Thursday, May 23, 2013

Yoga-gogy / Yoga-cation

Pedagogy is not a word that we associate with yoga classes.  We use the word in higher-ed like the Smurfs use smurf—as the answer to both what we do and the reason we do it. But, like inconceivable, I do not think it means what you think it means.

Pedagogy is the art and science of teaching.  From the Greek pedagogos, slave who takes children to school (Merriam Webster online).  Technically pedagogy refers to teaching children, not adults.  We’ll forgive correct usage in favor of common usage here.

We go to a yoga class, implying there is some sort of education happening. Both students and teachers should know the objective of the class.  Patanjali defines yoga as “The cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” (PYS I.2)  For a class to be called yoga, it must specifically involve an investigation into:

1.       The mind

2.       Its fluctuations

3.       Methods leading to the cessation of these fluctuations.

A class which does not involve all three of these items can be safely laid aside as choreographed stretching.

Yoga classes are primarily focused on asana, to a much less extent pranayama, to even less of an extent concentration (dharana).  Asana is a great investigative tool when used correctly.  The role of the teacher is to present the physical movements as a microcosm for the movements of the mind. If we can apply attention and focus to make our bodies move in ways we don’t normally move, we can develop the same attention and focus to observe the mind and stem its movements.

The physical movements of the body are the means, not the end. When the teacher teaches asana from this perspective, then they are teaching yoga.

We have the teachings which are valid, and (presumably) a teacher who knows what they are talking about.  The last element needed in the triad which, like the legs of a milk stool, supports education is the student.

The student has a much harder job than the teacher—the teacher presents possibilities, the student must accept, internalize, and apply these possibilities on their own.  

Education in any form is not a concierge service. 

The money paid for a yoga class, like tuition, is not a tip.

Quality educators and quality facilities carry a price tag. As well they should. Do you really want discount teachers and discount facilities?

The teacher can do their best to present the teachings in an engaging manner, but if the student is not ready or willing to receive them, no amount of interaction, attention, bells or whistles is going to make any difference.  As teachers, we should not dumb down the material so everyone can get it.  We need to continue to present the teachings as they are.  When the student is ready to receive, they will.

That logic may not make sense from a business point of view, which screams get as many people through the door as possible.

From my point of view, I would rather provide one willing person with a quality yoga-cation than lead a room full of bodies through some choreographed stretches.

From a pedagogical point of view, we, as teachers, will best serve our students' educations by being diligent students ourselves: increasing our knowledge and implementing the teachings through our own continuing practice. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Side Effects II: Doing the Unthinkable

We all have our little bit of crazy.  Mine is OCD about time.  Lateness, even the thought of being late, leads to an adverse physical reaction--agitation, increased heart rate, quickening breath.  I remember it starting in 2nd grade.  At 3 (or whatever time dismissal was) each class would line up to get on the buses. If it flipped 2:45 an we weren't already cleaned up, I fell to pieces.

I suppose I could go all psychobable and try to dissect what circumstances drove me to that state at such a young age.  But I am not going to  pin it on any outside force.  It is what it is.

How did I cope?  I never did. I worked for years in professional kitchens. 15 minutes early is 15 minutes late. I did not acquire a "kitchen mentality." I flourished in these jobs because the mentality was already there.

Last week I did something unthinkable for a time OCD person like myself--I over slept.

Frequent readers may remember that I get up for practice at Brahamamuhurta--the Hour of God 0400. I could write out the breakdown of my practice to nearly the minute--finishing The Chalisa? 0432. Savasana? 0527.

Imagine my surprise when my wife woke me up at 5:30.

Guess what?  The world did not end because I got an extra 1.5 hrs. of sleep.

The funny thing is that I did it to myself.  I have 2 alarms, the coffee maker which wakes me up when it starts, and the alarm on my phone set for 5 minutes later.

I set up the coffee maker.  I set the delay start.  I never turned it on.

I woke up in the night and realized I left my phone in another room.  I got it and placed it on my dresser.  I never turned the alarm on.

And yet, water is still wet.  The sky is still up.

Imagine my surprise to discover that I didn't really think twice about 'missing' a practice session.  I did not even feel very rushed, having to do my morning out of order.

I credit consistent practice for this. Without consistent practice, the whole day would have been shot from the get-go. But that practice, over time, gradually is making me a little more flexible. A little more ok with my neurosis.

Don't get me wrong, I still have 2 alarms set. But if I happen to get a little more sleep, well that is ok too.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Side Effects

One of the nice side effects of my yoga practice is that it has helped to cure my insomnia.  By getting up at 4 AM I am, in essence, messing with my circadian rhythms before they mess with me. I am man down by 10 PM if not earlier.  This is exactly what Swami Sivananda prescribes for sleeping: in bed by 10, up at 4.

