This proverb instructs us about the importance of time to think, feel, and fully experience the lessons offered by our teachers. By taking the time to digest and assimilate offerings from our guru, we will be able to apply or share those teachings in a way that is authentic and unique.
In the Taittiriya Upanishad
Yagnavalkya is the only student in a large room of seekers to comprehend his guru’s instruction.
The teacher recognizes that everyone except the exemplary Yagnavalkya does not understand.
He asks the bright one to “vomit the teachings.”
Yangnavlkya, being very obedient, proceeds to throw-up all over the floor.
His teacher, a great yogic master, turns all of the other students into a flock of partridge.
The hungry birds proceed to “eat” the teachings voraciously.
This parable illustrates how Yagnavalkya, who matures into a great teacher, can regurgitate the complex texts in a way his fellow students can understand.
Beloved yoga teacher, T.K.S Desikachar says in his book, The Heart of Yoga, that the practice must be individualized to serve the seeker. We too must internalize what we learn and “vomit” so our students can “hear” what we know. We need some serious incubation time for this process to occur.
In the first six months of my yoga practice, I lived close to my teacher. I would go to public class several times week. During this period, I discovered the details of alignment, breath, and dristhi. I built strength and courage under my teacher's guidance.
This first teacher offered a powerful asana class, and at the end of each session he would always say, “If you want more see me after class.” I listened to this closing for a couple of weeks then I asked him what he meant.
He was talking about meditation. It turned out my postural teacher was also an accomplished Transcendental Meditation (TM) practitioner. He studied for decades. The first time I went to his house to learn the technique, he put on a video from 1970. The students, including my teacher, would levitate across basketball courts. Disclaimer: it wasn’t levitation in the cartoon sense. The students didn’t look like hover-craft, but they used “kundalini energy” to take giant hops, sometimes 10 feet, across the floor while remaining in the lotus posture.
Well, that was enough for me; I was hooked. I went to as many classes as possible and practiced on my own every day. I can remember being on break at work and doing poses.
Shortly after this introduction, I moved from the west coast back home. I knew Baltimore had a future for me. My friends and family were calling. Here I had found a teacher I loved, and I was not staying. I was moving two valleys away.
This initial separation taught me the importance of my own insight. It taught me how to keep a teaching in my heart and practice. I learned to dig deeper. I was lonely at times, but in the end, the distance forced me to stand on my own two feet.
At the beginning of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a treatise on yoga and its aim, Swatmarama says, “Due to a multiplicity of opinions there is confusion about yoga.” This quote helps us through the confusion we hear one thing from a book, another from a teacher and a third from our friend. Instead of getting overwhelmed and maybe even discouraged on the path, we turn to ourselves for the truth.
Today, while I was walking with my teacher here in India, he told me five years of digestion was required to practice and integrate what he learned. He needed the time to make the instruction his own. From an American perspective, five years seems impossible, no new sequences, technique, or YouTube videos?
Diving deeper makes any endeavor: painting, music, or yoga, art. There is no single correct way to make a picture. It is also true that there is no one way to do yoga. I find that making time to internalize and individualize instruction is essential to our success on the path.
A student asks his teacher.
Guru, Guru, how long will it take me to become enlightened.
The teacher replied ten years.
What if, the student inquired, I come to class every day? If I practice twice as much, even leaving my job to do so?
The teacher paused and replied,
We cannot rush the process of yoga. For some it comes in an instant for others, it requires many lifetimes of effort, but either way, a practice needs alone time.
I am teaching a little in India this year. Sudeepta Shanbhag, an inspiring student, runs her classes and school here in Bangalore. She kindly invited me to offer a session in her teacher training. I walked into her center and was thrilled to see success. Heart-warmed, I notice the students looking at her with adoring eyes. They are savoring each word she shares. Her teachings are articulate and uniquely hers.
The students love Sudeepta. They are grateful for the way in which she has helped them improve their bodies, minds, and lives. I remember when she left Baltimore and how as a teacher, I hated to see her go. She was in the room for every class. She never missed. She moved two valleys away. But we have stayed connected. She returns to my classes each year, and I now come to visit her.
Sudeepta has worked slowly and mindfully over the last few years, developing herself as an independent student and teacher. And then I had the pleasure of attending her student’s class. The student, too, offered an insightful experience. I thought we cannot know the many ways our efforts ripple into the world.
Two valleys away doesn’t do away with the teacher. It just means you do not have to see them every day to maintain a relationship.
Not only is Sudeepta teaching classes, but she is offering a 200 hr training program. I gave a lecture on the subtle body to her trainees. The talk introduces the yogic concept of a subtle reality that lies just beneath the gross. The subtle body lives in the realm of the physical but requires a soundless mind to perceive. It includes functions like breath, circulation, digestion and lymph. It also includes artful maps designed to describe a sensation like butterflies in the stomach or a racing heart.
The poetics of the subtle body expands the spectrum of our experience. It widens the frontier in a yoga practice. It gives us tools to refine and deepen the focus of the mind.
A certain amount of attention is required to feel your legs in Warrior and adjust their position. It takes a deeper focus to perceive the touch of the breath. This touch is the subtle body
And the breath is just the beginning. In the talk, the sensation of breath is an example of the strongest subtle feeling. We go quieter and quieter from here: heartbeat, thoughts, stillness.
To feel subtleties, you need time on your own, dedicated to practicing. You need peace and quiet to create metaphors.
The subtle yogic body contains a pillar of lotus blossoms; it contains 72,000 rivers; it contains five winds, five sheaths, and a latent serpent. The lotus flowers are metaphors to help us stand upright. The river images help us to explore balance. The winds provide an exploration of contrasts: ground, lift, swirl, reach, and go within. The subtle body contains five sheaths: food, energy, thoughts, wisdom and soul. They tell us a story: we are more than a bag of bones and blood. The exploration of the subtle body provides a rich landscape of imaginary landmarks. These signposts provide friends on the journey to sitting still.
The lecture was well received. I enjoyed teaching new students in a traditional Indian environment. Teaching here was likes a dream come true. The students were marvelous, and I felt very connected and at home. We are already making plans for a workshop in Bangalore next year. I can’t wait! Click here for a video of the complete lecture.
In our American life, we move toward the outer world: new poses, sequences, anatomical understandings and even teachers can keep us on the surface of our practice. Nestled just inside the physical aspect is an inner world impervious to politics, success or failure.
What if we think of the teachings as a meal? How much time do we give ourselves to digest? How often do we need to consume?
For this kind exploration, you need a teacher, two valleys away. I have only seen my teachers once or twice a year since my initial learning. I never really thought about it, but this circumstance forced me to stand on my own two feet. It forces me to practice in a way that is truly me. And then, when I want to share the offerings, they are uniquely mine.
Sudeepta, her mother and I practice together. We roll out our mats and breath. I recognize how connected Sue and I are although she is here, teaching, learning, and growing on her own. When we come together, I offer her what I know, and she teaches me too.
I know the teachers in Charm City will stand strong on their own once I am gone. They will take what we have created together and make it their own. YogaWorks students will look at them with adoring eyes.
Of course, I am saying all this because I am moving. I am moving two valleys away and find it hard to say good-bye. But leaving is not leaving after all. Our circumstance gives you time to digest, assimilate, and do your practice. All is coming