Get_out_of_Jail_Free_for_the_Win_Wallpaper_JxHy In my previous blog post, I described the fact that last Wednesday, I'd completed a project I'd co-run for the last six years, an Ashtanga Yoga program called Mission Ashtanga.  I did so in order to create the space needed to be able to spawn new projects.  I am trying out the perspective that in order for something new to enter, you have to create space for it.  They tell you that when you're dating someone who isn't quite the right fit that it's probably a good idea to let that relationship go, so the right one can enter.  Most of us are reluctant to do so because we wonder what it'd be like to be single, again. Will we feel lonely?  Who will we go to dinners with, now, or spend our weekends with?  Most of us can't imagine what the experience of life would be like if we didn't keep filling it.

Future F*cking

This morning, I feel like I am on the other side of that.  I'd had so much anticipation about what this moment would feel like.  Most of the anticipatory images that ran through my mind were pretty dark over the last few months.  Mainly they consisted of groundless feelings, the sense that all of my passion, creativity, and skill set would find no new outlets; that my urge for change would land me in a morass of deep grief; or, even worse, that I would have discovered that those urges were the result of some temporary delusion, some early hint of an impending mid-life crisis.  It's amazing how paralyzing my "future f*cker" voices can be.  On the other side of having made the leap, this morning, I don't feel any of the ways that I'd anticipated feeling. What do I feel?  Two things:

Fragile and Hopeful

I'd be lying to myself if I didn't admit that this move out of something that's given me a kind of daily structure and, more importantly, an identity for the last six years of my life doesn't feel vulnerable.  Who am I if I am not co-running this project?  Once again, I can feel this propensity to want to find my identity, my sense of self in the things that I do.  This is what the source text of yoga, The Yoga Sutras, calls avidya, which is loosely translated as a form of misapprehension or delusion.  It is looking for a sense of self in things that are transitory.  Letting go like this has me recognizing how safe it feels to have a work-based identity but, ultimately, how tenuous that identity is.  As soon as the title is gone, it can feel a little like having pulled off a scab, a little raw and vulnerable.

At the same time, I have this overarching sense of possibility.  For the first time in a long time, I feel like I have this very morning to myself, to think, to write, and to create.  I am no longer bound by the routines of my previous work.  It's not that I won't be practicing yoga this morning or maintaining a quality of discipline, but that I can choose, instead, to write before practicing.  It feels almost luxurious to have this very moment to form words that frame my experience, to not be bound by the have-to's and can'ts that came with co-running Mission Ashtanga: "have-to be in bed by 9PM in order to wake at 4:30;" "can't go on vacation too much;" etc.  In removing the stricture of the structure, I can feel this deep, deep appreciation for the choice I made to let go.  I can feel space, again.  The juxtaposition of the way I felt to the way I feel, now, is pretty dramatic.  I feel like I got the "GET OUT OF JAIL FREE" card.

The Love You Take Is Equal to the Love You Make

What I will eventually be doing with that card isn't altogether clear.  I'd previously wished that I had clear plans before I left.  That way I could just end one thing and pick up another.  But I can't help but feel how important it is not to do that, not to just fill or stay in motion.  I can feel this strong urge to revel in the stillness of completion; to appreciate the bounty that Mission Ashtanga provided for me; and to feel the relief that comes now that an ending has occurred.  This moment reminds me of the lyrics of a song I love on The Beatles' Abbey Road Album, "And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make."  It feels like this is the moment to slow down enough to take in the creation, to breathe it in.  To run would be to miss this.

The Age of the Guru is Over…Now What?- Part 3

'The Age of the Guru is Over…Now What?' Series

This is the third part in a three-part series.  In the first post, we explored the traditional relationship of the guru and disciple.  In the second post, I made the argument that this relationship is no longer valid in this day and age.  In this final posting, I will posit some ideas of what I think might replace it. 

I've taken quite awhile to post this, partly because I wanted some feedback from friends.  Thank you Brook, Lauren, Peter, Karen, and Norman for all of your insight and depth.  Much of what is written below is the result of ongoing conversations that Devorah and I have had about the student-teacher relationship.  It is the result of our collaboration and an elucidation on our mission at Mission Ashtanga, to create a safe space for transformation.  So while I have written it, I want to give credit where credit is due.

Also, some of the ideas I am using, especially the idea of relationship design, has been drawn from the Co-Active Model designed by Henry-Kimsey House, Karen Kimsey-House, and Laura Whitworth, the founders of Coaches Training Institute.  Whatever the reader’s preconceived opinions of coaching, I encourage him or her to put them on hold and be curious.  I have found aspects of this model to be a useful tool in creating intimacy, connection, and trust with my students and wanted to present it in a way that applied to the teacher-student relationship in yoga.

I have been reticent to post this because I know that whatever I posit here is totally incomplete.  This is a complex relationship and for every teacher-student relationship, there must be a unique form of relating.  Likewise, there's just no way to sum up how a modern student-teacher relationship could possibly take the place of the guru-disciple relationship. It can't.  That relationship is a unique one, a style of relating and relationship that is thousands and thousands of years old, and the tradition of it is a rich one.  But at the same time, I think it's important to recognize, as I've said previously, that our modern Western, egalitarian culture doesn't condition us for such a relationship.  Instead of growing and evolving through it, many of us have a propensity to abdicate our power in it.

