Learn to Do. Do to Learn.
When your ten-year-old daughter informs you that she is “dying” to go to an art museum, you jump on it. So last week, I cleared my schedule for a day and took her to a Van Gogh exhibit at the Philadelphia Art Museum. Because this is a special exhibit, an audio guide was included in our admission price, but I was a little dubious about the recorded tour. After all, I wanted to talk to my daughter about the paintings not simply stand next to one another plugged into headphones. But she was insistent.
When we stepped into the gallery, I found myself face to face with Van Gogh’s famous work, Sunflowers. It was breathtaking to be that close to a masterpiece that I’d studied in college Art History classes. I got lost for a moment in the swirls of golden color. I was fascinated by the texture of the painting. The visible brushstrokes helped me imagine him actually creating the image. When I squinted a little, the undulating curves of his composition leaped out at me, making the entire painting seem like it was in motion. This was clearly much more than simple painting of a vase of flowers.
My daughter dragged me back from my reverie by pulling repeatedly on my hand. “Let’s make sure to hit the play button at the same time, Mommy! 1, 2, 3… Now!” Pressing that button was the last thing I wanted to do. I wanted to sink back into my impressions of the painting. I wanted to stretch myself to see what I could remember of his work from college. I wanted to just experience the art that surrounded me. But, this was her day, and if she wanted me to press play, then press play I would.
As the narrator’s voice filled my ears, I shifted gears. My almost physical experience of the painting changed. I slipped from an emotional state into a more intellectual mode. As I listened to the recording I became a student again. As this happened, what I was seeing shifted as well. As I listened to the recording, my eyes followed along from the texture of the pottery vase, to the location of the artist’s signature, to the riotous colors the artist selected for the blooms. I learned that he framed his images tightly to create a more powerful image. I was carried away by the idea that his use of a horizon line (or lack thereof) revealed the fluctuating state of his mental illness. To think that these very paintings were a windows into the genius and pain of such a brilliant, tortured existence!
Each new piece of information and interpretation offered by the narrator made me hungry for more. I eagerly headed to the next painting on the audio tour and hit play again. This happened repeatedly until the narrator suggested we move into the next room. As my daughter forged through the crowd toward the door, I grabbed her arm. “Hang on! Don’t you want to look at the other paintings, sweetheart?” She hadn’t even realized that on our quest for works supported by a recording we’d zoomed past several others paintings.
Again, I shifted gears. I found, however, that my few minutes with a teacher (albeit a recorded one) had changed my experience of Van Gogh’s paintings. While still more visceral than heady, this time as I stood in front of his works I was more informed. I could see more. I could even feel more. In addition to trying to understand how he created his paintings by studying his trademark brushstrokes, I also sought insight into how he was feeling. Were the strokes choppy? Or swirling? In one painting in particular, as I sought the horizon line I actually began to feel a little claustrophobic and wondered if he did, too.
Moving from student mode to a more experiential mode is not at all foreign to me. I do it all the time on my yoga mat. In fact I’ve found an incomparable richness when I manage to balance these two modes within my yoga practice.
I love being a student. The joy of studying with my teacher has not faded one bit over the years. Her insights never fail to inform my experiences. I am always “wowed” to find that there is more to grapple with in postures I know so well. I also love going to group classes in local studios. I always leave class with a new idea for sequencing. I find it fascinating to hear other opinions and experiences about this practice. Being a student ignites an intellectual craving for a deeper understanding of yoga that better enables me to experience the practice and to share it with others as I teach.
That said, yoga is inherently an individual experience. Practicing is meant to draw us inward, beneath our swirling thoughts, to a place where we connect again with our feelings. We simply can’t do this in the heady state of being a student. It’s when we’re moving and breathing on our own that we can drop into the visceral state of experiencing the practice. It is as we root our awareness into each breath and every movement, that we begin to experience the calming, stabilizing, stilling effects that yoga has on us at the very core of our being.
This is where the balancing act comes into play. My individual experiences on my mat are informed by my studies with my teacher and in classes. If I did not spend time on my mat actively in student mode, I would surely miss a great deal of what yoga has to offer. On the other hand, if I did not spend time on my mat soaking in the experience of moving and breathing, much of what I learn would be shallow and two-dimensional. To really know something, you must experience it. Your experiences adds meaning. Your experiences add invaluable nuances of understanding. It’s by balancing learning and experiencing that we stretch beyond knowledge to real wisdom.
As my daughter and I headed into the next gallery, we understood better how to proceed. The exhibit was designed to give guests the chance to be both students and individuals which yielded a very rich experience. While we continued to soak up the information from our audio tour, we now approached one painting at a time rather than dashing through the room. When we arrived in front of paintings not on the tour, we stopped and changed gears. Even though we’d taken our student hats off for a few moments, we found we were experiencing the paintings at a whole new level thanks to all we’d learned from the recording.
Step back and take a look at your practice as if it is a work of art. Maybe you need to squint a little to allow the patterns to pop out. Seek the curving lines of your individual experiences on your mat. View them against the contrast of all you learn as a student. See how they support one another? Are they in balance?
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