In the West, students of yoga often go to a teacher with the understanding that it is the teacher`s job to tell them exactly what to do.
If that’s not enough, they think the teacher should create a beautiful, comfortable and pleasing environment with the right lighting and the perfect air flow. Complaints are made if it isn’t that way. There are many expectations and assumptions made as to how the teacher should be. The teacher’s main role is to tell the student exactly what is wrong and right with their practice. If they do not live up to this, they are a lousy teacher.
To me, this is crap.
That’s because I know what it is like to practice on a floor that’s too hard, and I have suffered through some soft lighting. Moreover, I have studied as a yoga student under far harsher conditions and under Indian Yoga Masters who did not change their teaching approach to appease me. Had I complained to my teacher about the lights, he would have kicked my ass.
I believe all of these wrong ideas and ‘myths’ are the result of the following:
> the educational system
> cultural and social values
> looking for the ideal
It is a well-known fact that education, up until recently, has paid very little attention to a student’s inner life (Jack Miller, professor and head of the Holistic Department at the University of Toronto). Generally speaking, the educational system does not cultivate ‘free-thinkers’ and taking ownership over your learning. With a pressure to fulfill the curriculum, Ontario teachers (as an example) are forced to focus on how to pass assessments, rather than actual content. At best, students memorize information that is of no value to them later and at worst, they pretend their way through. Although yoga and meditation are gradually making their way into the classroom, many students today never experience these at school.
Culture and Society
There are also cultural and social implications at play. This alone is a huge topic to tackle. So I am only going to mention Georg Feuerstein (a Yoga Scholar), who said one of our on-going challenges will be to bring yoga into the context in which we teach.
Both yoga and meditation were born in cultures where people sat on the floor. For many people coming to yoga, this is extremely difficult. The culture of yoga and meditation also bring along a whole set of values and ideas about life, death and one’s ultimate purpose that contradict the way we normally think about things in the West. Generally speaking, the West is saturated with materialism while the East focuses much more on spiritual development. There is still a lot of work to be done in reminding students of the spiritually-based roots of yoga. In the West, we have shown that can take yoga out of its traditional context, but should we take the spiritual context out of yoga? Feuerstein has written a lot about this. His main concern is that much of what is practiced today is not really yoga.
Looking for the Ideal
Call it a human short-coming, but we tend to unconsciously look for the best conditions to learn under. But if we do this, will we learn what we really need to? Maybe instead of going to study with the teacher who makes you feel comfortable, you need to study with someone who pushes you a bit. I am not talking about someone who abuses you, but someone who sees right through you.
Pema Chodron said this was the reason why she studied under Vidyahara Chogyam Trunga. He was not going to take any of her ‘trip’. What she meant by that is he frightened her, because he knew her ego games. He may not have been her ideal teacher, but he was the one she needed.
The ideal does not exist. Still, we tend to look for it and unconsciously may even believe it is our right.
When I was in India, and certainly before my teacher had the means to have a nicer shala, we practiced in non-ideal conditions. We practiced on a cement floor with no AC in 40 degree weather. There were lizards on the wall, flying ants on the ground and barely any room to breathe with yoga mats beside, in front and behind you.
But honestly, these were the practices in which I developed and grew the most.
In the East, the teaching approach is different. From my experience of studying under Indian Yoga Masters, you have to think for yourself from the start. In the physical practice, this is emphasised in a non-led class versus those in the West, which are guided. If you don’t know the practice, you will be left standing alone. I witnessed this during a class with Yogacharya Venkatesha in Mysore.
The student was left in the forward bend (hastapadasan). She could not remember the sequence; this was the end of her practice. It may have been humiliating, but it did not happen again.
Being ‘forced’ to go home and do some self-study (the 4th niyama called Svadhyaya) is not a bad idea. It is one way to take ownership of your practice. It also sparks your inner teacher or guide.
As a student of yoga, I believe this is the best way to truly learn. It gives you the freedom, as well as the responsibility, of taking ownership of your practice. It is indeed hard work, but the satisfaction is ten-fold. It is like tasting a fresh piece of fruit. The path of yoga is like this. You have to taste the fruit for yourself (no one can do that but you).
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Editor: Cassie Smith