Friday, January 21, 2011

Practice, and musings on the place of teacher and self-feedback in the practice

Did my practice this morning with my friends Derek and Jim at Derek's art and yoga studio in downtown Fargo. This guy who came to the studio a few times last year (I don't know his name) also joined us for practice this morning. He looks new to the practice (I noticed that he had a posture "cheat-sheet" next to his mat), and he was walking through rather than jumping through. But it's all good. And who am I to judge his practice, anyway? For all I know, he might have some medical or physical condition that prevents him from jumping through and back. And besides, the most important thing is to practice: What or how much you actually do is secondary. (Guruji: "The only bad practice is no practice.")

I did full primary and second up to Supta Vajrasana. It's great to practice with others, especially because I got some help with Supta Vajrasana from Derek. It's really hard to go down and come back up in Supta on one's own, at least for me. In my case, especially, probably because I have mild scoliosis, the right side of my body has a tendency to "lead" and land on the ground before my left side when I do Supta Vajrasana on my own. Having a spotter is very helpful in counteracting this tendency.

But practicing with others also has a downside. Because I am the furthest along in the practice among the four of us asana-wise, my ego tends to rear its not-so-pretty head, and I can't help feeling that a significant portion of my practice today (especially my faster-than-usual pace) was motivated by a drive to impress ("see how I can float through into my postures, and jump back without touching my feet to the ground..."), and not only by the pure love of the practice. Whereas, when I practice at home, even though I also drive myself pretty hard, the driving is not really driven so much by ego; I mean, nobody's going to be there to see me get into that ankle-grabbing kapotasana (except maybe Lord Shiva, if he happens to be looking down in my direction from Brahma heaven). I like to think that when I practice at home, I am driven more directly by a pure love of the practice.

All this gets me thinking about the contrast between my practice now and my practice when I was at my teacher's shala when I lived in Milwaukee a year ago (well, I might as well tell you who he is: Here's his shala's website). Right now, I mostly practice on my own. In Milwaukee, I would go to the shala two or three times a week. Reflecting on that time now, I think there are advantages and disadvantages to practicing in a shala compared to practicing at home. When I practice in a shala, I have the advantage of constant feedback from my teacher and shalamates, so it's easier to know when my practice is going too fast or too slow, or if I'm pushing myself more than is appropriate for where I am in the practice. Also, because the teacher is there to decide when I am ready for a new posture, that kind of keeps my ego in check, and I am protected against giving myself postures before I am ready for them and hurting myself.

The flip side is that one can become too dependent on the teacher and the atmosphere of the shala to keep one's practice going. I never had any problems motivating myself to practice at home (I practiced at home on days when I couldn't make it to the shala), but I know people who do not have a home practice, and only practice at the shala. I'm not judging them: It is what it is, and they probably have their own issues or reasons which make it very difficult for them to practice at home. But I still can't help feeling that there is a tendency among some people to almost use the shala and the teacher as a sort of crutch for the practice. Am I being a bit harsh? Tell me if I am.

For me, there is also an advantage to practicing all by myself. Because I do not have my teacher around to see my practice, I have to try to grow an extra set of eyes outside my body, so to speak, and try to assess my own practice from an observer's perspective. I have to pay more attention to what my body is feeling and telling me, and make decisions based on that feedback. Is that slightly off-sensation in my SI joint a sign that I should back off from certain deep forward bends, or should I proceed very slowly and carefully? Is that tweaky sensation in my knee today a sign that I should not go into padmasana, or is there another way to get into padmasana that does not aggravate whatever is causing the tweakiness? Every little thing that comes up in the practice is a judgment call I have to make, and I have to constantly tread the fine line between doing too much and hurting myself and doing too little and not getting as much out of the practice as I can. It was especially difficult in the beginning; soon after I moved here to Minnesota, I did something to my SI joint from trying to put my leg behind my head on a day when my hips weren't open enough (trying to "borrow flexibility" from my SI joint; bad idea). I basically had to build my practice back up from primary: the first couple of days after the injury, it took me more than two hours just to do primary! Right now, I've built my practice back up to Supta Vajrasana; on "good days", I even go up to Yoganidrasana or Tittibhasana.

In a way, then, what might be seen to be a disadvantage in my case has actually become an advantage: Not having a teacher around might mean that I do not have a ready source of immediate feedback, but it has made me develop a more acute and sensitive self-feedback system of my own. So nothing is all good or all bad in this world. But of course, I am still working to get myself to Mysore, so I can get some good feedback from Sharath.

Wow, that was a lot of rambling about some very minute aspects of my practice. I apologize if this bores you. May the Force be with you.      


  1. Hi Nobel,

    I see what you're saying... but I think we all have to develop the same ability to make these constant judgment calls throughout practice, whether we go to a shala or not.. it can be helpful to talk to a teacher about it, but ultimately only we have any idea what is going on in our body at any given moment, or whether trying to get into padmasana today is going to aggravate our knee or not.

    I've done lots of long periods of home practice, and still practice at home whenever I skip the shala. I think people who have a shala they love are mostly very conscious that it can be a crutch, because simply put there is just an element of 'more energy' there. I think it's important to maintain the ability to self-practice. Self-practice has its own advantages in that I might play around a little bit or add things in, I might listen to music and also I can become incredibly absorbed in the practice without all the distractions of the shala. But the downside is I become lazy, which I wouldn't mind so much if it didn't also mean slower.. this practice takes up enough of my day as it is! I'm much more likely to resist the temptation of child's pose before kapotasana at the shala. I guess the 'extra energy' can come from a desire to impress or to please one's teacher, to show that one is making a sincere effort.. or just be a case of 'inspiration' from one's shala mates, the very real effects of the energy fields and ujjayi breathing and tapas of the others. Or a mixture.

    Apart from the energy crutch, I go to a teacher because 1) she actually made me believe I could do things I never thought I'd be able to do (karandavasana) and 2) she picks on annoying things in my practice which I don't think need fixing and would have no inclination to work on by myself. And she is usually right, so this part's important.

    Have a nice Saturday, off to do my washing now :)

  2. 2 things. Nothing wrong with enjoying what your body can do and show it off thanks to your hard constant work. I think some people call it a reward. And to agree with Susananda, I used to have a very "intense" Jamaican boss who used to say: "The cow thrives, when the farmer gazes at her." Hilariously, she meant it as a compliment when she observed us giving an exceptional lesson!

  3. Hello Susan, thank you for your valuable comments. You said, "it can be helpful to talk to a teacher about it, but ultimately only we have any idea what is going on in our body at any given moment, or whether trying to get into padmasana today is going to aggravate our knee or not."

    I think this is very well-said and true. It is so important to listen to our bodies closely and make good decisions based on this.

    Your comment made me really miss practicing at my teacher's shala :-)

  4. sereneflavor, thanks for the encouraging words :-)

    "The cow thrives, when the farmer gazes at her." How hilarious!