yoga sutras

A Living, Breathing Practice

1462139_orig A group of friends and I have started to gather at my house monthly to take a deeper dive into Yoga than the kind we get when we go to the yoga studio or even when we do a teacher training.  The problem with teacher trainings is that there's so much to cover in terms of content, that we don't have a lot of time to linger on some of the deeper questions, like what on earth is yoga about?  Or what's yoga to me?  Or how did the ancients view yoga and spirituality?  And how does it pertain to my life?  It is my sense that we all have to ask these questions, to not just accept techniques like asanas (yoga postures) or meditation without an analytical consideration.

And because Yoga has the propensity to be embodied and non-analytical, we're not  encouraged to go here a lot.  My teacher, Pattabhi Jois,is often quoted as saying, "Yoga is 99% practice, 1% theory."  How often do we hear the instruction, "Drop the the thought and return to the body," or "Your thoughts are like passing clouds.  Notice the thought, and come back to the breath."  This is really the heart of spiritual practice, just noticing.  And most practice, if it's effective, takes us out of our thinking, comparing, and analytical mind and into a more intuitive, sensing, feeling, and non-thinking place.

But that's not to say that the spiritual experience is, strictly speaking, a non-thinking experience.  Actually, there's a lot of thought, in fact, thousands of years of thought, about the spiritual life and the spiritual experience that we can draw from.  There are a ton of maps written by those who have walked the path before us that we can use to understand and make sense of our own journey.  It is not only important but should be mandatory for all of us who are deeply seeking to understand the traditions we come from.  That way we can start to contextualize them and make sense of them.  More importantly, I think it's imperative that we develop a critical eye for our spiritual practice and the teaching associated with it, so we can choose a path that takes us to where we need to go rather than where we're told we should go by a teacher, a teaching, or a community.

The Sutras Through a Critical Eye

As I was preparing for our last gathering, I came across an interesting podcast by Matthew Remski that really had me questioning how much authority I wanted to place in The Yoga Sutras as a map for my spiritual practice.  Remski points out some of Patanjali's weird views.  Examples include:

  1. The idea that Yoga is about such a complete separation of awareness (purusa) and nature (prakriti), that it veers in the direction of disembodied, spiritual bypass.  In other words, the cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness (1:2) lead to a recognition that one's true identity is not this body; this entity I call me; or these relationships I surround myself with.  These are all fluctuations within awareness.  Through a gradual process of detachment, we see that these things are ephemeral, and thus, not eternal.  The awareness (purusa) that notices these things that arise, stay for awhile, and pass away is eternal, and, thus, our true identity.  Extreme form of non-attachment, like the one espoused in The Yoga Sutras, has the potential to validate the avoidance of practical challenges or difficult or painful feelings or memories.  This stark dualism, separating awareness and all the things within it tends to unground people and unseat them from their innate wisdom.
  2.  The fourth chapter, Kaivalya Pada, commonly translated as chapter on liberation is a mistranslation. Pada means subject.  Kaivalya actually means perfect isolation; thus, one of the end goals of a good yoga practitioner, according to Patanjali, is to detach so much from nature (prakriti) so as to separate from society, as a whole.  Yoga was heavily influenced by the monasticism of Buddhism and Jainism.  In fact, the ethical precepts, the yamas and the niyamas, come from the Jains who believed that separation was a necessary ideal to experience complete liberation, that to be in contact with others leaves the yogi vulnerable to the negative karma of another.  In our everyday language, this is another way of saying that liberation requires that we stay away from others so as not to pick up on their bad vibe.
  3. The book is chalk-full of  magical thinking.  For example, intense forms of absorption lead to one's capacity to fly or inhabit the body of another and make that body move.

Remski's analysis--which is brilliant by the way--forces us to look twice at this text that we yogis tend to hold with reverence.  Without a doubt, much of the instruction in The Sutras is erudite and brilliant.  Developing a capacity to practice anything with non-attachment (vairagya) (1.15) is a simple and brilliant instruction on how to learn anything.  The tools that the Sutras offer us on how to witness and what to witness are fabulous instruction for each of us who would like to develop greater capacity for objectivity.

But how far do we intend to take this process?  In its most extreme form, it could lead us away from our relationships, away from community, and either into monastic life or a cave in the Himlayas.  Or maybe what we're looking for is just an hour in the day "where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. (Campbell, Joseph; Bill Moyers (2011-05-18). The Power of Myth (p. 115). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.)

Bringing Old Texts to Life

As I said before, I'm not suggesting that we ignore the classic texts.  They're giving us hints that can help us immensely on the journey.  But if we are on the path, we have to take responsibility for our journey.  Doing so requires that we look with a critical eye.  When we accept these maps on faith we sometimes end up in places we never intended to be.   A lot of the orthodox approaches within the Buddhist and Yogic tradition posits the notion that because we're too rife with avidya (misunderstanding, misapprehension, or spiritual ignorance), we cannot possibly see what will help or hinder us on the journey.  That's why we need not question the authority of the teacher, the teaching, or the community but, instead to have faith in their innate validity.

