Reflections on The Role of a Yoga Teacher

Learning is not done by gathering information. Often a student has arrived to class Monday telling me they read the whole of the Bhagavad Gita over the weekend. If knowledge was accrued in that way, India would be mostly occupied by saints. It’s not about what we believe we know, rather, how it makes us feel, that is important.

The relationship toward knowledge then, might be an inner process to do with the cultivation of some deep-seated quality, rather than any externalised and demonstrable learning. Aldus Huxley said, ‘if the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite’.

It’s the inner that gives life to the outer, and the outer does not necessarily correlate, and may even obscure, the growth and progress of something inside. Still, we are constantly engaged in looking for affirmation in facts, external, hence quantifiable and measurable that our deep needs for progress and development can be measured against.

Progress isn’t linear or graspable in the way we would like it to be. There is a journey, a kind of spiral inwards that involves an inner sensual appropriation. Vague at first, we start to realise there is, indeed, a texture and taste as the senses turn within, though not as we are accustomed to feeling them. It’s more related to a sense of cultivating an attitude which is gradually growing.

It has its own signposts and landscape. We have, in fact, to learn a whole new inner territory, and it isn’t the type of learning with which we are accustomed. It’s something softer, more about the giving in or giving way than the ‘getting’ of the greedy way we consume facts we feel will help us feel better.

As both teacher and student, however, want to validate their relationship together, it’s important that this new perspective be considered in the light of this different version of learning. Otherwise, it is all too easy to enter into the endeavour of measuring and ascertaining notions of progress in how far we can get a students’ body to bend.

This is not only a potentially dangerous joint project, it is also missing the real target and aim, implicit, waiting behind the postures for a more thoughtful approach to learning to manifest. This attitude toward the position of teacher is more ambiguous. It certainly isn’t so easily used to justify the validity of our time together. It takes courage when students want and demand facts, quickly followed by rational and demonstrable progress in order to see the benefit for the continuation of the relationship.

This must all happen quickly, which is against the grain of the way real change actually seeps and absorbs into our pores, gradually assimilated into our spirit drop by drop. If nothing Is given the space to change underneath, the accusation of mere facts themselves is meaningless. This could be best described as the notion of building ‘right intention’. It’s a time-old truth that when the filter through which we see the world is cleansed of its distortion, everything is seen clearly; furthermore, with a sense of fittingness or correctness in relation to its circumstances.

This is the viewpoint of yoga thinking. The quality of this intention lies in the ‘presentness’ of consciousness. That perception is something current, direct, taking place in the moment. A direct relationship with life itself, constantly meeting afresh in each changing situation.

Knowledge, conversely, relates to past and future. Lacking any inherent meaning of its own, there is the constant need to derive some kind of orientating story from it which not only takes up a lot of energy, but takes us away from the reality of the present. This is always unsatisfactory, involving the quality of separating and categorising, the only way the mind knows, but always leaves us lacking and divided. This is opposed to direct perception, yoga perception, that can tolerate the whole without separating in order to make sense.

This is not immediately comfortable, indeed it takes time, and here the yoga method can be used, basically, to provide us with the requisite courage to accept this falling into un-knowing. Here we meet the present honestly, in the way it is, rather than applying and fitting a pre-made, rational template to it, in order that we can ‘understand’ it.

Unfortunately, for us, reality is far beyond the scope of our limited faculties of perception. The learning of facts and notions of development provide at least some kind of buffer against this. Out of a sense of panic and confusion we create our world of knowledge, created as securely and unchangingly as possible out of wrought iron and concrete. It is our compass from which to navigate the world, stopping the sense that we are in each and every moment in utter free fall. However, ultimately, this only serves to ensnare us; trapped by outdated experience from the past, redundantly recycled in the present, then, deluded by hopes and dreams of the future. We become imprisoned from actual experience of life as it is.

Now, with this perspective on the value, or lack thereof, of conventional notions to do
with knowledge, and the teaching of; where does this leave one occupying the place of a teacher?

