Friday, January 4, 2013

Further questions from Elise - what is the role of Teacher in Ashtanga Yoga?

What is the role of the teacher in Ashtanga Yoga?

I believe the teacher's role is primarily that of a therapist. All students start by learning the Primary Series which is also known as Yoga Chikitsa and most students never learn the second or third series. Chikitsa means therapy. The intermediate Series is known as Nadi Shodhona - this is a purifying sequence, so I think it also falls under the category of therapy. From the yogi's perspective, the reason we can not experience samadhi, is because we are sick. Mind and body are polluted - so asana practice along with pranayama and the yama and niyama are designed to heal, purify and strengthen the body and mind, so that the internal aspects of yoga may be experienced.

Guruji did not give any special training for teachers. When he felt a student was mature enough in practice, he would give his permission to teach. He was in favor of the practice being spread, but he wanted to make sure it was being done correctly - he told us not to change anything. But there is more implicit in his insistence on not changing anything than at first meets the eye.

Teachers who studied with Guruji in different decades will feel there is a different emphasis in the way he taught. I think you can see three distinct phases in the evolution of the Mysore shala and the way western students experienced and interpreted Guruji's teaching. Teachers who studied with him in the 70s and 80s have the widest divergence in the way they teach - if you compare the way Richard Freeman, Nancy Gilgoff and David Swenson present ashtanga - you have three entire universes! Each one faithfully pays homage to the same teacher and same practice, but each has evolved their own understanding and implementation of the method in an individual way.

I was delighted to discover this while making the book. Each teacher researched different aspects of practice and developed expertise in areas they were interested in. It seemed to me that the practice over many years (decades) gave these individuals greater strength of personality and the courage to follow their individual convictions. 

Teachers who emerged in the 90s as the shala started to get busy, experienced Guruji teaching in a very systematic and effective way in the setting of the old shala. Students were taught in batches and although, by the late 90s, the line to get into practice in the shala snaked its way up the stairs and onto the roof of Guruji's house, the shala itself was intimate (and intense) with a 1-6 teacher/student ratio. This translated into many Mysore shalas springing up around the world. (Up until this point very few teachers had been using this traditional method). I think because of the numbers in the 90s, the practice became, or seemed to become more generic - and Mysore teachers became stricter in adhering to the exact way Guruji was presenting it at that time.

With the move to the new shala (2002)  the teaching changed again. The student teacher ratio had changed significantly (there were now five times as many students in each batch) and Guruji started teaching a led class on Fridays and Sundays to deal with the workload of teaching 100s of students - so there were only 3-4 Mysore classes a week. 

So I think you could characterize the first period as being a time where the relationship with Guruji was intimate and teaching was fully one-on-one. Then a period when he was teaching a lot of people in a small space - so his teaching became more systematic but still intimate. And lastly a period where he was teaching large numbers of students mostly through led classes.

In later years when Guruji taught thousands of students on his world tours he had to move hundreds of students at a time through the practice. Compare this to a time where there were only one or two students - a very different experience. So there was an increasing universalization in the way students experienced his teaching as the years passed and I think you can see this reflected in the way teachers from different decades teach.

Teachers will generally want to teach as closely to their understanding of Guruji's method as possible. Depending on when teachers studied with him they may feel there is a different emphasis in the way he presented it.

There are perhaps three ways in which this yoga is taught - mysore style, led classes and workshops. Guruji's teaching method was Mysore style, he did not teach workshops and led classes were a means for large numbers of people to practice with him in later years. This method is for experienced students and a good means for Guruji to see the state of many students' practices at the same time, so it was also a form of quality control, but it was not the way Guruji taught the practice.

Newer teachers place a particular emphasis on "correct method" - meaning the precise vinyasa and drishti with asana. These sequences were Guruji's curriculum and represent the ideal method for practice, however they must be adapted or modified according to certain needs. As teachers mature, their understanding of the system unfolds and they are able to share the deeper and subtler aspects of the practice as well as to adapt to different health or other needs of the student.

