Great Expectations

I had a pair of pleasant new students last night. New, new, new. New to yoga, new to the studio, new to me. The lady and her son came in a full five minutes before class, but we had already informally started. I tend to do that, as bonus for early birds.  The students offered to settle up payment after class. Makes sense, right? Take one class before deciding if you would like to buy a series or pay for just one class. Past experiences shape future expectations. Hence I put myself up for display. They were going to judge me, judge yoga, and my ability to teach.

When working with strangers I take on more risk than them. One student cheerily announced (after class) she hadn’t brought any money with her. That’s not cool – – People wouldn’t do that to the cashier at the grocery store, a person who makes a steady paycheck whether you shoplift or not. Why short a service person? A serviceperson gets nothing, nada, zip-o-lah for their work when consumers don’t pay. It isn’t nice. That babysitter, pet sitter, house cleaner, yoga teacher, has no way of repossessing their lost hours when clients skip out or delay payment.

A friendly neighborhood teacher I knew tried an advertising campaign based on fliers: bring one in to get a free class. She had Xeroxed all her fliers on distinctive blue paper, but countless local wags showed up with white fliers. (Yes, I mean they re-photocopied the limited number.) Some of these people even treated themselves to more than one free class. This is not a promising start to a student teacher relationship. I have observed the kind of people who show up to “free” promotional classes do not move on to become paying clients. They are a particular subset of consumers. They are a subsection of clients who have an unfortunate expectation that yoga is something one can learn by imitation, in a single class. They tend to be disappointed by occurs in one hour.

Don’t you have a handout or something? ? ?” I distinctly remember resenting the implication that two thousand years of yoga philosophy might be distilled into bullet points. Ho-hum (or so-hum.) Even yoga teachers get the blues. “Exploiting a yoga teacher,” I mentioned to my friend, “seems like bad voodoo, bad karma.” What do I know about karma? It’s a dreadfully uncomfortable entirety of accounting. Do bad and bad returns. ouch. Past defines the future. If past can not explain the present, helpful philosophers suggest reaching back into a past life to balance inequities.

Be careful what you get enamored by. . .believing what you’ve been indoctrinated to believe, may be no better than believing a rogue philosophy because it hails from exotic climes. Reincarnation? Transmigration? Americans may don t-shirts with ornate OMs, tattoo chakras or Chinese characters, recite Sanskrit chants in efforts to get “authentic.” Charles Dickens wrote, “It is a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home.” Don’t throw out all what you know. I implore you, don’t hollow out who you are. Make an honest inquiry. Seek to understand. Re-invention is not the same is invention. Innovation not the same as novation.

I don’t mind the idea of reincarnation if by that one assumes DNA/RNA strands transfer predisposition, hopes, wishes and dreams into the future. But to say the people who died on an airplane mustah deserved it – that’s harsh. It’s safer, kinder, and more true to say a person manifested cancer from genetics than to say cancer is the evidence of past lifetimes of bad behavior. It is gentler (and more likely) to suggest I received a love of learning from my parents, than from a former life as Cleopatra. Ever notice how everyone’s been Cleopatra but no one remembers being Anne Smythe from Vermont?

We are creatures of physiology and biology. Why else would we suffer from compulsions? The University of Chicago professor George Hale, father of modern astrophysics (yes he who removed the hyphen from “astro-physics”) was said to be plagued by visits from an elf. I swear I don’t make this shit up. Hale built not once, but four times (emphasis mine) built the largest telescope in the world, besting his best. He won numerous prizes, medals and appointments – was recognized in his lifetime for his brilliance in both astronomy and physics – – how is it he suffered from nervous disorders? The poor man feared he might kill himself during a melancholic episode. Few of us are so smart and so tortured, but most of us experience a level of inability to overcome our own nature.

I remember trying to learn a foreign language for the first time and being completely humbled by my flat MidWestern tone. My elegantly hopeful teacher kept repeating her native tongue. “Like this. . . .” Bless her heart. Later experiments with alternate languages fared no better. I had more of an ear for what sounded “right” for Japanese. But alas, I had no better ability to mimic Japanese sounds than I had when I tried to learn German, French, Spanish. Pidgin or Bengali. There are people who take to violin, cross-country skiing, or writing fiction like ducks to water – and those who ker-plunk. Sink not swim. We accept that as a mortal truth, forgetting that consistent application avails much.

Don’t underestimate the power of your past. And don’t stay stuck. Students who work hard, focus and attend regularly achieve far more impressive advancement than the natural-born yogis who practice intermittently. Nine years later the once flexible, lithe, strong, young person has aged. The older, consistent, dedicated student has improved. You can get there from here, but you have to start where you are, as who you are, with what you have. Yesterday a student asked me, “But where should I feel it?” as he performed a quadricep stretch. Curious, I was tempted to say, “Where do you feel it?” Because if you never feel nothing you might start with seating your soul firmly back into your body.

When we practice yoga, we do so exposed, often nearly naked in our lycra pants and tank tops. Sweating and maybe not so pretty as the models on the cover of Yoga Journel we are briefly removed from habitual defenses and secrets. Everyone can tell how hard we are trying, if we are challenged, what is our level of expertise. Thankfully, we need not hide our private thoughts, loves, fears, and stresses. We can share ;).

Where “should” you feel your yoga? Seek prana. Can you feel breath in your body? Can you feel superficial tension along your skin? Can you move the life force from left to right? Inwards to outwards? Can you slow your heart rate ? What, no? If you can’t do that in a simple Tadasana, what makes you think you can pull it off in a handstand? Ok, ok, I get it. Nobody wants to spend their whole first year finding their feet, moving energy. Show me the vinyasa damn it. I hear ya. We crave impressive poses. We desire health and vitality. We admire strength and flexibility, and if, if supernatural powers to shift shape and move prana show up along the way – – we’ll take ’em! Have great expectations!

In the spirit of golden chain of teachers, I pass this on from my first serious yoga teacher, i.e. the first one who took the time (thank you) to get to know me. She suggested I work on ten sun salutes a day. That’s it. No meditation. No breath exercises. Certainly no Dvds. While this advice was mos def channeled from Patabhi Jois, I thank her immensely for setting me on a direction that led to self exploration. I bit from the fruit of knowledge, and then I was no longer a child. I had fairly effective natural alignment from my personal practice, but strength? Not so much.  In the beginning I couldn’t do the whole ten in a row, lol. I broke ’em up over the day. I strained my elbows, I cursed my hip injury. But I did ’em.

Ten sun salutes might not be the best starter practice for you. You have to find what works for you. Don’t be a lemming! Lemme know what happens – –

Y’all play nice!

Sat Nam