Monday, March 4, 2013

a triptych

Panel One:  No margin for error

In a shala where Mysore-style Ashtanga yoga is taught there is great potential for hurt feelings.  We all know this, and teachers get to experience both ends of the equation.  This is why teaching is a heavy responsibility, not to be taken lightly.  Recently I had a student come in for her first Mysore-style practice.  She said she had been coming to Miami Life Center for some time, taking the Saturday morning full primary class.  As it turned it out, the new student didn't really have anything memorized at all so I let her go to navasana and stopped her there.  She left upset, saying she had hoped for more of a workout (she told me she did triatholons) and that she felt rushed.  Now 9.78346 times out of ten I would have vetted a new student more than I did this morning.  For the life of me I don't know why I didn't today.  I wasn't particularly sleepy, the room wasn't particularly busy.  But because I didn't talk to this new student and adequately explain to her how it all worked and what to expect not just for today, but in the overall arc of her experience with yoga, her feelings were hurt.  There's a chance, probably a good one seeing as she was hoping for a "workout," that this student might have been put out even if I had talked to her more first.  People who do endurance sports often feel that if they haven't taxed themselves to their absolute limit then they've done nothing.  But we'll never know. You never get a second chance to make a first impression.  This has eaten at me, as you see.  It's a tough hustle, but you've gotta be on point every day.  Feelings and bodies can be hurt, and as a teacher the buck stops with you.  This analogy is extreme, I know, but it's like having an infant in a bathtub or a pool: you only have to look away for a second for something bad to happen.  No margin for error.

Panel Two: An Aikido concept is applied to yoga

The Japanese martial art of Aikido is practiced with a partner.  One person attacks in a given way, and the other practices the technique required to neutralize the attack.  The terms for these roles are uke  and nage, respectively.  In The Principles of Aikido,  Mitsugi Saotome explains: "If you think in terms of attacker and defender, it is likely that you will regard the role of nage, the one who is attacked and executes the technique, as the important role, and the role of uke as merely giving nage a body on which to practice his technique.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Ukemi is the art of being uke, and the quality of nage's practice depends on how well uke has learned his art... In short, uke is responsible for creating the conditions that allow nage to learn."  I've had ukemi on my mind these days because I've taken on apprentice/assistants a few days a week.  Most of my students have been receptive, some have been resistant.  I still remember the resistance I got when I began assisting in my own apprenticeship.  I want to protect my assistants.  I don't want them to go through some of the ball-busting that I went through.  So I hereby exhort my own students and students every where to practice good ukemi with new teachers.  Nobody issues forth from their mother's loins a good teacher of anything.  Teaching is a skill that must be learned through practice.  In practice mistakes are made and hopefully learned from.  We can all agree that it sucks to get a crappy adjustment, in fact sometimes it can be dangerous.  But I think students can help themselves in the long run by helping new teachers learn.  Nobody says you have to sit there and take an awful adjustment, but an opportunity to show generosity and compassion is there.  Try giving feedback in as nice a way as you can.  Try practicing good ukemi.

Panel Three: A eureka moment with Chuck Miller

A few weeks ago I had the great privilege of taking a workshop and then breaking bread with Chuck Miller. I always love being around teachers who spent an extensive period of time with Guruji and I try to soak up as much of the shakti as I can.  (For the layperson, shakti could be thought of as mojo, and it gets transmitted from teacher to student throughout the generations.)  As we talked over dinner on Lincoln Road two things were increasingly apparent to me: Chuck has great love and respect for Guruji, but he also disagrees on a number of issues with how Guruji taught.  He differs as he defers, as my postmodern aesthetics professor from college would say.  My eureka moment came as I realized how parental the guru/student relationship can be.  Unless you were raised by Bing Crosby, Joan Crawford, or John Phillips (from the Mamas and the Papas), chances are you're going to, or rather you should, raise your children the way you were raised.  That doesn't mean, however, that there aren't some things your parents did that you'd just as soon spare your own children of.  I think the same applies to teaching yoga, but that doesn't mean you can pick and choose what to pass on and what to pass over higgledy-piggledy.  The discrimination must come from adult experience.  As I conceived and executed this blog I had another eureka moment, a formulation that I will leave you with.  I posit that there is a roughly one-to-one ratio in years of development as a human being and as a yoga practitioner.  By this formulation, relatively few teachers, the Sharaths, Chuck Millers, Nancy Gilgoffs, Eddie Sterns, etc. who have been practicing for twenty or more years are adults.  Even my teachers Kino Macgregor and Tim Feldmann are barely in high school.  This puts me in about first grade.  Sounds right to me.  I have much to learn.


  1. Patrick, I practice both yoga and aikido, and your analogy of student/teacher and uke/nage is very insightful. When I take ukemi, my intent is to give myself to my partner with as much sincerity as possible. This of course is exactly what you have to do to be a good student. Furthermore, to be a good uke means to know when to challenge your partner, or to simply blend with their movement, or to do your best to keep up as they ratchet things beyond your capabilities. Thank you so much for this post, and for the thought provoking insights you have provided!

    Thank you so much for this insight!

  2. Oh, it just occurred to me... in the old arts (koryu) that preceded aikido, it was traditional that the senior or teacher would always take the role of uke in training, to help the student learn.