So what I am hoping to provide below is a barebones framework that is loose enough so as not to stifle the relationship but not so loose as to be without structure. If the framework is too loose, both students and teachers run the risk of crossing boundaries, manipulating one another, projecting, and miscommunicating.  The structure is designed to ward off some of these pitfalls.  At the same time, I intend for the structure to be loose enough to accommodate the nuances that occur in any relationship, and to provide space for spontaneity, creativity, and intimacy to show up.  That way the relationship can remain fluid, dynamic, and transformative.

Why It’s Important to Have a Teacher on the Path of Yoga

Not everyone who comes to yoga class is looking for the full-promise of yoga.  Many students just want to get stronger, feel better, or have a positive group experience.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with these approaches to yoga. Yoga is for everyone no matter where they are or what they want from the practice.  However, I am starting with a little bit of theory to point out the fact that the work of yoga can be very, very deep.  And, in this case, it can be extremely helpful to have a teacher.  Not everyone wants to go there, and that’s perfectly fine.  The description below is what’s possible from the practice of yoga, as described by Patanjali in The Yoga Sutras, a text dated sometime between the 2d centuries B.C. and A.D. and considered by many to be the authoritative source text that describes the path of yoga.

Historically the role of the guru was to help the disciple to distinguish (viveka) temporal from eternal, relative from absolute, truth from fiction, and light from dark.  The tricky part of this work is that asmita, the excessive sense of I or me, often wants to assert itself.  And the truth of the matter is that the asmita is not particularly adept at distinguishing truth, eternality, or the absolute.  The asmita is in a sort of hell realm, constantly grasping to what gives pleasure and trying to avoid that which is uncomfortable.  This hell realm is known in yoga as avidya, which can be translated as misunderstanding. A lot of the work of yoga is a slow, gentle a dismantling of this misunderstanding associated with this excessive 'I-clinging.'  One might argue that the role of the guru was to make sure that this 'I-clinging' didn’t get in the way of the process of realization.

That’s why most traditional schools of yoga or Buddhism emphasized the teacher-student relationship and not the practice of postures or meditation, alone.  Without a teacher the aspirant risked misleading him or herself.  He or she risked being led around by a craving for pleasure (raga) and a repulsion of discomfort (dvesa).   For Patanjali, yoga wasn't about feeling good, nor was it about feeling bad, either.  It was a game of noticing that which was beyond pleasure and pain, clinging and aversion.  It was a game of noticing essence, truth, and the absolute through a long, steady process of discernment.  According to Patanjali, this process takes continuous practice (abhyasa) and the skill of non-clinging to pleasure or aversion to discomfort (vairagya) to be able to see clearly (1.12).

Very few of us naturally have this discipline.  It's not easy to be with discomfort.  Many of us can be with some discomfort. Few of us can be with it for extended periods of time. Nor are we apt to give up our 'I-clinging.' The process of letting go of what we cling to and being with what we’re averse to is counterintuitive.  Additionally, the role of the guru presupposes that no matter how earnest we are, we can all get pretty slippery from time to time, and this can take us off of the path, even when we think we're on it.  In other words, it can be pretty useful to have a relationship with someone who is committed to our growth and transformation, someone who can offer an honest reflection and guidance, too.

What Qualifies a Teacher?

And yet, we're living in a time when none of our teachers are fully illuminated.  So what kind of criteria do we employ to choose someone to teach us?  Do we choose a teacher because he or she has been on the path longer than we have?  I don’t think that this is a valid reason to study with someone. Length of time does not qualify someone to be a teacher.  I can't tell you how often I run into ‘20-somethings’ who are so darn wise these days.  I don’t know what’s happening to our gene pool, but I am excited by the generation that’s in their 20’s these days.

So what standards shall we use to determine the qualification of a teacher?

▪   Years on the mat?

▪   Years spent with the leader of the tradition?

▪   Displays of mastery?

▪   200 hours of teacher training?

▪   400 hours of teacher training?

What determines a qualified teacher?  How the heck are we going to experience the full promise of yoga without someone who's qualified?  And how are we to determine those qualifications?

   Above is a rough outline of the teaching model I describe below.  At the heart of the model is the student's evolution.  That should be at the heart of the teacher-student relationship.  The spokes around the central wheel represent the qualities of relating that the teacher provides.  The relationship is wrapped in the 'designed relationship,' which is essentially a spoken agreement that the teacher and student make with each other in service to the student's evolution.  The foundational blocks at the bottom of the model represent presuppositions and prerequisites within that relationship that create clarity, safety, honesty while at the same time empower the relationship. 

Collaborative Relationship Designing

The problem is that it is impossible to be qualified to be a guru in this day and age.  Gurus are 'fully-cooked,' so to speak.  And most yoga teachers aren’t even close.  We all have some clarity and a lot is still obscure.  And while some of the prerequisites I list above can be helpful, I don’t think that any one of them can prepare a teacher to support a student on their path.

So I am starting with a basic premise: no one is perfectly qualified for the role of a teacher.  Everyone in that role will be imperfect, flawed, and will make mistakes.  It can be extremely helpful to start from the most basic recognition that our teachers will be and are human, people with good intentions who might fail us, nonetheless.  Given that, how do we find ourselves in loving, trusting relationships with a teacher that can support us in our evolution along the path of yoga?