There's a third approach to working with the teachings of a tradition. We don't take them at face value, and we don't ignore them.  Instead, we struggle with them.  We see them as texts written by human beings, like you and me, and who were writing for a particular audience living in a particular moment in history with a unique set of struggles.  And then we work with the text to separate that which is essential truth for us from that which is particular to the times and perspective of the writer.  And then we try to make sense of it for the current situation we find ourselves in.  This how a tradition becomes a living, breathing, and evolving thing.  And if you consider it, we are the critical link to the evolution of the tradition.  How each of us interprets and makes sense of any tradition determines how it will be carried forth from one generation to the next.  In short, to go through this process is to take responsibility not only for our spiritual path, but to create new maps, maps that one day will influence seekers, like us.

How do we get to belief: Is it through faith or practice?



I just came across this TED Talk by Karen Armstrong, author on comparative religions, that I think is particularly important because it points to the difference between spiritual practice and modern, religious expressions of faith.  While this talk is about the Golden Rule--'don't do to others what you wouldn't want done to you.'-- what I found of particular interest was her commentary on the etymology of the word, belief.  We have an awkward relationship with the world, belief today.  Before reading on, consider the way this word, belief, makes you feel or what it makes you think of.

Belief, in its original, 17th century sense meant, "an intellectual ascent to a set of propositions; I commit myself, I engage myself."  In other words, trust in God was not something that one simply decided.  It was through committed action that rendered one's relationship to God.  In other words, belief was something that was discovered through practice.  It wasn't just something you just swallowed down while ignoring common sense.  You engaged in a set of disciplines on a day-in and day-out basis that gave you access to the deeper mysteries that lie at the heart of the teachings.  As Armstrong says, "Religious doctrines are meant to be summons to action. You only understand them when you put them into practice."

The source text of yoga, The Yoga Sutras, which is dated to the first century, around the time of Jesus, describes the results of all spiritual practice--higher powers, subtle states of awareness, and, clarity-- but the bulk of the text is organized around the practical application, "the doing," how we attain these experiences of yoga.   While there is a sort of worldview that The Sutras hinge on, it's never explicitly described, nor does it particularly matter whether the yogi believes in it or not.  Following the practice is enough, not because it leads one to being a good, moral yogi.  Morality--good versus bad--isn't the game of Eastern spiritual practices.  Instead, through commitment to practice, a sort of wisdom or insight is gained, the sort of insight that one can trust.  By the way, that's the same thing as belief as Merrian-Webster describes it, "a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing."

In a way, I can't help but see that our attraction to the East stems from our modern religions having lost their way.  Instead of providing us with a path, as they used to, many expressions of modern religion ask us to adhere to a comprehensive understanding of the world that divorces us from our common sense.  At one point several years ago, I tried to evoke a debate with an orthodox Jewish friend's interpretation of the Torah.  His response was that we couldn't carry on a discussion because he understood the Torah to be written by God, whereas I understood it to be written by men.  In other words, in order to carry forward a good discussion, I'd have to disbelieve what I knew to be true.  Bummer.  What makes this even more of a bummer is that modern religions sanction this sort of divide.  Some even sanctify wars.

I am not suggesting that all Eastern spiritual practice is perfect or that all religions promote xenophobia.  The problem isn't the religions, it's the people that practice them, the one's that bring a sort of rigidity and orthodoxy to them.   I've seen yoga teachers who's whole lives are dedicated to adhering to and promoting a severe approach to tradition, even when it creates injury, both to themselves and others.  These people may be adept at contorting their bodies, but they never really grow.  Practice, like religion, has the potential to be a trap, as well.

The role of discipline is to enlighten us, to awaken us to that which isn't obvious.  It's designed not to be an end unto itself but to allow us to comprehend mysteries. A mystery is a religious truth that's hidden.  It's only through practice that it becomes obvious.  Once obvious, we can trust in it.  To get there is a journey.  In a way, each of our lives is a journey that's revealing one great mystery.  And for each of us, that mystery is very individual.  To take a set of propositions on faith is a sort of bypass of that journey.  Blind faith is like claiming to know a subject we never studied before.  Our job, as I see it, is to be willing to take that journey.  It can help to have signposts of those who have come before us--whether they come from spiritual or religious traditions--to guide us on that journey.  Ultimately, though, that journey is very individual.  But if it is taken, wholeheartedly and with courage, the result is a sort of belief that is different from that of blind faith because it's the sort of thing that you know in your bones, even in those moments when you've lost your way.

