What a Grown-up (Yogi) Looks Like.

Via Peg Mulqueen
on Jul 8, 2013
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Photo: Jade Beall
Photo: Jade Beall

I don’t know what it is about the Mysore style of the Ashtanga practice but sometimes it can bring out not our best—but our worst.

The progressive series lends itself to some established hierarchy in our minds as a dictator sits at the helm, determining our rank. It’s like my Catholic school upbringing all over again where we’re either too timid to ask questions or brashly figuring out how much we can get away with.

I’ve seen both extremes. A student so worked up about talking to a teacher about their practice, for fear of appearing disrespectful and suffering the wrath of insubordination…to a student literally sneaking postures the way an insolent teenager steals beer from his parent’s fridge.

Either way, these behaviors rise from a feeling (real or imagined) of powerlessness. These stories leave room for two ways to proceed: either passively submit or shamelessly rebel.

Yet, how about this third option? Grow up!

One of my favorite teachers, David Keil, says this in a much kinder way: we need to become adults about our practice.

“‘You’re an adult’ in the context of practice this means that you have reached a certain level of maturity in understanding what the practice is about. At that point, you are just as responsible for your practice as you have allowed your teacher to be. It means, you have to own it.”

~ David Keil

We are not born adults. So in the beginning, we are just learning and depend so much on the rules of safety and the guidance and experience of our teacher. Luckily, beginners don’t have a problem being curious, asking questions, or messing up.

But once we hit adolescence…holy cow! Some of us really struggle. It’s that time we don’t know what we don’t know and it tends to either breed a sense of entitlement and arrogance or a timid and undeserved insecurity.

Like most, I have probably teetered on both sides. Some of you may argue that my Rocket practice of yesteryears was my more rebellious face followed by the flip side, perhaps a blinder reverence to atone for such sins.

Either way, I was confused when my own teacher expected me to know the next posture in my series before it was given.

“Guruji was funny on this he fully expected you to know the next posture in the sequence you were learning, but he also wanted you to respectfully wait for him to ‘give’ you the posture. And this juxtaposition is where I line up on this question. In a general sense I do like the student to defer to me on the decision about when to add a new posture or start a new series. I base my choices on many factors…but also I think that each student ought to naturally want to take full responsibility for their learning and for their journey in yoga.”

~ David Garrigues

I was fortunate to have lunch with beloved teacher, Tim Feldmann, last week while he was in DC teaching. I was bemoaning perhaps a bit, the special kind of awareness my practice requires as I age. He understood and in fact, had this conversation with Sharath on his last visit to Mysore.

Tim shared with his teacher that as of late, he was experiencing more aches and pains than usual. After all, third series is quite demanding. Sharath’s response to his student?

Do more primary.

Because the practice appears linear, maturity requires us to see our practice outside this limited box and transcend any idea of levels and rank. In fact, an adult would recognize—learning is continuous and has nothing to do with postures and series.

“Part of the method is repetition and repetition means circling back around to rework entire series even after you have learned further series … The first time around in learning a series you can extract a certain amount of juice, nectar, knowledge, or suffering (ha!). You do the work extract the sap and move on knowing that on the next round you will extract something different that you couldn’t have accessed the time before.”

~ David Garrigues

Bottom line, this is not a competition to a linear finish line,  just as there’s no award for the overly compliant teacher’s pet. Each of us may have a tendency to err on one side or the other—with either an impatience that fools us into thinking that just because ‘we can, we should’ or with a fearful caution that keeps us as life’s forever passenger.

Hopefully, as we grow up we also take responsibility. We move forward, keeping our inner child in check and develop a sense of maturity that keeps us healthy and balanced.

Come to think of it, I suppose I’m not talking about Ashtanga anymore at all—and maybe once we can truly become an adult-like in practice, we might be able to apply this acquired maturity to the rest of our lives as well.


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Ed: Bryonie Wise


About Peg Mulqueen

With a gentle warmth and contagious sense of humor, Peggy shares her passion of life and love with all those she meets. She was a counselor for many years before stumbling upon one of the oldest forms of healing therapies: yoga. Since then, she has been helping others lead lives of change and renewal, exploration and—all from a yoga mat. When not on her mat, Peggy (her husband and two children close at hand) can be found on a surf board in Maui—learning to fall off gracefully and get back up, or suspended 500 feet in the air on a zip line over a Costa Rican jungle—conquering her fear of heights, or searching for the perfect cast, fly fishing in the wilder places of Montana. You can follow her adventures in yoga on her blog here.