It starts with an agreement that I call relationship design.  In relationship design, the context for a relationship is spelled out.  In other words, it is a conscious contract that provides clear boundaries and a sense of direction for both teacher and student. When the agreement isn’t clear boundaries are crossed that can do damage.  I once had a really bad experience with a teacher in which I abdicated my own common sense in favor of my teacher’s common sense, thinking that her’s was ‘more enlightened’ than mine. By doing so, I made a decision that went totally against my own code of ethics.  As a result, it kind of ruined me for a period and destroyed some significant relationships that meant a lot to me. Had we designed clearer boundaries along with the space where I could struggle with decisions myself, I might not have had to experience that suffering.  As a result of that experience, I am acutely aware that as a teacher, I cannot presuppose anything about my students wants or needs.  In other words, I don’t know what’s best for my students.  I am constantly asking my students to design with me what they need.

So when it comes to the relationship of teacher and student, it can help the process immensely for that relationship to be crystal clear.  When it’s clear, both student and teacher can feel confident in their respective roles. The more committed student and teacher are to staying in communication, even and especially when the going gets rough, the more powerful that relationship can be. The more communication around the structure of that relationship, the safer it is for the student to delve inward and to know that he or she is supported.  Additionally, it is critical that the relationship be continually tended to and be kept tidy.  At the end of this piece, I give an example of how to start the conscious design of a student-teacher relationship.  Have a look.  Give it a try.

Humanity as the Doorway to a Sacred Friendship

Given the premise stated above, that no teacher is perfectly qualified to teach, it can be immensely helpful if both teacher and student start by recognizing the sanctity of the relationship.  This relationship has the potential to be a form of yoga itself.  It has the potential to be something quite unusual.  As you read on, you’ll see that what makes it unusual is that it is one rooted in collaboration and based as much as possible in agreement, transparency, and intimacy.  When both teacher and student fathom the honor of the relationship, both naturally hold one another to a particularly high standard.

In the few times that I taught classes for a friend in Tokyo, I have been struck by the way Japanese students regarded the sensei.  As the teacher, I sensed the students’ reverence in a way that we in the West have difficulty comprehending.  Given the level of surrender these students demonstrated, it would have been quite possible for me to take advantage of the situation, but I personally found it the case that I couldn’t help but step up in a way that I’d never stepped up as a teacher before.  It was a great honor to be held as an authority, one that I couldn’t help but want to meet.

Likewise, I’ve experienced students walking into my classes with a sort of disregard for the role of the teacher.  That’s perfectly fine.  Not everyone would like a teacher, and many of us have experienced wounds at the hands of teachers.  At the same time, without a regard for the sacredness of the roles, the teacher-student relationship takes on the quality of being a financial transaction, “payment for poses,” kind of a boring way of relating.

So honoring the sacredness is one part to this premise.  Another part is that because the teacher is never perfectly qualified to teach, he or she can be regarded as human, warts and all.  Some of us want our teachers to be extraordinary, but they're not. This is a real set up for failure, the teacher failing the student and visa versa.  But when the student can recognize and interact with the teacher’s humanity, a true connection can start to be established, one that encourages a quality of human-centered friendship.  It is rare to have a relationship where one’s humanity is honored.  Very few of us experience relationships where we have permission to share all of ourselves and all parts are welcome.

Another boon associated with recognizing the teacher’s humanity is that it allows for both the teacher and the student to make mistakes.  Relationships where mistakes are valued are dynamic and creative.  Both people aren’t afraid to try things, to mess up, and to have breakthroughs.  If the teacher has to play-it-safe for the sake of not upsetting the relationship, the relationship lacks a sort of dynamism that’s necessary to face the tough stuff that comes up on and off the mat.

The Shadow: Trust and Transparency

Both students and teachers have their limits of what they’re capable of working with in the shadow-work that shows up on the mat and in the relationship.  Playing with this edge can be very useful.  For the teacher to take the student past the student’s edge, he or she must be confident in that territory him or herself.  The teacher has no business shoving students into areas that are unfamiliar to the teacher.  Below, I describe the prerequisites of teachers: self-study, peer feedback, and mentor feedback.  All of these ensure that the teacher is doing the inner work necessary to support their students when they enter unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory.

Because the work of yoga confronts some of our most intimate spots, the student must be able to trust the teacher as much as possible.  And so there has to be agreement between the teacher and student such that the student grants the teacher permission to head into a particular area, especially areas that feel vulnerable or scary.  All it takes is a simple request, like “Is it okay if we go here?”  Sometimes it can be helpful to create more dialogue before entering in.

In my first year as a teacher, I ran into a situation that I am not proud of but feel that it’s pertinent to share.  I had a student who was very, very proficient at Ashtanga Yoga. I thought, “This guy is good.  Let’s keep him going!”  So I kept giving him pose after pose.  Eventually he started to say stuff like, “I’m good.  I don’t need any more, now.”  But I kept adding poses on.  At some point, he stopped coming to class, and I found out through the grapevine that he’d had a psychotic break that he considered a ‘kundalini rising.’  While I don’t take full-responsibility for what happened, I had a part, a big one.  I was pushing, thinking that I knew best, when, in fact, he knew better.  That experience taught me a lot about both trusting the wisdom of my students and keeping the conversation clear.