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?

Chit: Noticing What Is

In my previous entry, I discussed Sat-Chit-Ananda, an ancient yogic compound of three Sanskrit roots: sat, chit, and ananda, that describes the qualities of the experience of yoga.  I spent most of that blog entry discussing ananda, which I translated in our everyday language, as "the yum."  By "the yum," I mean that profound experience that something deep inside is fed and, thus, resonates profoundly.  We all have an experience of this from time to time.  It shows up in those moments when life is especially rich, rewarding and poignant.  "The yum" is our truth; it's our essence; it's our raison d'être.  And essentially, I made the case for the idea that "the yum" is what we're after in the practice of yoga.

Eyes Unclouded By Longing

In this entry, I intend to speak about chit, which is really "the doing" of Sat-Chit-Ananda.  It's the action we must take to uncover, and meet "the yum."  Chit is often translated as understanding, comprehending, or the fixing of the mind.  The action that leads to such an outcome is, essentially, observation, the simple act of noticing.

And it's not just any old noticing, it's the kind of noticing that occurs when the "eyes are unclouded by longing." (Tao Te Ching).  It's a kind of looking, listening, feeling, tasting, touching, and intuiting that allows us to see into things but is not obstructed by stories, dramas, or any interpretation whatsoever.  It's really just noticing what is.  The action of chit, as described in The Yoga Sutras is an active form of observation without interpretation.  When we really get to know things without immediately jumping to conclusions, when we can just notice with curiosity, openness, and a quality of freshness, we come to know them as they are.

The Habits of Seeking Relief

We rarely see this sort of observation applied on the geopolitical stage.  Instead of curiosity, what tends to show up amongst enemy nations is distrust, accusation, manipulation, coercion, and combativeness.  At the heart of this form of noticing are human emotions that are difficult to be with discomfort, distrust, and, more often than not, fear.  This doesn't just happen among nations.  It also occurs in our everyday relationships.

A few years ago I was coaching a married couple, who claimed to have "the perfect sex life," but they just couldn't get along.  Both had plenty of justifications as to why the other wasn't being a good husband or wife.  He complained that she was "passive aggressive" and always found ways of deflecting responsibility for their arguments.  She would argue that he was domineering and even, at times, dictatorial. When we first met, the two of them tried to get me to see their respective interpretations of what was wrong with their partner.

She'd say, "I don't want to argue.  I just want to feel the way we felt when we first got together."  He'd rebut with, "I am not trying to start a fight.  Come on, Chad, can't you see how manipulative she is?"  At the point in our conversations when both had uncovered and identified the manipulative games they played with each other, I asked them, "Well, what's here if you're not playing out this psychodrama with each other?" Immediately, the masks came off, and what revealed itself in the space was raw, passion, and it was so palpable in the room, but neither of them could just be with it without reacting to it.

Being With What Is

Part of chit is really the capacity of being with things as they are, without interpretation, reaction, or labeling.  And there's so much we have great difficulty being with.  Like the couple above, a lot of us have a hard time being with our passion.  Instead of just experiencing it, we tend to jump to the conclusion that it means something like, "What does he want from me?" or like, "I don't deserve her."  We also have difficulty being with certain feelings in our bodies, like anxiety, sadness, anger, and even joy.  Before we will ever really let ourselves just feel what's coming up emotionally, we are often already seeking a solution that will get rid of the discomfort.

That's what "following the yuck in order to get to the yum" is all about.  Something occurs, like somebody says something to us that makes us uncomfortable, and then, before we actually give ourselves the space to just experience the pain, we go looking for a way to get rid of it.  We might seek revenge.  We might go and hide. We might go straight for the pint of Haagen Dazs.  This is just habit.  It's the habit of reacting so as not to be with the experience, as it is.

The Body as the Field of Experience

We know the world through our bodies.  All we need to do is slow down enough just to notice what's coming up, what it's feeling, and meet the feelings with curiosity and openness.  But being able to slow down and notice isn't necessarily easy.  That's why we practice daily and why the Yoga Sutras state that when practice is done steadily and for an extended period of time, we develop a solid foundation (1.14).  It takes continuous practice to get the hang of choosing the direct experience through the body over the reactive, interpretive reality that our discursive minds create.  In other words, it takes a lot of clarity and years of practice to be with both the pleasure and discomfort that shows up in our body without seeking gratification.  One of the benefits of daily practice is that we get the hang of being with the initial discomfort when we have to choose something that in the short-run doesn't feel so good but is ultimately for our highest good.