10 Responses to “What a Grown-up (Yogi) Looks Like.”

  1. kimberlylowriter says:

    Loved this! You summed up the frustrations I sometimes feel in Mysore! I thought I was the only one. Seriously.

  2. Well done, Peg. Today is Ashtanga Day on the Internet. See the others in the interesting discussion under David's article at Best of Yoga Philosophy (the excerpt is ""What do you want to give to the world? What do you want to leave behind you when you leave this world?")

    Bob W.
    Yoga Demystified

  3. @pegmulqueen says:

    oh no. not the only one by a long shot! thanks for the read and taking the time to comment!

  4. @pegmulqueen says:

    thanks bob! i chalk up the interesting ashtanga blogs to the moon day … we all suddenly had a morning free! 🙂

  5. BlndSght says:

    I enjoyed reading your article. Thanks.
    Being a teacher of Ashtanga for well over 15 years I can say I've seen the worst and best come out of students during mysore class. I've had yoga props thrown at me! and I don't even use props. As well, I've had students pour with gratitude and thanks for what "my teaching" gave them.
    As I have grown in my own practice and teaching I find that issues I once dealt with both negative and positive have come into balance in regards to students' behavior. It does seems two sides of the same coin, rejection and lionization.
    Teachers looking for praise while trying to avoid rejection and gain acceptance is normal at first.
    But as a teacher grows within themselves a balance is struck. It's seems natural that students, new or experienced pick up on a teachers intentions and where their teaching is coming from, regardless of whether or not they recognize it. As I have grown, I don't find the issues I once dealt with coming up with students. Thank god, because a yoga block doesn't feel good upside your head 🙂

  6. Peg,

    I think there is yet another stage past adult, that of what for lack of a better term I'll call "elder". I'm 64. My body is older, a little more beaten up, a little stiffer every year. This is just the natural progression of aging. I can't do things I did 10 years ago, let alone 20 years ago. For instance if I am standing up and want to sit down I can't just do it automatically, I have to think about it and do it carefully, step by step, or I fall flat on my butt.. This means that some poses I used to do I just don't do any more, because I've injured something, either in the practice but more likely just living. As an "elder" I have to take complete responsibility for my practice. I sometimes have 20 or 30 somethings make suggestions about how I can "improve" something. If I think it is safe for me to do so I'll go along, but at this point in my life/practice I'm not interested in improvement, I'm interested in maintenance, in keeping whatever mobility/flexibility/strength that I have as long as I can. I also know that I'll keep losing pieces of the practice, until I'm left with nothing but savasana, both as a pose and in the literal sense of that word. That's "elder" practice.

    Keep up the great writing. Barry

  7. @pegmulqueen says:

    Barry, i wish your "elder self" lived closer … i could learn much from you. thank you for this.

  8. Joe Sparks says:

    As a teacher we can encourage, allow, invite our students, but never make them do anything they do not want to do. It always free choice a decision, to decide moment by moment, what path we want to take. The teacher is a guide, to help us engage our minds together, to change from what had to be, to what can be.

  9. i'm just still trying to find out how holding a pose until your body is shaking, muscles burning, sweat dripping into your eye, cortisol raging through your system, the fight or flight response being triggered from the stress of pushing your body to exhaustion is yoga…the yoga sutras say that asana is "steady pleasantness". steady pleasantness to the point of resistence, then you wait for the "dawn of unboundedness". i had to leave all the jivamukti, power yoga, and ashtantga behind. i now do a different style and i transcend in chetan asana or sivasana between each post. some yin yoga for flexibility and to balance out my vata. if i wanna get my work out on, i ride my bike, go hiking, or play volley ball. but…that's what yoga is all about. "self-referral" consciousness. knowing what is right for you. yoga teachers should know about ayurveda and talk to their students about doshas, maybe even get into a little basic pulse diagnosis. because if you have too much kapha, yin yoga is not really what you need but if you have too much vata, ashtanga yoga is just going to aggravate it, especially if it's cold out. pitta deranged in summer? lay in sivasana at home in the air conditioning and forget about it.

    maybe we yoga students should know our doshas and take our own pulses so we know what kind of activity we need. then there's jyotish…if you have mars and sun in your heart in gemini (heat heat heat heat heat) i'm not sure ashtanga is the pitta pacifying activity you need. there's so much to wellness…yoga is a vast subject and if i ever teach asana, i'm going to take all this stuff into consideration. anywhoo…great article!

    (and when I say "you" i mean all yoga students, myself included)