Throughout that work, it can be helpful to be transparent.  Transparency isn’t just in the hands of the student.  It can be extremely helpful and useful for the teacher to share when they’re confused, concerned or scared in relationship to what’s happening with a student.  If the teacher has to pretend to be okay when he or she is not okay, it creates a low-level of distrust in the relationship.  Transparency feels counterintuitive, but it’s honest.  And being honest is an incredible gift that the teacher grants the relationship.  It creates trust.  When there is trust in the relationship, students and teachers enter into an intimate dialogue that is not misconstrued or taken advantage of by one or both parties.  When there’s a lot of trust in a relationship, there is no telling what's possible for the student.

Selfless Service

The role of the teacher can be tricky.  Occasionally students adore their teachers.  Sometimes they loathe them. If the teacher is caught in the ‘popularity game,’ he or she will end up being manipulative.  I've been caught in it, myself, from time-to-time.  Occasionally, I will notice myself trying to use my charm to get students to like me.  Once again, I am not proud of this, but it happens, and I don’t think I am the only teacher that’s fallen prey to wanting to be liked.

My proudest moments, though, have been when I've seen a student uncover something she or he'd been confused about or struggling with; when I've seen him or her diligently stick with something even when it was really uncomfortable; and in those moments when his or her wisdom, brilliance, and insight emerged with more clarity than that of a diamond.

In these moments my focus was not on me but on my students and their discovery process.  That doesn't mean that I was perfectly objective, neutral, or impersonal.  It just meant that my stance was first and foremost about my students, not about getting my personal wants and needs gratified.  In short, the role of the teacher is one of self-less service for the sake of evoking the student’s evolution.

In Service to Evolution/ Granting the Respect of Autonomy

Part of the challenge this relationship faces is the fact that the student is paying the teacher to provide a service.  In most service positions, the role of the server is to provide both care and comfort.  While care and comfort may be useful qualities to cultivate in a teacher-student relationship, they cannot be the only qualities.  If the student expects to experience the full promise of yoga, then the relationship has to have room to be edgy and uncomfortable, as well.  Without that, the yoga room becomes a ‘feel-good space,’ and this doesn’t really have anything to do with this path of distinguishing (vivieka) misunderstanding (avidya).

The teacher’s primary responsibility, then, is to the evolution of his or her students, not to the perpetuation avidya.  This is where the role of the teacher can get tenuous.  Manipulative teachers have been known to take advantage of this aspect to the role of the teacher.  They’ve justified narcissistic behavior as something that’s “best for the student” when, in fact, it’s actually best for the teacher.

Being in service to the student’s evolution means that the teacher isn’t always in agreement with the student and is granted enough trust by the student to assert what needs to be asserted for the student’s growth. At the same time, the teacher grants the student the respect for their capacity to make decisions.  Decisions of the student are of their own choosing and those decisions have to be respected.

Presupposing Our Students are Whole Rather Than Broken

Early in this discussion, I was speaking of the basic premise that no one is perfectly qualified for the role of a teacher.   Similarly, it might also be useful to start from another premise, that students are whole and complete.  They’re not broken.  They don’t need to be fixed.  In fact, the role of the teacher is to empower the student to trust him or herself, especially those parts that are innately wise, compassionate, and clear. This is a very unusual premise.

In most teacher-student relationships, the role of the teacher is to presuppose that the student has something wrong that needs to be altered, changed, or reworked. Rarely is this, in fact, the case.  In the years that I have been teaching, I have rarely come across someone looking to be put back together again.  When this is the case, psychiatry and psychotherapy can be extremely useful adjuncts to yoga therapy.  But more often than not, students that have shown up to my classes are resourceful enough to make good decisions.  Sometimes, it can be helpful for me to offer my expertise or to ask questions.  Ultimately, I leave the decision in the hands of my students. If I regard my student either as broken, confused, or lost, it can be nearly impossible for him or her to access his or her own clarity.  If the student cannot trust that something within is innately wise, then he or she will remain lost at sea.

I personally have had mentors and friends that have wanted to fix me at certain low-points in my life, people who had very good intentions, in fact.  The problem with those relationships was that I would often abdicate my will to them, and while they may have steered me away from dangerous rapids, I never learned to either ride the rapids or to identify them in the distance.

When I can cultivate my students' confidence in their decision-making capacity, magic begins to happen for them.  They begin to trust the wise parts of themselves to lead with clarity.  So much of the baggage my students come in with is not from being egotistical.  They don’t need to be knocked down and then eventually rebuilt.  On the contrary, most of my students struggle with a degree of self-doubt, lacking the confidence that they know how to make good, sound decisions. When a teacher can cultivate a student’s innate strength, the process of clarifying (viveka) can take place.

Prerequisite: Svadhyaya: Continuously Growing and Evolving

If a teacher is not actually walking the path, he or she probably shouldn't be teaching it. Now, there's a lot of wiggle room in terms of what that means.  If, for example, a teacher has a knee injury and doesn't practice various asanas, it doesn't mean that he or she is not qualified to teach.  That's too literal a translation.  The essence of what I am suggesting is that a teacher needs to be growing and evolving and in self-study (svadhyaya) in order to be able to help his or her students sort out their struggles.  That really must be a prerequisite to teaching.

