Before I left home for a few weeks, a couple of my students came to talk to me about how they could continue practising while I’m away. I had this great conversation with one student in particular, a newbie who’s attended two classes only. I asked her what she wanted in her practice, so I could best advise her. “I want to find space”. Wow. An amazing answer for a beginner when I was expecting something about relieving tight hamstrings or stress reduction! And probing what she meant, she told me she’d loved class that week where I’d apparently — I never remember what I say! — encouraged finding space in the body in various poses which left her feeling really open, and she told me about the business meeting where she habitually closes up and feels that nothing she has is worth sharing — but after class she was feeling so open and spacious she just talked and let all her ideas come flowing out to be shared with her colleagues! A reminder to me that beginners can have really wonderful experiences from yoga and that one should be careful never to equate depth or facility in asana practice with any of the more important stuff going on in peoples lives!
So I led her towards some ideas about home practice and told her to keep in touch if she needed me. And now I’m largely away from teaching responsibilities I’m settling into my own practice. But in truth I’m finding it rather hard! Away from home for a month I had all sorts of grand ideas (too grand perhaps) about how to spend my time, lots of them revolving around yoga study in various ways. And it all suddenly feels so big and daunting. Why can’t I find the simplicity I advise my students to cultivate?
So in the way of modern life I turn to social media in the first instance to re-connect with my yoga friends back home to help me feel less isolated. I see pics of their practice and we exchange a few comments, and it’s nice to hear from them. And then my feed pops up a photo of my teacher in his studio back home. His usual yoga face is very serious but in this photo he’s smiling and I smile back and I’m suddenly feeling really lost and missing him. Without the structure of his classes to attend and the learning opportunities easily offered, how will I keep open myself? Can I really fuel my own enquiry and experimentation for a month without any help? Am I enough on my own?
I should, of course, follow the advice I offered my students about maintaining practice without me as their teacher! But I don’t trust my own words as much as my teacher’s. I can hear his voice in my head, as he’s advised me countless difficult times in the past, telling me that I can do it, even if I don’t believe it in that moment, telling me just to get on my mat every day and breathe, and the rest will flow from that.
I love to make difficulties for myself and I often get stuck in my practice, so the times when I really can’t find it in myself, I just practise for him. One of his teachers once told me always to offer my yoga to my teacher, that this is isvarapranidhana, to think of him always, to give respect and gratitude to him every day. Tasmai shri guruve namaha. Hmm, yes, it’s a rather guru-focused school and leaves me feeling more than a little uncomfortable (I have such childhood issues with authority!) and I spend a good amount of effort trying not to put him on a pedestal where he doesn’t want to be…
And yet, there’s something in the very existence of this relationship that allows me to find qualities in myself that I can’t summon up wholly on my own. If the guru stuff feels a bit heavy, I can more easily think of him as some sort of catalyst, on good days an alchemist even! He seems to conjure out of me endless amounts of courage and honesty and curiosity and hope and faith and love and joy…. And on a fundamental level there’s some simple reassurance in knowing he’s there too, doing his practice each day, perhaps offering it to his teacher..? His consistency is stabilising and provides inspiration enough for me to get on and do my thing. In the modern western way of yoga, I think a lot of the traditional guru connotations are flawed or downright unhelpful, but I still feel honoured to hold him as my teacher and to have this relationship. And ‘guru’ can have a very straightforward meaning after all — I read it in my little Sanskrit stories every day. It just means ‘teacher. So he teaches; I try to learn.
And it doesn’t really matter whether he’s physically nearby or not. Because the notion of space takes on a whole new meaning through yoga practice — I learned that from my beginner student!