I still have vivid dreams about zombies, things coming to get me that are lurking just outside the door, outside and cabinet doors that will not stay shut, papers due for books I haven’t read. 

But, you see, I used to dream about these things when I was awake.

It all started when I was 3.  My bladder woke me up. I rolled over and saw a monster at my door.  Logic says it was my mom or dad, they were backlit, and my eyes had not adjusted so I saw the outline of a black figure.  I never slept well after that. 

Logic means squat to a 3 year old.

Somewhere along the way I read about a certain type of demon that appears before sleeping children. I was old enough to know that was not true.  At least during the day.

The house we lived in when I was in college was very nice, but I did not sleep a wink there.  I could not fall asleep in my room.  The physical space creeped me out.The same feeling of being in a nightmare while wide awake.

I needed sleep, so I drank. A lot.

I used to have reoccurring dreams about the house I grew up in.  It was on a dirt road off of a dirt road. The kind of location where movies whose 6th installments are named “So-and-so Returns” are set.  The dream starts off normally enough, then I can’t lock the door.  Or I close the door then turn around to find it opened again.  And there is something in the woods.  The last time I dreamed about the house I actually saw what was outside the window.  I will never go back to those woods.

I would come out of these nightmares hyper-aware.  The knowing that something is over there, around the corner, outside, in the shadow above my head remained at the same intensity. I was up for the rest of the night.

I used to dream that I woke up facing the wall (I always go to sleep facing the door of the room, never with my back exposed). Every time I tried to turn myself around and get out of bed, the room would revolve and I remained facing the wall. I screamed myself awake.

Thankfully this pattern that has plagued me for 35+ years has diminished.  Going to bed tired is one element. Japa of mantra before bed and immediately upon waking is another. I have had nightmares that have been turned around because I start shouting mantra in my dream.  The pattern did not change in an instant; gradually, every so gradually things changed.

Yoga is “The cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” (PYS I.2) The effects of practicing yoga take longer to realize and are much more subtle than the effects of practicing postures alone. Postures will give you nice shoulders and a shapely bum, but a sustained yoga practice will re-wire your very being. I have experienced it in a very real and practical way.

It is nice not to be scared to go to sleep anymore. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

A Good Book

For 20 some years, the phrase "pray incessantly" has been in my head.  Since I first read Franny and Zoey (number 1 on my top 10 books of all time). Zoey references 1Thessalonians 5.17, where Timothy instructs "Pray continually." He also instructs "Always be joyful...give thanks for whatever happens; for this is what God wills for you." (5.16,18). Salinger wants you to look this up.

Until very recently, I considered prayer to be begging.


For intercession.

For material gain.

To make right some dumb ass decision or other. (Fight Club is #3)

Through my practice, I have discovered that prayer is none of these things.  It is much more  simple:

It is an act of adoration.

The beauty of prayer is that it does not have to be formal. Or done at a certain time.  It can be done all of the time.  The beauty of prayer is that you do not have to have any faith to do it.  From Swami Sivananda:

"The name of God chanted in any way, correctly or incorrectly, knowingly or unknowingly, carefully or carelessly will give the desired result." (Swami Sivananda, Easy Steps to Yoga p.6).

Prayer, true prayer, adoration, can begin as a purely mechanical action. You just train yourself to say it. Repeatedly..  It can be any Name.  The Rig Veda says "Truth is one, the wise call it by many names."  If the Divine is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, then the Divine created a multitude of ways of worship that are all equally valid.  (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas #4)

But you just can't say "Steve." Or "Sally." (Moby Dick #10).  Established prayers work best because the name, meter, words were developed to create certain vibrations.  The beauty of Sanskrit is the perfection of the sounds and the ability to create specific vibrations attuned to the Divine.

The significance of Gen. 1.3 is not "Let there be light."  It is "God said." (Dune #9).

I don't know when I replaced the focus on ujjayi breathing in asana with focusing on Ra (inhale) and Ma (exhale) (Ramayana #2).That is how I learned to make asana an act of prayer rather than just stretching. It is also when I knew the Ashtanga system was no longer right for me.

I forget to pray most of the time, usually during the main part of the day when I get caught up in work and it feels like there are unknown forces acting against me (anything by H.P. Lovecraft #5). I am still in the mechanical phase, having to remind myself to say the words over and over.  But I remember to say them when I wake up and before going to bed. Even when I forget, it is still in my mind somewhere, like a light across the bay that is always calling. (The Great Gatsby #6).

Praying incessantly is a good book. It doesn't matter if you are reading it, can analyze the symbolism, or even remember all of the characters. It matters that it is sitting on the shelf, there when you want to read it. It matters that flipping through the pages and reading one sentence is enough to snap you out of the funk you are in that moment. It matters that I can't choose #s 7 and 8 because they are all good books.