Prerequisite: Peer and Teacher/ Mentor Feedback

Another prerequisite must be that a teacher has a teacher or mentor of their own and a peer body to get honest feedback from.  If the only people a teacher receives feedback from are his or her students, he or she risks becoming narcissistic or bipolar.  Sometimes students love the teacher.  Sometimes they don’t.  And student feedback is biased, by nature.  Peer and mentor feedback is not.

I've been very lucky in my years of teaching.  I have had some smart teachers that I've partnered with who I've given permission to give it to me straight. It doesn't always feel so good to know when I am off base in a particular situation, either with a student or in the classroom, but with that feedback, I've learned a lot.

Having peers also gives one a sense of camaraderie, the sense that while the experiences of teaching are different, the essence of it is the same.  I often find it comforting to have a space in my peer relationships where we can commiserate about the ups and downs of teaching.  It normalizes experiences and situations where I do not feel confident.

Finally, having a teacher or mentor is critical for most teachers.  It can be extremely useful to have someone to share confusions with, to seek clarification from, and to learn the art of deeper inquiry.  Teachers need teachers and peers! These simple measures ward off the possibility of vainglory, a common pitfall associated with being in any role of authority.

A New Conversation

We’re living in different times, spiritually speaking, now that the age of the guru is over, but that does not mean we cannot experience the promise of yoga.  It just means that we have to get a little creative.  What I’ve presented above is very preliminary.  I welcome all of your feedback.  I have no intention of this being a ‘final statement,’ but, instead, something to evoke a conversation, something that we as a community have the courage to struggle with.

The Sangha May Be the Next Guru...

Before I end, I want to share a suggestion that Ken Wilbur posited, that the new guru is the sangha or community of like-minded individuals on the spiritual path together.  I have actually had several experiences of living in and amongst communities.  More often than not, there is no uniform agreement within it to use it as a tool for transformation.  When there is, however, the experience can be absolutely brilliant and searing, at the same time.

I notice that we’re in a time when we long for community and yet we’re all frightened of it, of exposing ourselves and of being exposed.  Likewise, many of our most painful moments have been in community, so we all have a lot of wounding around community, as well.  But we’re also lonely, disconnected, and disjointed.  And community can be a powerful place to reconnect, again. That’s why I think Wilbur might just be right.  It might just be the perfect opportunity to wake us up to our true nature.   Your thoughts?

Exercise:  Designing a Relationship With Your Teacher

It may seem a bit artificial, at first, to have a ‘sit down’ with your teacher, especially if you have an ongoing relationship with him or her, however, the results can be very powerful and pivotal for you, him or her, and your practice. By the way, the design doesn’t end after the first conversation. It is constantly being re-negotiated. That way, the relationship remains both flexible and tidy. Below are just a few pondering questions that may give you a sense of what might be shared in such a conversation.

  1. What exactly do you need and want from your teacher? From your practice?  For yourself physically, emotionally, spiritually, etc.? If your relationship with him or her were to have a huge impact in your life what would it look like?
  2. What’s your sense of what will really support your growth in the practice?
  3. How do you want your teacher to handle you around risk taking?  Does it help to push you, to be gentle with you, or to be somewhere in between?
  4. When and how do you tend to get evasive?  Do you stop coming to practice?  Do you get angry?  Do you shut down? How do you want your teacher to be with you when you do?
  5. Where do you usually get stuck, either in your practice or in relationship? When you are stuck, what can he or she say that will bring you back to the present moment?

What does your teacher need from you in order to support your evolution?

Yoga in India is Not the Same as Yoga in the West

It's my opinion that the method of awakening for a classical Indian seeker is not the same for a Westerner.  And so as teachers in the West, it is critical that we translate the teachings of any method of illumination rooted in a cultural lineage different from our students.  Sticking to doing it "the way it's done in India" is a trap not only for the teacher, but more specifically for our students.  There's always an aspect to the teaching that is culture-specific, and as teachers of a method, we are also translators.  It's our job not only to impart the method, but also to distinguish the essence of the method from the cultural idiosyncrasies that that method is imbued with. I personally teach Ashtanga Yoga. I learned 'the practice' from my teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.  He was what I consider a classical Indian.  When I say classical Indian, I am actually making a distinction from that of the modern Indian. The classical Indian still exists today but is slowly getting lost in the shuffle of modernity as India grows economically.  One thing that distinguished my teacher's classical Indian's students from their Westerner counterparts primarily had to do with where they were identified.  The classical Indian student tended to be identified with his or her role in society, whereas the Westerner identified primarily with his personality, replete with likes and dislikes, confidence and insecurity.  Much of the work of disentangling conditioned existence-also known in Sanskrit as samsara- for us Westerners required and still to this day requires very different work.  It's clear to me that while the game is still the same--overcoming our conditioning to discover who we truly are--the path of yoga in India is very different from the path of yoga in the West.

