I’m sweating profusely, steaming to be exact. I smell the sweat of the other bodies in close proximity. This is my first class at Ojai Yoga Shala, 7am, on a Sunday. What possesses me to get up before dawn, drive over an hour on silent winding roads through Lockwood Valley out to the coast? A good yoga teacher. From the beginning I pick my teachers on fit not convenience. The first class I went to in PMC, which was right down the street from my house when I went, didn’t suit. The next teacher I try lives 8 miles away, but she’s the better one for me. After Misty disappears I seek out solace in yoga haunts in an ever-widening circle: Bakersfield, Newhall, Ojai, Santa Barbara etc. This visiting teacher at the Ojai shala has a particularly lovely way of teaching.
As we sweat, tumble, stretch and execute our version of the primary series, David walks around giving individual cues and adjustments. This style is called “Mysore” after the Mysore in India. The Patabhi Jois who wrote the primary series set up in Mysore. Taught out of that hub. Yoga master Jois founds a style now branded/franchised as “Ashtanga.” I worry before I go to Ojai. Will the teacher dismiss me, omit me, ignore me? This sort of thing happens to women in their fifties, not just in yoga studios. Me in particular more than most because I’m not so slender, not so advanced, not so – you know – fast, as the younger yogi practitioners. Many of whom are already exhibiting the second, third and fourth series in a rather daunting manner. But who can blame them for wanting feedback from a visiting teacher on their most advanced asana?
Much to my surprise and delight David works with me on several poses. His insights are deeper than I’ve heard in 5 years. I rarely receive adjustments. Not because I’m badass. Actually because I’m professional. One of the perks of being a professional yoga teacher is steeply discounted classes and workshops. One of the disadvantages is that I can’t expect the teacher to pay attention to me over a paying customer. I get no guidance at all most of the time. And trust me on this one, there’s mounds to learn about yoga. That great sacred cow that is yoga can not be distilled to a bullion cube. Be leery of teachers who announce they know everything. Be suspicious. Don’t surrender to an enemy.
Don’t turn off your brain, don’t excuse your power. Don’t allow yourself to be exploited by a huckster – even if that huckster charges oodles and oodles of money for mystical arcane occult secret information. Wait for the good teacher. The authentic one. I can tell volumes from a yoga teacher’s website. This teacher, David? His discourse on “kosha” strikes me as genuinely inventive, articulate, pure and authentic. One doesn’t gain authenticity from second-hand sources. Either read the primary (sources) or have a life, or both. David seems to have done both. I mean I think he really read the yoga sutras, and I think he has experienced a varied, unique, distinctive life. I know I’m going to like him. The question is, will he like me? Will I have a chance to surrender? By surrender I mean place myself directly under his guidance?
When I teach if I see a student is weak, or ignorant, or tight, or in any wise struggling – I tend to be light on the cues and adjustments. I don’t guide. Why whelm a person on the brink of overwhelm? The weak student will strengthen with practice. The weak student needs only time; there’s no speeding up the process. The ignorant student needs to have fun. She won’t be open to continuing education unless yoga is enjoyable. The tight student (the one after my own heart) intuits the necessary equanimity. She doesn’t require direction because the path is self-evident. As a naturally inflexible person myself I know, what we need to accomplish is obvious. So who then do I usually cue? If I have time, If I have inclination, if the person seems open, willing, curious, she tends to be the younger, the stronger, the more flexible or the more experienced.
The more experienced the student the more open she is to surrender, if she, like me, feels safe. Frankly I am looking forward to what I can get for the $45 I pay David. I relish his instruction. But for the younger, less experienced, the strong and the flexible sometimes guidance is an unwelcome surprise. Students sometimes recoil. I get it. If you’ve always been the one your friends envy for your backbends what the fuck is Kumari doing when she points out yer pose? You may have gotten used to seeing yourself as the accomplished yogi, the naturally talented one. Here’s a suggestion. Re-define the teacher’s attention as confirmation not disapproval. When I see someone very relaxed in a pose I just know they are capable of doing more – that’s the only reason to approach her.
Put another way: yoga is not a competitive sport. So don’t think an adjustment signals you are “wrong” bad incompetent less-than or stuff l’dat. No act. No worries. Yoga is not a competitive sport; yoga is a method of creating new neural patterns in your brain. If you keep doing what you’ve always done there’s nothing new there, no gain. The stiff person? That sister across the room trying really, really hard to extend into a backbend or sit cross-legged? She is actually building new pathways through her struggle. But you with no struggle? Nothing happening there until the teacher comes by to lead you deeper in, perhaps with more contraction, more extension, more balance, more levity. Each situation is unique.
Sometimes I notice a student so flexible she can’t seem to sense her shoulders are misaligned, her head’s lolling, her knees and elbows are locked. This kind of hyper extension increases joint dysfunction. Yoga can train for what I call “reeling it in.” Stronger muscles seat the bones in their sockets. You’ll thank yourself for it later, when you’re my age and you have no arthritis. Other students are perfectly aligned yet so relaxed I can’t help but think How about a little deeper? Where can that pose take you if you are willing to explore? The directions to such a student aren’t appropriate for anyone else present, but may be life changing for the person in question. Lastly is the student who is strong. She may not be necessarily flexibly, but if she is strong she can experiment without fear of harm.
There’s one other kind of yoga student I certainly leave alone: the one who anchors herself towards the back in an effort to hide. Of course a 130 pound human can’t really hide. In a yoga studio there are no trees. But I get it. If your goal is to be left alone, I’m not the type to harsh your mellow. You’re not ready to surrender. Maybe you shouldn’t be. Maybe people in general, and yoga practitioners in specific, should be careful who they surrender to. Vet your teachers. All of them, not just the yoga ones. Trust after trust is acceptable to you. Beware of bullies who demand allegiance before loyalty is merited. I get it because I’m not just a teacher I’m a student. I got the same tension myself when I entrance a class.
Now y’all play nice