Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Ashtang Pranam (8 Limbed Prostration)

It is one thing to trust one's teacher. It is another thing to prostrate myself to the teachings, advice and opinions of any one person, no matter how learned they are, no matter how trustworthy they are, no matter how much I respect them.

I am not sure if it is (1) the wisdom gained of experience (I turn 40 in less than two months, over the course of my years I have had good teachers and bad teachers and teachers who disappointed me and teachers who have pleasantly surprised me....I could go on....), (2) my natural tendency to question everything (innate, or possibly the result of being the child of two lawyers) or (3) my education and training as a lawyer (which had far less to do with case law and far more to do with inquiring into everything deeply and maybe not finding answers, but definitely finding better questions). But there has always been something that prevents me from completely giving myself over to ANYTHING, without question.

I am not particularly religious, although I consider myself Jewish. It is mainly a love of my Jewish culture, including the way we interact with our families, the way we celebrate our holidays, the inspiring stories from biblical times, the inspiring stories from the modern day. It is not so much that I know how to pray to my God as a Jew, because in fact, I really don't. Yet somehow, I have come to understand that I definitely DO believe in a "God" thing - whether it is a bearded old man in the sky (I doubt that), or some higher power that is beyond my comprehension (including the possibility of an UN-animated force within nature that causes thigns to happen for no particular rhyme or reason, which I do not consider to be a Godless way of looking at things).

And the way I feel about "God", or whatever, is that he/she/it is the only one who has access to all knowledge, who has witnessed everything, and is ultimately the only TRUE teacher (satguru) of anything that can be taught. Or, as the Jivamukti yogis say at the end of each class: Om Bolo Sat Guru Bhagavan Qui...JAI! (God is the ultimate teacher...Hallelujah!)

I have come to trust in the higher power, or at least to understand that whether this higher power is benevolent, vicious or even insane, there is precious little, if anything, that I can do to change the course of things as they happen. My only power over this higher power is in my ability to accept things as they are. According to Buddhist philosophy, that power is the difference between suffering and not suffering. So, when bad things happen, pain may be inevitable, but the suffering can be minimized through acceptance, which is to say prostration to the higher power. Works for me.

Which brings me back to this notion of prostration, and to whom we prostrate ourselves. Like I said, in my case, it is rare (or maybe it has never happened) that I prostrate myself to any one person, giving myself over completely to their teachings. There was never a time in my life when I didn't question my parents. There was never a teacher in high school or professor at Tufts or NYU with whom I always accepted the teachings without question. At NYU, I would have been eaten alive if I did. Even as I am training my dog I see this - I am going with my own instincts as opposed to the insistence of the breeders and the doctors who insist it has to be done differently.

As Ashtangis, we are asked to prostrate ourselves to the teachings of Guruji, even if those teachings don't always ring true for us, even if those teachings seem antiquated or mysoginistic or what have you. And it is wonderful to have something to trust in, something that doesn't really change much, ever. We are told, practice, and all is coming. To me, this is the ultimate in giving onesself over to the system. Do your practice, and all is coming: a somewhat vague statement in that it isn't clear what it means to "practice", and it isn't at all clear what is included in the "all" that is coming, or when or how it might come. But a broad statement just the same: ALL is coming. And that must be good.

Probably by writing this, I am suggesting to some that I am no Ashtangi. If I were, then I would surrender to the teachings, and stop all the questioning. And that is exactly what I am questioning. I am questioning the lack of questioning that seems to be expected of us.

OK, now, to get myself in even more trouble, I will go even further and say that there are students of Ashtanga out there, who hang on every word of their teacher and who won't make a move if it involves yoga, even tangentially, without speaking to their teacher first. There are students who seem uncomfortable admitting to being angry or to having questions about some of the rules, some of the constraints. There are students who seem uncomfortable in even asking their teacher, "What do you mean by that?" "Why are you giving me that advice - it doesn't fully make sense to me on an intellectual level?" or even, "How am I doing?" because that would seem to indicate a lack of faith, either in the teacher or in the system as a whole. The words "When do you think I might get the next pose" cannot even be formed by the lips, even as they roll around in the brain like any other chatter that is in need of stilling.

If the pressure to do/not do any of these things is coming from the teacher (and I don't know if it is), then there appears to be at least a borderline abuse of power, at least in my opinion. The student comes into the shala, tired, vulnerable, needing spiritual succor, and the teacher provides a sanctuary. But if there is a fear that the teacher will abandon the student, give up on the student, if the students questions the teacher or the system, and the teacher encourages or even nurtures that fear, then there is a problem.

