Friday, December 18, 2015

No Dogma

for Mimi

One of my favorite parts of my job as the manager of O2 Yoga/Cambridge is working with the Teacher Training Program.  My role is largely administrative -- sign here, approve this, yes, no, maybe so -- but it feels anything but rote.  I did the training myself back in 2012 and it changed my life in profound and ever-expanding ways, so I thoroughly enjoy sitting down with those thinking about taking that magical leap and enrolling. When we were in the process of recruiting for our fall training, one of our potential "TTs" who was also a studio regular, came to lean in the doorway of my office one afternoon with a question I think she thought would have a quick answer.  Her question was, "What's the spiritual component of the training?"

I could tell by the look on her face that she wanted the answer to be a sweeping, "We spend an entire day each weekend just talking about this -- you're in luck."  What my answer was, though, was, "There isn't one."  She looked at me oddly and furrowed her brow.  I had definitely confused her.  But I went on, undeterred by her body language.  "Our motto is 'Up Dogs, Down Dogs, No Dogma," I reminded her.  I explained to her that Mimi, the studio owner, was very clear on this point -- students who came to the studio would not be expected to prescribe to a specific set of values or be subjected to emotional suggestion or counseling.  Students were to be lead through a yoga class that was athletic in nature and focused on the safe execution of the postures and nothing more -- more or less.  "All of that said," I continued, "there is something spiritual that attracts people to yoga if they practice it long enough -- and there will certainly be conversations amongst those in your TT group -- but they'll be things that come up over lunch or during different class discussions." At no point will Mimi ask you to recite chapter & verse outside of the correct way to cue a posture safely -- there is nothing we can teach you about spirituality that you can't teach yourself.  You will have those conversations and they will be an important side effect of the training -- but is 'spirituality' on our syllabus?  It is not.

In fact, one of the main reasons why Mimi doesn't want her teachers to talk about the kinds of emotions locked in hips or long speeches about opening yourself up to the practice is "you're a yoga teacher, not a trained therapist or social worker."  If you touch a nerve or what you say results in an emotional outburst or response from students, you have to know how to handle that responsibly -- that's not something 200 hours of yoga teacher training allows time to prepare you for.  So what our teachers-in-training learn to do is sequence a class.  They learn how to say the Sanskrit words out loud.  They learn about anatomy related to modification and safety in postures.  They learn how to do hands on adjustments.  They learn how to stand up and teach.  That's plenty for 200 hours.  Plenty.

Yet, still, this studio, this training, this space allows so much room for spiritual conversations – for discussions of the intangible.  This physical practice is the gateway for something so much more than muscles, bones, sweat, and skin.  Those who are called to do a teacher training or have a daily or weekly practice will experience so much more than a change in the exterior of their bodies – their minds start to change.  There’s an openness inherent in the practice.  In a teacher training, you find yourself in conversation after conversation about what brought you to this decision, this leap of faith to learn this skill set.  You talk about your physical limitations and injuries you may have had or lessons you gleaned from routinely getting on your mat.  You’d be surprised how long you could be in a truly fascinating conversation about alignment in down dog – and how those conversations very nearly turn into true-life parables. 

This student and I talked about this for a long time -- twenty minutes, half an hour.  And by the time we parted ways, I could see that the reply she had first been disappointed in hearing turned out to be exactly what she wanted to hear.  And if you want to know all about it, she did enroll in our program and graduated last weekend, likely moving on to do our teaching internship program, probably eventually getting her own classes.  I asked her near the end of the training, "So did I oversell it?" And she grinned at me with a faraway look in her eyes.  "No, no you didn't," she said as she gave me a big hug.  

It's one of the things I love about O2 Yoga -- our motto, our "approach" to the spiritual side of yoga.  Many teachers and studios have different ideas about incorporating emotional triggers in their classes and there are lots of students who respond to that kind of teaching and love it.  As a student who also considers herself to be a spiritual person, I like O2's choice to focus on "moving with the breath" aspect of yoga, leaving the rest to me to decide.  If I wanted to look at my yoga practice as strictly for fitness purposes, I could do that.  If I wanted to look at my yoga practice as a moving meditation, I could do that, too.  Different people are attracted to yoga for different reasons.  I appreciate that we can all be in the same space taking the same class and being free to take from it what we want.  Mimi's motto essentially boils down to "be your own guru."