Classical Indian Dharma versus the Western Path

In India, the sense of individuality and uniqueness is not valued in the same way it is valued in the West.  From a very young age, what is valued is one's relationship to one's role in society.  If you are a brahman, then, indeed, that's what you are.  That's the role you are to play out in society.  Relatively speaking, life tends to happen to people in India compared to the West.  It isn't chosen the way it's chosen here.  And while that is starting to change, now, the change is slow.  So, for example, it wasn't until recently and in certain very small pockets of Indian culture that one would even think to choose one's partner in marriage.  That was determined by the caste of the individuals, the parents, and often with the aid of a family astrologer.One's role is called dharma, or duty.  A major theme in The Bhagvad Gita, is performing one's duty to caste.  If that means fighting one's family members for the sake of upholding the universal law, or santana dharma, then it must be done, like it or not.  The essence of the training of the yogi in India is the elimination of likes and dislikes, of the overly identified sense of self, called asmita in the Yoga Sutras.  And, in turn, identifying and surrendering to the role the society has put upon him or her.  What we in the West think of as the creative faculty to be at choice in how we live our lives is completely eliminated.  Surrendering to one's role-be it one's role in society or in the family unit-is the transformational breakthrough that's asked of the aspirant.

As Westerners, we learn not to totally identify with our roles as brother, mother, teacher, or CEO.  While this is a form of our identity, it doesn't define us the way it does the classical Indian.  A large portion of our identity is formed on our relationship to our personality and personal preferences.  So, when a father asks his son, "Do you want to be a football player or baseball player," and the child responds, "I want to be a make up artist,"  then that child is exerting his separate identity through his or her wants and wishes.  The same is true when we choose our wives and husbands or even when we choose either to have or not to have children.  The faculty of making choices and choosing what makes us happy is what forms this persona we in the West identify as, "me."

So when a Western person--with a developed sense of ego--goes to an Indian guru--that's rooted in a classical Indian culture--and learns yoga, the guru does not and cannot totally recognize what he or she sees.  The Westerner's sense of self is strongly identified with his or her persona along with its various wants.  Additionally, us Westerners really struggle mightily with issues of confidence, feelings of self-doubt and self-loathing.  While I am sure that plenty of classical Indians struggle with the same issue, a confident, outgoing personality is not as valued as the fulfillment of one's responsibilities to society and family.  And because the "come from" is so different, often times, the method doesn't work in the same way.  This isn't to say that the method doesn't work.

Mistaking Cultural Maps for Spiritual Maps

I remember it used to baffle my guru that we'd keep showing up at the shala year after year, either unmarried, littered with more tattoos, and still experimenting with various illicit drugs.  I imagine that he would sometimes scratch his head wondering why the method wasn't working the way it ought to for some of his students.  He'd often say in his lectures to us that we needed to get married, to have children, essentially to surrender to our dharma.  I am sure that he saw that even though we came from comparatively wealthy places, we were equally spiritually lost.  And yet I wish to argue that, while the practice wasn't working based on his cultural maps of dharma, it was, in fact working on us.

It's my hunch that the path of illumination for us Westerners has less to do with surrendering to our roles in society and has more to do with having the courage to trust what authentically moves us.  And that's what we were doing when we were saving up all the money we earned as waiters or yoga teachers to go back to practice with our teacher.  That's what we were doing when we would show up on the mat day after day.  We weren't doing these things because society deemed them valuable or worthy.  On the contrary, most of my parents' friends thought I was a freak for waking up at 5 am to contort my body in odd shapes.  We were doing this because it moved us.  It resonated with something very individual within each of us.  We used the practice to help strip away all the nonsense our parents, teachers, and society had foisted upon us so that we could each find our own individual way in the world.

Mistaking 'Correct' for the Truth

And that's how I think the practice worked and continues to work on us Westerners differently.  So when I hear Ashtanga teachers insisting that their students practice exactly the way it's done in Mysore today; that they never vary the sequence to meet their student's physical, emotional, and spiritual needs; that they alienate those that cannot practice six days per week, I can't help but think that this is laziness on the part of the teacher.  He or she is foisting a brahman interpretation of yoga onto Western students.  As Westerners our path is not necessarily to become more dutiful.  For some it is.  But for most of us, our work is to strip away what isn't true so that we can sense and choose life from our essence, the part of us that is authentic, awake, and deeply resonant.  And for each student, that's different.  Overlaying a system of "ought to's," of "right and wrong," of "correct and incorrect" is just another system our students will, at one point, need to throw off.


Sat: The Sanskrit Term for "The Real Deal"

In the last two blogs I've written, I have been discussing Sat-Chit-Ananda, an ancient yogic compound that describes the experience of yoga.  Each of the three Sanskrit words, sat, chit, and ananda, all speak of different aspects of the one, unitive experience called yoga.  It's almost like a description of the Holy Trinity, which connotes the three various qualities and aspects of the one God.  The same is true of Sat-Chit-Ananda.  While each word is a world unto itself, the experience of yoga occurs when all three of these worlds take form at the very same moment.


In this blog, I intend to write about the Sanskrit root, sat.  Sat is really the part of the compound of Sat-Chit-Ananda that has less doing or action than chit.  Chit is the active part that we play with our minds.  It's how we direct it.  And, specifically, we direct the mind on 'what is,' as opposed to the way we think it is; the way it might be; or the way think it ought to be.  Chit is a direct form of seeing without interpretation. Sat, on the other hand is not active.  It's just who we are, essentially, when we’re not trying.

