, one sees it in the kitchen and bathroom where it means, clean up after yourself! But once I heard our teacher describe it in terms of how they teach newcomers zazen (sitting meditation). He reflected that, if the person giving instruction had lots of issues with pain, for example, they might emphasize that in their instruction, leaving the newcomers with a sense that zazen is this really painful thing. I had always thought about traces as being a fork left in the sink, not the invisible but very real traces one leaves in people's minds.

What kind of traces do I leave every Sunday? What kind of traces do you leave?

* According to Patanajli's Yoga Sutra, yoga consists of eight limbs (ashto = eight, anga = limbs, thus ashtanga yoga). Asana practice is only one of the eight. The eight limbs are: yamas, niyamas, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. Click the link for a full explanation.

** If this topic is of interest to you, I recommend reading some of the comments from my previous post. A juicy conversation!


dorinalouise said...

i think you have a lot of patience to be so open to having people in your class who are only interested in a workout . . i would find that difficult.

leaving traces . . i never thought of it like that.

so much to consider . . so much to learn.

sfauthor said...

Nice posting. Do you know about these yoga books?

Nathan said...

Thanks for this, for obvious reasons. I do think it probably depends a lot of what the make up and interests of the people in a class are. I've also been thinking that perhaps - in order to attract people interested in more than asana - some targeted advertising might be needed. And structures developed beforehand that would be included into that advertising.

One example is that our Zen center has a monthly or so practice called a Council. It takes different forms based on topic and intention, but essentially it's a way to have a group talk about their practice and lives in a focused manner. I've thought that perhaps this could be a part of a yoga class, especially if it was common knowledge to potential participants beforehand.

Anyway, just thinking out loud right now.

Robyn said...

Nathan, I think if you have a critical mass of people interested in yoga, then directed advertising would work. One thing I tried tonight was to just plain old ask my steady core group if they were interested in moving beyond asana into some of the other aspects. I think that, now that they have a base of knowledge, they are more open to these other things. Anyway, it felt good to have that little conversation and get some feedback.