Recently, I was listening to my favorite podcast, You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes, and stumbled across an episode where Pete was interviewing Vikram Gandhi -- my eyes lit right up.  Back in 2012, the same year I did teacher training, Gandhi's documentary Kumare was being screened at the Boston Museum of Fine Art and I went to see it with a friend of mine who'd done the O2 training with me.  It had a profound impact on me, perhaps because of the 200-hour long experience I'd just had, but maybe also because it was an on-point examination of the importance of teachers.

For those of you who haven't seen it, the documentary is Gandhi's exploration in to the "truth" behind gurus.  Do they have mystical powers -- or aren't all the positive effects people experience with a guru's "help and guidance" really just things being manifested internally?  Gandhi decided to find out by turning himself into a "fake guru," with a costume and a backstory and a made up school of thought, complete with ritual -- and a name:  Kumare.  And then he went out in the world and cultivated a following.

Boy, did he ever!

Documentary audiences are in on the experiment from the beginning so it's interesting to watch Gandhi-as-Kumare blow his cover over and over and over again while his "followers" don't quite hear what he is saying.  And what he is saying is that he is no one -- just a man, a liar, a regular joe -- and that the power, the voice, the essence of being a guru is right there in the core of every single person's being.  They didn't need him or anyone else to tell them what to do or how to be or what was the right path or anything else.  All they needed to do was listen to their own heart, their own mind, their own body, their own soul.  That is all the guru any of them will ever need.

I highly recommend watching Kumare and then listening to Vikram Gandhi's You Made It Weird where they discuss the making of the movie, the motivation, and the multi-faceted response after the fact, both from Kumare's followers and those who have seen the film.  And -- spoiler -- at the end of the podcast, Pete convinces Vikram to lead a "blue light meditation" as Kumare and it is, wow, fantastic.  But before they get to that, they delve deeply into the impact of this tough life lesson Kumare's people learned -- if they were duped -- and what that all means.  I remember watching the film the first time and thinking, "This dude is a total sociopath."  I thought it was an elaborate maybe even mean-spirited prank that preyed on the emotionally vulnerable.  Watching it a second time, though, all I could see was how often Kumare told his people he was a just a man, no one any more special than any of them, they didn't need him, they only needed themselves.  

It made me think about O2's motto:  "Up Dogs, Down Dogs, No Dogma."  None of the teaching staff pretends to be a guru or will entertain that notion -- it's right there in black and white.  We are here to give you the tools, to teach you this practice, and the rest is up to you.  Some people are more comfortable letting someone else set the table and they merely sit down to enjoy a meal prepared by anyone but themselves -- some people like to do the hosting and the cooking.  Challenge yourself to meet in the metaphoric middle -- to be humble, to be thinking, to be present.  Those are all the ingredients you need to take ownership of your life, to learn, to grow.  It doesn't need to be more elaborate than that.

This has been a year where I've learned a great deal about myself, my ability to cope, my ability to thrive even in unpleasant or complicated circumstances.  My personal life took a completely new direction as a decade long relationship came to an end and with it, so ended the relationships I had with so many others.  Watch this house of cards tumble -- it's not so hard to make it fall.  But the thing that got me through it was the O2 community, it was time on my mat, it was time learning to be my own guru -- I didn't even know I was doing it until I woke up one day and discovered my life looked nothing like it did a year ago when I thought everything was just over.  I am so thankful to have discovered this studio, this yoga, this place where I could take the time to work out how I fit in here and be accepted and loved for being me.  Mimi and I had many conversations that started with me near tears and ending with me feeling uplifted and all she did was listen, share relatable stories, and give me a hug.  Transitions are just as important as the actual poses, to use a yoga metaphor, that's what this year has taught me.  And I was able to learn that by having a place to feel OK being vulnerable without judgment.  

O2 is home to me because it welcomes me as me, end of story.  The yoga is great, too, of course, wink wink.  So much more than a place where people practice yoga, this studio is a total credit to Mimi's vision, her passion, her respect for herself and others.  It's a haven for so many people of all different backgrounds and skill levels and ages.  There's no cookie cutter for our studio -- it's a place where you can be the shape you are and all that we ask in return is you follow the teacher's cues as he or she leads you through a series of postures -- what you dream about in savasana is totally up to you.