Verse 6 suggests that there are two ways to reach beyond what I can perceive and infer on my own. The first is revelation … and that feels like a can of worms asking to be opened … so I’m not going to open it (here, yet!?). The other is a teacher.
I felt a temptation to embark on an essay about “teacher.” I stayed with that temptation until inhibition arose. I stayed with the inhibition until a simpler desire arose, to share something about my lived experience of “teacher” through my relationships with my teachers.
When I first dipped my toes into Yoga it was in a large group setting (30+ people with varying experience, some dropping in and out) in a lay “country club” setting. The teacher demonstrated on a small raised stage. She went through a regular routine (with slight variations) and everyone did what they could to follow along. I felt physically limited (which is why I was there in the first place). Despite my best efforts, I did not feel a change in my physical sensibilities. I was meeting my limitations (stiff all over especially in the shoulders) and felt stuck and unable to experience any physical improvement. The teacher knew of me but didn’t know me and rarely offered personal guidance.
The lessons were on Friday mornings. The realization that stuck with me from that period was that the quality of the previous day (the last workday of the week in Israel) greatly affected the quality of my practice. Much more than my intentional efforts during practice. If the previous day ended on a busy and anxious note, so was the practice the next morning. If the previous day ended on a soft and spacious note, so was the practice the next morning. That was interesting to me and became a seed for further investigation.
When I first encountered Ziva I felt a rigor that resonated with me. One key difference in her teaching was in the relationship with breath. First, there was a breathing technique (ujjayi) and then EVERY SINGLE POSTURE came with explicit breathing instructions. This was difficult for me in the first month. Breathing made the postures even more demanding and made me feel even less capable. This was not an appealing experience … at first. But after a few lessons, breathing felt more integrated and actually enabled me to relate to my body in a different way.
At the time I was attending both weekly group classes and one-on-one lessons. In one of the early one-on-one lessons, Ziva placed me on a wooden contraption that looked like a small slide. I sat on it (facing “downhill”) with my legs straight forward and Ziva asked me to bend forward. What a revelation (and given the opening of this journal entry, I am genuinely surprised to be using this word here)! For years I’d been attempting this while sitting flat on the floor feeling hopelessly stiff. Suddenly I was flexible!
That experience, in my mind, exemplifies and demystifies the notion of a teacher. There are things that can only happen in a sustained one-on-one relationship with a teacher. I would even go out and limb and suggest that meaningful learning can only happen in such a setting (or … **clear throat** … revelation!).
Paul had been coming to Israel to teach for a few years and his yearly visit came a few months after I first met Ziva. I remember feeling excited to meet him and privileged that Ziva asked me to drive him to one of the open-to-the-public teaching events.
I don’t remember the drive. I remember arriving at a large gym hall packed full of rows of Yoga mats and their inhabitants. I remember the busy-ness of the space and I remember feeling intimidated. I remember uncomfortably squeezing into an empty slot. And I remember (with tears in my eyes as I write these words) hearing for the first time, from a distance, Paul chanting. He didn’t ask for silence, he started chanting. And the chanting slowly encapsulated the space until the space became pregnant with silence and chanting.
My next memory is coming up out of parsva uttanasana. My tendency was, at the time, to push and the pushing was amplified by the presence of both teachers in the space (even though neither were paying attention to me). So, I tried to do it really well, lifted my arms and neck until they aligned with my spine and coming up … and straining my spine REALLY bad. I made my way out of the space with difficulty, made my way to the car, and drove home to lay down on the floor and pray my spine would heal in time for the upcoming retreat (my first) with Paul.
I had spoken to Ziva about my spine, but I had not spoken with Paul. Fortunately, I was able to attend the retreat with a still sensitive spine. I remember the first morning of the first day. I arrived early to the teaching hall, sat down on the floor, and waited for others to arrive. When Paul arrived in the space he put his things down and walked around towards me. He passed behind me and gently ran his hand down my spine and assured me I was OK. He rarely says such things. That moment stands out in my mind as an experience of embodied trust. I can’t think of anyone else (other than my teachers) with whom I can experience such trust.
Over the years, pushing for short-term progress (that never came) eventually gave way to soft, gradual, and often barely noticeable progress. It is a kind of imperceptible progress, like watching grass grow. Over time it accumulates and, usually in retrospect, takes me places I never imagined I could go.
In the early years with Paul, I was an eager intellectual explorer. While studying the Yoga Sutra, I had many questions. Paul would usually refer me back to practice. In later years, when I settled into quiet practice, Paul invited questioning and reflection. It was as if I was out of phase with myself but he was in phase with an “underlying” me. He has always acknowledged AND seen through my temporary desires and held a long view and offered guidance accordingly.
The initial trust I felt towards Ziva and Paul has been deepened and reinforced by decades of demonstrated trustworthiness. I have had the privilege of directly experiencing seeds offered by my teachers, grow, when nourished with years of practice, into embodied teachings.
My teachers never asked me to have faith in them or in the teachings. I was never asked to follow blindly. I could always question. The practices they prescribed felt sensible and accessible to me. They never made promises and never took credit for outcomes. It was always about practice. And practice was always on me! This is how I came to experience trust. And trust led to a (surprising to me) quality of faith … and faith is elusive since I can’t quite place it … it is not quite in my teachers, not quite in the teachings, and not quite in myself … but there it is … I can feel it … fragile and resilient!
Teacher, Student & Teachings
It seems to me that the “authoritative teacher” mentioned in the verse is not a given, objective thing. Authority does not reside within my teachers. Authority seems to be a relational quality. It arises within a student-teacher relationship.
There is plenty of potential for bad turns in a teacher-student relationship. There were times that I desired someone to lean on, someone to just tell me what to do. I read and heard about “meditation” and “enlightenment” and I too wanted in on the spiritual action. I am grateful that my teachers were always there for me as teachers and never succumbed to my emotional needs and the fads that fed them.
The teacher-student relationship accounts for only two aspects of a triad. The third aspect is teachings. Authoritative teachings support and protect a student-teacher relationship. The presence of teachings points to lineage. Lineage carries a kind of trust that has been tempered by time (and it too has its vulnerabilities). The combination of teachers and teachings evokes in me a special flavor of belonging. When I am asked “what kind of Yoga do you practice”, the only valid answer that I have is to point to my lineage by naming the teachers … just like in ancient Yoga texts.
To this day I practice as if Ziva & Paul are watching me. Presencing my teachers transforms my practice, takes it and me beyond myself and evokes a devotional quality … a subtle form of trust.