A student came to class today with some tears.  She was sad but proud of herself.  Yesterday, she broke off a relationship with someone who she cared about but didn't see a future with.  As she put it, "the relationship wasn't heading in the direction I wanted it to go.  Breaking it off is really painful, but I know that, in the long run, it's the right thing for me."  Instead of holding on to the relationship for another year or two, she knows that deep down inside, she has to let it go in order to meet someone who really does meet her.  Sometimes being with 'what is' doesn't feel so good.  In the case of our student, it's painful, but, simultaneously, there is a feeling, deeper down that something is "right," that it’s perfectly fine to just be with the discomfort, without having to fix it or resolve it.

By the way, our student is creating the yum in her life simply by being willing to face the pain of breaking off the relationship.  Why?  Because she is creating a sort of congruency between whom she knows she is deep inside and whom she is out in the world.  Creating that harmony sometimes requires being with what we fear the most.  In fact, more often than not, it takes incredible courage to make that leap.

Asana: Directing Our Awareness Toward Ananda

The practice of asana (posture) teaches us both how to be with the discomfort when and how to kinesthetically distinguish when the experience of "the yum" is authentic. In Patanjali's Sutras, "the yum" in asana is described as: sthira sukham asana (2.47), the place in the posture that has the simultaneous qualities of sthira, steadiness, and sukha, comfort.  So when we practice asana, we're developing a feel for ananda.   That's why Pattabhi Jois used to say that Ashtanga Yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory.  It's not a passive, intellectual pursuit.  It's active, and it requires the direct experience.

For those of us who practice, we all know it.  Every once in a while we're in a posture, working with the breath a little, refining the alignment, noticing the bandhas, and then all of a sudden there's this deep, resonant feeling of, "Yes," or "Mmm," or "Ahhh," or just emptiness, vast emptiness.  That's the experience of sthira sukham asana.  And it's the experience of ananda.  It's not that superficial pleasure we get when we eat a cookie or drink wine.  It's deeper than that.  There's a sort of profundity, a rightness, a fundamental goodness about that experience.

And it's why Mysore teachers give adjustments in class.  They do it, not because they simply want to force students into a deeper posture, but because they want the student to connect to the deeper resonance that the posture can evoke in the body.  When we get the hang of finding those dual qualities in our physical practice, when we find that sweet spot, we begin to develop the skill for discovering it in our relationships, in our work, and in our lives.

Being at Choice

The funny thing is that the moment we've found that sweet spot, it's gone.  It only occurs in a moment.  So what brought us sthira, steadiness, and sukha, ease, in our asana or in our lives yesterday won't hold up today.  The nature of things is change.  Nothing is constant, so we have to remain flexible, not just in body but in mind, as well.

Part of chit is being aware and open enough to see that we are constantly at choice in how we interpret things.  Usually, we just assume that the way we've interpreted reality is just the way it is and probably the way it will always be.  Consider that your interpretation of this blog would change dramatically if you read it ten years from today or even if you read it one more time.  Yet we have the tendency to think that our interpretation of 'what is' is the way it is, that it's fixed.

But if we will apply chit to an experience and the interpretation of it, we will find two very different domains of reality.  The first is based in the direct experience, which is always here and in the present moment.  The second is rooted in ideas, beliefs, opinions, and judgments, all of which are past oriented. So, for example, as I was practicing this morning, I noticed a lot of heavy and crampy sensations in my back and legs.  That was my direct experience.  I could have interpreted that experience to mean that I was stiff today, certainly quite a lot stiffer than I was yesterday.  Once I made that interpretation, I could have followed that logic and made my stiffness mean something like, "I hate practicing when I am stiff.  I think I'll just skip the rest of the poses I planned to do and go straight to savasana (corpse pose)."

I am at choice only when my awareness is here and now, in the present moment. When I am stuck in my interpretation of what the sensations means, I'm caught in a cascade of decisions, which are all informed by past stories and experiences that have nothing to do with what I am experiencing in the moment.  More often than not, the choices are not appropriate to the situation at hand.  But when I just experience the sensation directly, I am more apt to make choices that are appropriate for that particular situation, choices that bring me back to ananda, to both my truth and to what's needed in the present moment.


It takes incredible patience not to jump straight to conclusions but simply to observe what's here.  Patience is not about waiting without any discomfort.  True patience is really the capacity to wait both with comfort as well as discomfort.  If we will slow down enough and direct our attention to what is here in the present moment without judgment, without labeling, with curiosity, by allowing things to be as they are, we will discover what the well-known and widely respected Ashtanga Yoga teacher, Richard Freeman, calls "the yoga matrix," which he describes as  "the background of unconditional love and absolute support that is the true nature of an open mind" (Freeman, Richard. The Mirror of Yoga: Awakening the Intelligence of Body and Mind. Boston: Tambala Publications. 2010. Print).  This is nothing other than ananda, our truth, our happiness, our wisdom, and the deep, profound sense of the perfection of things.

Sat-Chit-Ananda Series

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