In the regular definition of this role there are definite and clear instructions to impart and quantifiably and objectively measured tests of our progress. Here knowledge is a clear destination, yet, it’s value doesn’t seem to be as up for debate as does all the intricacies associated with the method. Quite simply, we don’t seem to be getting any happier the more we perceive we have come to know, both collectively as a society and individually. The Poet T.S Eliot puts thus;

‘Home is where one starts from, as we get older the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated, of dead and living’.

The role of the teacher should be in helping a student find their way back home, or inside, rather than pushing them forward, which is to invest the learning of facts. As Jesus also says, ‘foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have their nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head’.

Linear notions of progress may be deceptive. It is too often the case that preoccupation with an external development, obscures that of the inner, perhaps, in its superficiality, with the dead end of further ego identification in postures, or, even physically, with the body developing some opening it actually isn’t ready on a deeper structural level to hold and assimilate.

I have also fallen foul to believing in definite methods of advancement over my years of practice, only to realise most profoundly that the outside isn’t the same as the inside of the body. For example, in certain things I’d done which seemed to produce the movement I’d looked for, I started to see that that wasn’t the case, that the ability came from much deeper, intangible, inner place and confusingly, I found I could do the very opposite of what I had and still arrive at the same place.

This new territory a teacher could inhabit could seem impossibly vague. So profoundly personal to each and every different student, that there can be no possible method of guidance. Essentially true, it involves meeting an individual afresh each moment, without conception, or rational ideas concerned with an objective method.

Instead of giving knowledge, which we have found here to be a further burdening and obstructing from the only real process, that of relating to reality, we instead engage in helping them unpick and discard all knowledge, thoughts, opinions, and judgements, crystallised in systems of bodily tension. In learning to approach the body completely afresh, we engender the opportunity to do the same at all the other levels of self we inhabit.

Therefore, the teachers’ mantle becomes pretty great as this actually takes a lot of support, time and patience. To allow the slow process of knowledge to come through them in a different way, as an interloper, filling the gaps left by the old, redundant, the no longer necessary. It is not our knowledge, useless to them and their circumstances, but something they have themselves discovered.

That is why the eastern notion of teacher, or ‘guru’, is often translated as ‘heavy’ or ‘unmoving’. It is more than enough to inhabit this principle alone, an anchor, from which the student may feel safe to venture into the unchartered waters required in the journey home.

But, in making oneself this immovable hub, this anchor, itself demands a number of other qualities. That I will not be bringing a metaphorical bag to unpack of objective facts to the class / workshop, can be, at first, quite disappointing. Then, in the place of this, imparting something equally as challenging; to encourage the process of disbelief and doubt, to cast aspersions on diligently learnt facts. This all takes a lot of integrity, courage and confidence, not to give in to the pressures of giving people what they, most immediately, feel they want.

In a practical sense, this means I do not subscribe to the normal notion of adjustments. In other word, pulling a student into a different, or ‘deeper’ shape than the one they are making on their own. This, to my mind, implies a lack of acceptance of the student in the present, encouraging them to think in the same way about themselves. It also belies an attachment to certain results in the future which we imagine to be better for us both.

This is contrary to the intention of yoga philosophy which is engaged in the propagation of a sense of coming home, or presentness, in the practitioner. Through a radical acceptance of the current, along with all its perceived inadequacies, the fear and desire associated with this seem to drop away, leaving the physical experience of the appropriateness of everything. In other word content, which can never spring from the rational mind.

Instead, when I touch a student, it is with a compassion which translates to the acceptance of them and what their body currently does. The adjustment, then, is far from the regular notion of what that this entails. It is an abidance with the student, not a pushing into something different, a struggle away from the present, but an acknowledgement that right now everything is as it should be.

Surprisingly, this still does work in achieving, more long lasting results with the student, not only physically but also, I feel, on a deeper level with their approach to the practice, their intention (essentially only a microcosm of the very act of daily living itself).

For, even if I could see beneath the skin of my student, correctly diagnose the relation of each muscle and ligament to the other, and hence the best way to progress, this takes into no account the even more deeply unpredictable, unfathomable quality of the body energy itself which has glued all this together. I have little or no right then, to instruct on how to get from A to B.