I am almost ready to go back to my Ashtanga practice. And I want to practice in the studio that feels the best, that smells the best, that looks the best, that has teachers that will give me the best teaching, to the extent that any human teacher can do so. But I don't want to give up my autonomy. I don't want to feel as if I can't ask the questions I want to ask or express doubt or lack of clarity on something that my teacher offers. I don't want to be told that I can't practice three days of the month because of a phantom period that I don't even get - since I have no ovaries anymore and no longer menstruate - but the system requires me to take a Ladies Holiday anway. I don't want to be told to leave a puja because I am somehow unclean because I am a woman. I don't want to be told that x, y or z is good for my practice but not feel the freedom to ask, "hey, so why is that, anyway?"

In the past five weeks, I have not been practicing, and instead, I have had the opportunity to read about others' practices and to read about the shalas where people practice and the teachers that may or may not be seen as gurus by their students (guru, satguru, same difference as far as I am concerned). I have been thinking about where I want to practice when I am able to practice again, and frankly, I am really feeling anxious because I don't think I fit in anywhere.

I am never going to be that girl who prostrates herself to the teachings of any one teacher, who takes comfort in eliminating, rather than broadening the fuzzy edges where ambiguity lies. I am going to have to ask questions. I am going to have to not worry about offending my teacher because I need to practice at a different shala for a workshop or because I have a doctor's appointment at my regularly scheduled shala time. I am never going to be that girl.

But I want to practice Ashtanga. I just don't know where do it anymore.



Susan said...

Good questions. Some I have rolled around in my head.
One's practice must ring true in ones heart.
I think to give up totally to one teaching is only going to be possible if you find the right teacher, place, sangha.

I met an ashtanga teacher who is so amazing, and allows people who practice other styles to come to his AM mysore! Heresy! Where are the yoga police!OMG and he adjusts them too!
I spoke to him about this and he said," this is each persons personal practice. It should make you feel complete and whole".
I agree with him. I think that is more important than the method. As an aging yoga chick myself, I am seeing my practice changing, it's organic! How can I possibly keep up with the system to the letter? Eventually do they take poses away from you? I'm sorry but you've unearned this pose.
I hope you can find a place that resonates in your soul.

Anonymous said...

It sounds to me like you have a couple of choices. You can practice at a shala where you can do whatever feels right and make modifications (or not) and have teachers that do alot of talking. Which might be a good thing given all that you have written.
Or you can practice at a shala where Ashtanga yoga as taught by SKPJ is taught according the guidelines and principles that are already in existence. Some of which may click some may not, but it is what it is otherwise its not really ashtanga its a new fangled western version of yoga thats been tailored to fit our ideas and our tastes.

Your talking about Eddie at least in part, and I can tell you that Eddie is readily available for questions and is not in anyway a victim of "guru" mentality. As for puja Eddie didnt make those rules but he is devout and follows them. I respect that, its part of the hindu tradition and ALL religions have traditions that may seem odd in a contemporary context.

Could it be that you dont want to be the student but rather the teacher?

p.s what does the good looking shala look like and does it really matter?

yoga chickie said...

Maybe what I need is to just go someplace and practice - no more thinking. No more analyzing. Just go where it feels right. What the studio looks like and smells like does matter to me, so that will be a consideration - I like pretty colors, the smell of chai and incense, warm light, sun slanting in through the windows. The availability of classes is a consideration: it's important to me to be able to practice every day with a teacher if I want to do so. I am not too keen on a shala closing for a Hindu religious thing, since I am not a Hindu, and it feels uncomfortable for me to observe Hindu religious traditions when I don't even observe Jewish religious traditions. Plus, if I pay for a monthly, I would be annoyed not to be able to practice for a quarter of the month. I know, this is the way it is done in Mysore. But I wouldn't go to Mysore during a Ganesh Puja holiday either. Another consideration is the quality of the teaching. It has to be a strong physical practice and one that is strongly tied to the teachings of SKPJ. And it has to be a place that is welcoming to me, as I am, who I am. If I had it all together - if I were fully enlightened, I wouldn't be searching for it.

I am thinking about practicing tomorrow. Somewhere. I have somewhere in mind. If I end up writing about it, I am going to do my best to not say where I was or who the teacher was. I still need time to process all of this.

Anonymous said...

If you really trust yourself, you can practice anywhere.

Julie said...

Could there be any truth that you feel there is more of a wall than there is? I have never once felt, practicing with Tim, that there is something I can't question. Might it also be possible to think, not of yourself observing a Hindu celebration but of having the grace to allow others who do that space.. sorta like allowing all of us, regardless of whether we are Christian or not, to celebrate "Christmas" as a "national holiday." I wish it was a few days earlier for Yule.... that's when i celebrate anyway.

I think when you have trust in a teacher, you also have trust to know that you can communicate with your heart to them... that means if today I'm questioning why I can't do x y or z, I also feel comfortable enough to say that if necessary... you used the example of asking for the next pose. I would never do that, not because it doesn't cross my brain but because PART OF THE TEACHING is learning to control that part of me that HAS to question, HAS to strive... you know, I was originally going to be a lawyer, and I respect that drive, I have much of it myself (as I sit in a hotel room at the GEEKIEST of conferences one can come to)... but, to a large degree, what my practice has brought me is the ability to see that sometimes, and perhaps those two hours on the mat are the perfect sometimes, but sometimes, I need to let it ALL go.

vivage said...