It is an interesting word because it can mean two different things when we translate it from Sanskrit to English.  On one end of the spectrum, it can be used to describe something that is either true, right, and/or good.  On the other end of the spectrum, it can mean being, existing, or abiding in.  So we have these two very different usages of the word, and yet when we join both together, we have something along the lines of "true being" or "abiding in the truth."   So the term, sat, is pointing to a sort of presence or quality of being that is right good, and true.

Authentic Self

So when we put it together sat is really who we are at the very core of ourselves, namely the authentic self.  Given the intensity of change and the fast-paced times we're in, it isn't always easy to connect to or even know who we truly are.  We're so hyper-stimulated that to look for and discover what this is seems only for the elite, for those few monks and yogis who live in monasteries and caves somewhere in the Himalayas. The problem is that if we don’t start to look to see who we authentically are, we run the risk of flitting about life, never feeling truly anchored to a sense of the sacredness of who we truly are.


So where do we start?  How do we uncover our authentic selves?  In yoga we start from where we are.   It doesn’t matter whether we’re coming from a bright place or a dark one. I personally started practicing Ashtanga from a place of tragedy. My journey began more than 20 years ago when my brother committed suicide.  Why is suffering such a powerful initiator?  Because the experience of suffering wakes us up to our vulnerability. It’s often from this place that we go looking for answers. Some of us, like my wife, was initiated into her journey into Ashtanga Yoga in order to “ get a six-pack abs.”  It doesn’t matter where we start.  The journey toward the heart of who we are on the level of being, our authentic self, starts where we start.


We all start the journey with an identity that you and I call, “me.” Patanjali’s Sutras call an excessive sense of me, asmitaAsmita is often translated as “ego” but is, in fact, more like that part of us that overly identifies with our opinions, our beliefs, our moods, and, in general, the way we think things are.  When we’re locked in our fixed ideas, we may feel superficially safe, but if given even half-a-scare, a loss, or physical pain, we immediately come face-to-face with our fragility, our aloneness in the world, and sometimes, even, the meaninglessness of life.  And it’s worse when what we thought we knew or understood is, all of a sudden, pulled away from us.

When I lost my brother, everything I thought I knew about life, got mangled.  In one moment, nothing made sense anymore.  I’m not just speaking about the horrible grief of losing a brother, which is heartbreaking in and of itself.  I’m also noting the sense of having the rug pulled out from the identity of who I thought I was.  My asmita wasn’t able to cope with the stark reality that my brother could end his life so tragically.

When the asmita is particularly strong in us, we feel a sense of separateness from our world.  We feel a sort of disconnect.  That can show up as malaise, frustration, low-grade anxiety, bouts of rage, and the sense that something just doesn’t feel right. We often regard these feelings, as “bad news,” but, in yoga, we regard them as, in fact, “good news.”  The reason why is that if we apply consciousness or chit to them for any sustained amount of time, we begin to develop deeper insight into who we are.

If we do not face what’s right in front of us, these feelings can give us the sense that the world has no luster.  This is what in Hindu philosophy is called maya, the illusion of our separateness.  But illusion and insight are two sides of the same coin.  Through the application of chit, the veil of illusion opens up to a sense of greater unity or harmony with the world we live in and the relationships we have, both to ourselves and others.

A coaching client has been struggling with low-grade anxiety for the last three days.  His wife and he are in a disagreement.  His employee just can’t seem to get things done the way he’s requested.  His boss is acting like a ‘bull in a china shop.’  He’s been trying to get a product ready for market by traveling back and forth from San Francisco to Southern California every week for the last six months.  He feels anchorless and reports feeling like “a ship out to sea.”  As we sat in conversation, I asked him, “What are you feeling?”



“In my chest and belly.”

“What does it feel like in there?”

“It feels hollow in my belly, and at the base is this heavy stone.”

“How heavy?”

“Like one big brick.”

“Great.  Just notice that.”

After a few minutes… “What are you noticing, now?”

“The heaviness is gone.”

“What’s here, now?”

“Sadness and fear.”

“What does that feel like in the body?”

And so the conversation went on like this for about 20 minutes.  We just kept applying chit to the body, checking in every once in awhile to report on what he was experiencing.  After a period of time, the intensity of feeling shifted from anxiety, fear, and sadness to clarity, insight, and wisdom.  At that point, he realized that he needed to reestablish trust with the people around him, that he’d been so unmoored by trying to get the product to market, that he hadn’t really given his relationships the time and energy they deserved.  “I’ve always prided myself as a ‘relationship guy,’ and I’ve been stuck on just getting it done.  Boy have I been missing the boat.”

In the case of my client, anxiety, which is normally regarded as something that needs to be overcome, was, in fact, a great teacher.  Because he had the courage to apply chit to the discomfort in his body, he was able to wake up to see how his overemphasis on accomplishment rather than relationship was affecting not just others but mainly himself because he wasn’t being congruent with his essential self.  That’s sat.  It’s often through pain and discomfort that we wake up or our reminded of who we fundamentally are and what’s truly important to us.

Gratitude, Chutzpah and The Long Slog

But it’s not just suffering that puts us in touch with sat.  It also shows up when we’re connected to the practice of gratitude.  I feel a deep sense of gratitude that I have the space and time to write about topics that mean a lot to me.  Writing is my gratitude practice.  I feel more truly who I am when I can slow down enough to distill my thoughts and feelings into something that can be read by others.