Not everyone is able to develop a practice of the primary series (or even half primary series) using the "correct method". This is not due to laziness but physical limitations, injuries and responsibilities which prevent daily practice. Should these students be excluded from the wonderful therapeutic benefits of the practice? Of course not.

"As the bodily constitution of each human being is different, it is important to practice the asanas accordingly. The benefit to be had from one asana or pranayama can be derived just as well from another that better suits the structure of the person's body. Some asanas are not suitable for particular people and may be painful" - KP Jois - Yoga Mala

As western teachers we work with students who have jobs, families, illness, pain and stress. Teaching yoga to people who are living their lives is different from an intense workshop-like situation such as one experiences in Mysore where students leave their responsibilities behind and want to go deep but also have time to recover from an intensified practice.

There is an inherent wisdom in the ashtanga system but it is only brought to light by a teacher. You can not learn yoga from books. A teacher is a living link back through a succession of gurus who have passed down this wisdom since time immemorial. Only if yoga lives in the teacher, can he impart it to the student. As Guruji was fond of saying: you cannot understand the sweetness of honey without first tasting it - it is the same with yoga.

Guruji was our example of a teacher. How could one hope to emulate him? His knowledge of both asana and yoga philosophy were far greater than any of us could hope to acquire in a lifetime of study and experience. Personally I always thought of myself as simply a channel for Guruji's teaching, he was the teacher, I was just passing on his teaching. But so much more than asana is taught through practice. So, in addition to being a motivator, healer, teacher and much more, the depth of his knowledge was an inspiration for us to educate ourselves.

... he told us to study:

“It is very important to understand yoga philosophy; without philosophy, practice is not good, and yoga practice is the starting place for yoga philosophy."

Ashtanga yoga is a spiritual practice which leads from the external to the internal, and the yoga philosophy of the upanishads, gita, yoga sutra etc are the guide for the serious student who practices as well as for the teacher. Without a guide on the inner journey we stumble around in darkness - study, svadhyaya, brings us progressive enlightenment, guidance and certainty of the direction we need to go.

An Ashtanga teacher is teaching both Pattabhi Jois' system of asanas and Patanajali Yoga - for Guruji these were integrated, though it is understood that the teacher's role is mainly concerned with asana and pranayama in the context of this yoga philosophy.  In the beginning a teacher's understanding is primarily of asana but with time and study his knowledge will deepen.

The role of teacher is both a relationship to the tradition and to the student who is being taught.
An Ashtanga teacher would ideally have had the opportunity to study closely with Guruji and failing that, with one of his children or grandchildren.

The teacher's role in relation to the student will depend very much on his or her individual samskaras - character, experience (including life experience), intelligence and and so on. Teaching asanas is a means to teaching yoga in a fuller sense: how to "yoke" mind and body via breath, drishti, bandha and vinyasa, and how to navigate the various obstacles which arise. The system of asanas and vinyasas is a structure within which the teacher is able to help the student overcome various obstacles (such as ill health and "real life" stresses). The yoga teaching comes in the "how to" - not always conveyed by words or even by hands (sometimes just by looking, the teacher motivates the student to lift up and jump back).

An Ashtanga teacher, teaching in the traditional way, inevitably starts to take on various roles in relation to the student. In addition to advice on asana practice, questions on a range of subjects come to the teacher. There are different ways in which teachers respond to these questions - individual conversations, theory/philosophy classes, consultation on diet etc.. Ashtanga teachers often become involved in adapting a practice for pregnancy or injury. Guruji performed the marriage ceremony for a number of his students and there are western teachers who have done the same thing.

In the beginning, like a child, a new teacher will mainly imitate what he sees. Deeper understanding takes time to mature. When Guruji said we should not change anything, I believe he meant we should use the same teaching method also. His method varied according to the student. He observed their bodies and character and taught them accordingly. Somehow, today, with youtube, we can have the impression that one size fits all. This could not be further from the truth.

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