Of course, it will be argued by many that in applying certain techniques, specific end results were achieved. I fundamentally disagree with this perspective. If this were the case, all students would, over a reasonable course, having been exposed to the same information, have achieved the same results.

This, most evidently not being the case, I would suggest the opposite is true; that any perceived advancement in ability is actually then corroborated by the teacher’s words that are then finally graspable. Stuff does seem to happen, but it is outside our ability, rather unfortunately, to plan for specific results.

Experiences occur through so many, generally unseen energy streams meeting at the same point, this is over and above our conscious ability to plan. However, of course, when it does happen, we are more than happy to take ownership of it, which means the construction of a rational story of how it came about.

If this all sounds rather gentle, it is. The role of a supportive friend is the deepest aspect a teacher can inhabit, but, this is not to say within this role play there isn’t still also a (ultimately pretend and fictitious as it is) hierarchy between teacher and student. Literal equality is indeed shared between teacher and student, but respect of the different parts we are playing is still useful.

The gradual, learnt ability, of letting go to the unknown and all that this entails, is not a small undertaking and warrants a seriously steady hand to hold. Faith and determination, it is traditionally said, are like the two wings of a bird carrying us forward on this path. A ‘casual’ relationship between student and teacher doesn’t help to generate this kind of inner strength building necessary for the student to keep the course of their arduous journey within.

It is an individual journey, but it helps if this process for a while is divested, externalised, in a commitment to the figurehead of the teacher, who is like a caretaker for these qualities, until one can oneself take full ownership and responsibly for them. At this point, however, the teacher must be extremely careful not to overlay their own ideas and experience. My map is different to yours and the more you believe in me and my map, the more lost to your own you will become.

The important point to remember is that at the earliest point possible the student must be made aware of their own autonomy and take on the great weight of self-reliance, which, in most instances both parties, for differing reasons, will be happy to delay. The potential trap for the teacher, is to want to make the student in his / her own image, and / or to make them dependent.

For the student, the comfortable and clear process of taking instruction is much preferable the acute process of personal enquiry, which it’s tempting to put off for as long as possible.

Nonetheless, there are good reasons for the teacher-student relationship to be committed to, by both parties, though the exact period is unspecific, it must be allowed to run its course, so that the student can, in fact, graduate from this time; even using it, in conflict, to re-find their own voice.

Despite this, or even, due to this, the whole method should be accorded the upmost respect as transformational as it is. Between them, by joint endeavour, a safe-space is created, in this lies the trust and hence the confidence to experiment with a greater and greater sense of openness and how that might feel. The warmth of the process, and sometimes the friction, are a necessary part of the orientation towards subtler levels or attitude and perspective. For yoga is a practice which is more relating to the question of practice itself, and what a daily commitment to this with another throws up, rather than a specific destination we are aiming for.

Finally, rather mischievously, I might suggest that the body-mind organism is a whole self-regulating system always seeking balance or homeostasis. We find further validation of this when we look outside ourselves in nature. Whilst there is life, there must also be death, light and dark must exist, both physically and metaphorically. Hence it is also my suspicion that the much sought after ‘openings’ must also be the balancing opposite of tensions and constrictions. If the scoresheet isn’t kept physically, then the balance may be sought on another level, whether emotionally or psychologically.

We have entered into the endless game of re-balancing and remaking, which also a mirrors life more generally, helping us through this play in yoga to make peace with this difficult truth as it most deeply affects us.

Whether there really is a forward direction, though we must keep telling ourselves that there is, is hard to really justify through experience. But, the fact that we feel compelled to enter time and again into this game is justification enough of its relevance to us. That deep rivers are constantly stirring within is too intriguing and fascinating not to keep on carrying on.

There is this feeling that in relationship with the practice and teacher we keep on growing. Neither can we comment so much about it, other than to say that it is significant, and many a time against our better judgment, at 6.00 a.m. on a rainy morning, always worthwhile.


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