I love teaching myself. I taught myself Russian when I was sixteen, and I have taught myself Sanskrit. When I can follow my own thread, mark out for myself the territory and press into my own exploration, I feel liberated, as if there is finally enough room to extend and to breathe. I am autistic, and autistic people are generally autodidacts. We are also, on the whole, highly focused (some would say obsessive), self-sufficient and happy to do things for the most part alone. So neurologically – autism is hardwired: my autistic characteristics don’t change if I work on myself or meditate a lot, although both those things offer me skills to deal with the challenges of being autistic, just as they offer you skills to deal with the challenges of being neurotypical … Neurologically, I have a particular angle on what it means to practise and on the kind of relationship I want with teachings and a teacher.
I am also an astanga vinyasa practitioner: I belong to a tradition that is strongly guru-oriented. Astangis generally speak with reverence of their teacher, and when I first meet another astangi, a question that usually comes up early in the conversation is, ‘Who’s your teacher?’ My answer is always, ‘I am.’
I don’t in any way deny the valuable teaching I have received from many wonderful teachers, for which I am very grateful, but none of these people has ever felt like My Teacher. In the two instances when I have been very close to teachers (in the yoga therapy and dance movement areas of my work), both relationships have felt more personal, more fluid, more equal, and more full of the human flaws of both of us than the traditional astanga teaching relationships described to me appear to be.
For me a yoga practice is a somatic, psychological and emotional exploration within a physical framework. My mat is a place where my essential humanness has an opportunity to come out to play: my feelings, responses, compulsions and escapes, my crazy mindfucks and moments of searing beauty, my ego trips and the way that I navigate all of this. I’m an anchorite in a leaky coracle. There’s nobody else in the boat.
Because I want to witness all of this, when I choose to go to a teacher it will be to someone who mostly lets me be and just puts a finger on when the whole thing is threatening to overturn. It will be someone with the humility not to know where I’m travelling or whether what they can offer is what I need, but the willingness to offer it anyway, without attachment to if or how I use it.
I’m not sure that it started out this way or that the result is the product of the intention, but much of the traditional practice of astanga vinyasa appears to me to be unhealthily focused on the word from Mysore, which many devout students observe like papal bulls. One of the most ludicrous astanga ‘rules’ to emanate from Mysore – and I have no idea if anyone at the Shri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute ever actually made it, and if they did whether it was intended as a general edict or as a particular instruction for a particular student – is that you shouldn’t warm up before practice. What?! I have no doubt that this works for some people, because almost everything works for someone, but I am fifty and hypermobile. Do I warm up before embarking on a highly gymnastic practice? You’d better believe it! It’s essential in order for me to be able to complete my practice reasonably safely. I also often teach stretches and strengthening exercises to indivdual students who I think could benefit from them, and I suggest that they do them before they practise.
If we give ourselves over without discrimination to a teacher, without consideration of whether an instruction is appropriate to us (you will know this not by evaluating it in your head, but by trying it on in your body and seeing how it feels), then we lay ourselves open to losing the true, experiential centre, the connection with the internal locus of our practice. I love receiving suggestions from a teacher, but that’s what they are: suggestions: generous offerings for the student to explore and implement if they work. If my practice consists of introjecting the teacher’s received word, what am I really practising? Isn’t it fundamentalism?
I would really like to be an anchorite. Every time I unroll my mat, I feel as if I’m rowing to the island: seabirds, rocks, unpredictable tides, and folded into the familiar wilderness, the tiny daily surprises. One of my motive springs has always been to resolve to what is essential; I am constantly paring down my life, not to diminish it, but to uncover the core of inner meaning and feeling that lies irreducible there. Paradoxically, this place is passionate, rich and expansive. This feels like a personal and mostly private undertaking. Too little contact with the outside and, it’s true, it could fatally involute, but too much and it could die of exposure.
I don’t care whether my teacher goes to Mysore or whether they know how Sharatt is teaching bharadvajasan this year. I do need them to have used their own practice over many years and through different phases of life to penetrate layers of their own understanding, to weather life crises, to expand, to deepen, to perceive with increasing subtlety. It is through engaging, regularly and over the years, with this ground of practice that, as teachers, we have something to offer students beyond the architecture of the postures, which are not in themselves yoga, but simply a context and an invitation for yoga to occur.