Great post Lauren.

I love the practice of Ashtanga, but no longer practice it as prescribed by various other practicioners. LOL, some would say I never practiced it because I didn't practice 6 days a week, didn't buy into what everyone said about *this is the way it's done* and yes, I did other forms of yoga and didn't call it research.

Guess what? When I stopped trying to untangle the rules swirling around me, my mind became quieter, my practice deepened and the pushme/pullu merged into singlularity.

I still do Ashtanga and it's my practice. I share it with my Ashtanga teacher and he gives me the space to be what I am and where I am without limitation. A very good sign, imho, of a very good teacher.

Maybe one day I'll be more focused on following the rules...but for now I'm content.

I very much hope you find what gives you a comfortable seat.

Anonymous said...

yoga is the cessation of the fluctuation of the mind. you are victim to all this western overthinking. either do yoga or don't, but sitting for days on end overanalzying what might or might not happen does you and noone else any good.

rew said...

i feel the need to respond to one of your sentences above -- " will go even further and say that there are students of Ashtanga out there, who hang on every word of their teacher and who won't make a move if it involves yoga, even tangentially, without speaking to their teacher first." i can only assume you are partly speaking of my desire to discuss a possible ashtanga teaching position with eddie before i accept or decline the offer.

now, we spoke about my decision to talk to eddie about whether i would teach a lunchtime yoga class, since you replied to my blog via email rather than on the public comments, but i feel the need to respond to your sentence above.

you stated here numerous times that you've never felt the sort of connection to a teacher that i've described as my connection to eddie in my blog. therefore, it would be difficult for you to fully appreciate and understand how much i trust eddie's opinion. i trust eddie to help me determine what my personal abilities are, but also what makes a good ashtanga teacher -- i.e., when a person is ready to take on the responsibility of adjusting and teaching a roomfull of students (you are a lawyer, you know what could happen if you poorly adjust a student and give him/her an injury), when a person is able to handle the myriad sorts of issues that are thrown her way in a class, etc.

this is your space, so of course you are free to work out whatever questions are rolling around in your head. however, please give us (us = students of eddie) some credit that we are not simply sheep blindly following his every move. he must be doing something right because his students are questioning, discerning individuals, but we are also fiercely devoted to eddie because he's THAT good a teacher.


Anonymous said...

hi lauren i would say, you have two options:
1) selfpractice (at home that is)or
2) any shala, but ayny, because there will be often times that ayny is closed for special holidays (thanksgiving, xmas/new years, shivaratri, etc) and you might feel that those days are money wasted,
good luck and i hope you will finally be able to make up your (restless mind)
greetings, ivdp

Ashtangini said...

"2) any shala, but ayny, because there will be often times that ayny is closed for special holidays (thanksgiving, xmas/new years, shivaratri, etc) and you might feel that those days are money wasted"

All shalas close on these days and most close for other random things are well...silly comment.

Chickie - i think you'll be fine. You seem to be getting caught up in the dogma of the blogs and the boards - remember that only the vocal minoriy participate in such things...most just go along, do the practice, and shut the hell up! (Not me...)

Ashtangini said...

Oh, and REW, I don't know if Chickie was refering to you or not, but there are MANY that fit the description.

yoga chickie said...

Ashtangini is right. Please see my latest post, Rachel....


Jody said...

Ashtangini I think what ivdp was really saying is that in addition to the regular holidays AYNY is closed for many Hindu ceremonies as well. So lauren, I dont think AYNY would be a good fit for you.

suziecolumbus said...

Lauren: late and delayed post because as a trial lawyer I have been in a jury trial all week and not practcing.....I am with you. I haven't read the other comments but my view is that, if anyone told me I could not attend the shala for any reason, because I am unclean as a woman, that shala would not get another dime of my money. I don't care whether the owner of the shala has what he sees as a devout religious reason for viewing me as unclean. I don't support any patriarchal religion that views women as impure or unclean.

One of the bloggers on Ashtangi.net has documented that was her experience; she was hurt, and we have not heard from her since. I think it is a shame.

Anonymous said...

the issue of not going to puja on ladies holiday was not one of being unclean. It was an issue of subtle energy. just as one doesn't practice during those days because the goal of yoga practice is to move energy up through the body and during your period you have/need energy to be moving down. And the yogi who you haven't heard from since then I know has been very busy so perhaps that is the reason and not her feelings of hurt.

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I live by a duck pond. I used to live by the East River. I don't work. I used to work a lot. Now, not so much. I used to teach a lot of yoga. Now not so much. I still practice a lot of yoga though. A LOT. I love my kids, being outdoors, taking photos, reading magazines, writing and stirring the pot. Enjoy responsibly.


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