For many of us, passion is a doorway into Sat.  It takes incredible passion to be willing to face ourselves on the mat the way we do.  Even though Guruji used to say that Ashtanga is universal, that it’s for everyone, I’ve always been clear that it isn’t for the faint of heart.  You need the fire of passion burning in you to face the things we face on the mat.  Sometimes we show up and feel a llittle broken, sometimes we face limitlessness, but we’re always face-to-face with ourselves.  The practice becomes the mirror expression of how we are each day. And it takes incredible chutzpah to look each day.  It’s this passion for practice that uncovers an aspect of our sat.

One of our relatively new yoga students is in the stage of her practice that I call “The Long Slog.”  It’s the point where she’s experienced the initial thrill of learning a portion of the primary series, but now she needs to practice what she’s learned in a continuous manner to both develop some mastery and, more importantly, to really extract the deeper learning that the sequence has to offer her.  This is the point in the practice where we unpeel the layers of holding, old injury, childhood wounding, and boredom, lots of boredom.  During “The Long Slog” many new students give up because they see the work that’s in front of them, and it appears daunting.  Others recognize it and see the value.

During ‘The Long Slog” we’re doing the same thing over and over and over again, but each day it’s different than yesterday’s practice, last weeks practice, or the practice we had a year ago.  We start to see what it is that is constantly changing.  Behind all the change, we cannot help but notice a part of ourselves that always remains the same. That’s sat, the one self, the eternal part of us, the one that never changes.

Sat and Chit, Being and Doing

Recently, I’ve been watching old Ashtanga video footage on Youtube.  One of the videos that I recently became reacquainted with and that has always particularly moved me is the 1993 Yoga Works footage of Guruji leading a class with Tim Miller, Chuck Miller, Maty Ezraty, Richard Freeman, Eddie Stern, and Karen Haberman.  I saw this video a few years after I started practicing Ashtanga.  This was a time when all-things-Ashtanga absolutely thrilled me, and I remember being totally enthralled by those ‘masters’ on the screen.  It must’ve been a bit like what it was to see the Beatles on Ed Sullivan or Led Zeppelin at the Greek Theater.   What I most loved--and still love--about that video was that even though they were practicing the same sequence, each was approaching the practice from a very different place.  To me, Tim was all heart.  Chuck was depth.  Eddie was laser intensity.  Richard was pure grace.  Maty was fiery passion.  Karen was herculean strength.  I could not help but see a portion of their authentic selves shine through in the footage.  What I saw and still see in those yogis and yoginis was the merging of doing and being.  This is the same thing as sat and chit being one.

It isn’t yoga to me when I see yogis practicing the way pianists practice scales, without connection to their essence. It’s a lot like those people who go to the gym, turn the Stair Master on high, and look up at the Today’s Show to see what Ann Curry is wearing today.  It’s vapid.  It’s like saying, “I have a body somewhere below me that needs to be exercise, but I am somewhere else. And, hey, at least it’s yoga.”  When I see this 1993 footage, I am reminded that when sat and chit are one, something beautiful and graceful emerges that is both pleasing to the eye and puts us in touch with our sense of aliveness, ananda, and our essence, sat.

When the Walls Come Tumblin’ Down

Ashtanga is physically very hard.  There’s a ton to do and remember.  From the moment we arrive on the mat until the moment we leave, we are in an incredibly detailed choreographed set of movements, breath cycles, internal contractions, and endorphins, lots of endorphins.  By the time we complete the practice, a defensive part of the psyche is sometimes so pooped out that our authentic selves just magically appear.  In other words, the practice exhausts us in such a way that a lot of walls we put up that keep us away from ourselves and the world around us fall down.  Many of us experience this in savasana.  Sometimes we experience it for 30 minutes after practice.  Sometimes it lasts for a whole day.

One of our new students clearly had it for seconds last Monday.  As I was leaving the studio, I noticed him looking at the sky in a meditative way for about 5 seconds.  Most of us just glance up to notice whether it’s sunny, cloudy, or rainy.  We don’t often really look.  Something about this students practice allowed a part of his automatic responses to not take root in that moment.  It was actually breathtaking for me to watch him appreciate the simple beauty of the blue sky.


In those rare moments when sat, chit, and ananda appear simultaneously together, the moment is sublime.  Once we’ve experienced this union, we can’t help but keep looking for it.  Why?  Because it feels both expanded and natural, transcendental and normal, and deeply and profoundly true, good, and right.  We often label ourselves by what we do, and we describe ourselves by the lives we’ve previously lived.  When sat coexists with chit and ananda, we know who we truly are.

And the game of sat is really a game of remembering and forgetting.  Remembering who we essentially are and forgetting who we are, remembering and forgetting.  Once we think we’ve understood it, we haven’t.  In order to continue to remember, it can help a lot to make choices from this place, to follow the thread of resonance that sat presents.  When we do, we cannot help but create lives for ourselves that are true, good, and authentic.  In the next blog, I will speak more about how to choose sat as a way to remember more than we forget.

Sat-Chit-Ananda Series

This is the third part of a four-part series that explores the experience of yoga. Be sure to check out the other posts