Trusting What is Difficult: Tales of Teaching & Travel

 Teaching in Warsaw, Poland, March 2013.

I love to travel, most of the time. I love the way everything can feel new and fresh. I like the change in routine and the challenge of maintaining practice, even and especially amidst these changes. Travel can be a truly great thing. This fresh mind, or new mind, can be cultivated wherever we are, but travel helps because it wakes us up. It is a reminder to look again at what we do everyday with eyes that are open and unknowing. And if we are able sustain our practices, and our discipline, even when traveling, then we have an even greater opportunity to see those daily practices with the fresh eyes and mind that tend to come from the shift in perspective that travel brings. I also think I love travel, strangely enough, because it is difficult.

I also find this is true in teaching as well. Nothing is better for one’s teaching than having to share what you love with people you do not know, and in a new place. It can be difficult. It can be scary, even a bit terrifying, but exciting and enlivening as well. And this difficulty itself can serve as a catalyst for growth and new learning. It is the difficulty that can bring the awakening. Even the fear that can accompany difficulty can bring on and awakening. Rumi says “Sometimes, though, it is fear that brings you the presence.”

It is also the “encounter with otherness” as the writer Parker Palmer describes it, that is so good, so refreshing, so eye and mind opening. But it also opens our hearts. If we are always surrounded by what is comfortable, by people we know, and those who think, behave, and perceive in the ways that we do, than we are not challenged, and our ideas and perceptions are not challenged. We lose the opportunity to grow in unexpected and potentially surprising ways. And we lose the opportunity to connect to something deeper than, or deeper within, ourselves. Something that is much more expansive, much more inclusive, and perhaps even a bit mysterious. Even the mysterious is worth trusting.

I have had two very different but seminal teaching experiences in the last several months that illustrate the transformation that comes from trusting in what is difficult.

The first was teaching at an Iyengar studio in Poland in the early spring. I was told that many of the students spoke very little English and so I would have work with a translator. But they all practiced Iyengar yoga, and would be familiar with the Sanskrit names of the poses as well as many aspects of the practice, so there was something familiar. But there was the language/cultural challenge to contend with.

I had chosen playful practice as a theme, and was heartened to find that the word playful (in Polish) was what had inspired many of the participants to attend. Play we must!

But I was still nervous about having a translator because of how verbal and linguistically nuanced Iyengar yoga can be. I knew I would have to observe the following:

- Do clear demonstrations of the poses, actions, and sequences.
- Slow down and simplify the instructions (use fewer words and allow time for translation)
- Provide a context or space for the participants to explore the teachings without being constantly verbally instructed
- Find new and non-verbal ways to communicate (like pictures and inspiring visual imagery)

This context provided an opportunity to observe more carefully and listen more closely to what was being communicated non-verbally from these students. Their eyes, faces and bodies communicated so much. It was evident when they were relaxed, absorbed, joyful, and experiencing freedom. But also visible when they were lost, confused, or inhibited in some way. Of course this non-verbal information is always available to us as teachers and as people, but somehow the language challenge heightened my observation skills, and especially my observation of those qualities mentioned above, not just the execution or alignment of the pose. Their person-hood, and the condition of their heart/mind was as important as the execution of the pose. This experience reaffirmed my belief in trusting what is difficult. And it also reaffirmed my trust in the profound power of play as a means of dealing with difficulty and the fear that often comes with this encounter.

The Polish students told me that the many years of communism may have dampened their playful natures. But adulthood anywhere can do that, and systems and dogmas can do that. This is not unique to former communist countries. We can all easily fall into proscribed or rigid approaches or become overly technical to the point where we lose the power of playfulness and the element of surprise. We can lose our childlike sense of wonder. But we do not have to. Wonder can live right in the center of our heart and at the center of our practice if we make space for it.

So I thought if I can, as a teacher, create a space or container for a certain type of thematic exploration (playfulness) without imposing too much of myself or my ideas, and not have to speak too much, then perhaps some magic can happen, and the students will make space for this aspect of themselves to reveal itself. Playful practice was our subject. And the exploration of the subject itself seemed to uncover the sun inside and it expressed itself on their smiling faces. And the sun (literally) does not shine much in Poland in the winter and early spring, so anything that brings joy to the heart and mind can serve as a type of sunshine.

Laughter also helped us cultivate this playful approach to practice . Laughter is a type of language, and like play, it transcends words. Laughter is a by product of playfulness, but also begets playfulness. The power of humor and laughter in practice and in teaching cannot be underestimated. It is good for the brain and the heart. Humor, like honesty and vulnerability, really brings people together. It bridges worlds, it softens hearts, it connects.

Connection is another great thing. Connection is key. Don’t we all, in some way, want connect to each other and to ourselves, to the subject we are studying, and to the fullness and mystery of life?

This is where my Wanderlust experience comes in. I was invited to teach at Wanderlust Vermont this summer. For those of you who do not know what Wanderlust is, it is series of yoga/music festivals held primarily at ski resorts in the summer off season. All styles and types of yoga and body/mind practices are taught. There are also amazing musical and dance entertainment available for the participants to enjoy as they wish.

I was nervous about teaching there for the follow reasons:

1. Many of the classes would be large and have students of varying levels of experience, many of whom have never done, or even heard of, Iyengar yoga.
2. The classes could be quite large and would most likely lack props and wall space (which can serve as a fantastic prop as well as teacher).
3. I wondered if there would be many people even interested in the type of class where they would be asked to focus fully and pay attention to their bodies and watch the movements of their minds without any background music to set the mood or provide distraction (the answer was yes, there were plenty who were interested).

It happens that I feel very strongly that it is essential that some of us, as teachers of Iyengar Yoga, be willing to reach out and play with, engage with, and enter into, dialogue with people from all types of yoga. This is how new students will be exposed to the many brilliant aspects of BKS Iyengar’s teachings. This is how we honor lineage and tradition by engaging with it more fully, especially as we share it with other beings. And for me, yoga is at its heart, a type of communion. It is the deep communion within oneself, and with other beings, and with the great subject itself. So here was an amazing opportunity to attempt, in whatever small way possible, to do just that.

So I asked myself why do we humans do this? Why do we study together? Why do we gather at festivals to celebrate and share our attention, affection and appreciation for a great and mysterious thing such as yoga, or music, or dance, or any other great subject? The writer and educator Parker Palmer uses the phrase “the grace of great things.” Perhaps we trust the grace that comes from this encounter. Great things grace us. They grace us with their mystery. They grace us by requiring connection.

So when teaching at Wanderlust I gave myself the intention to try and connect with those students, in that context, just as they were. My intention was to do this from my most honest (and vulnerable) self, as best I could at that time. My intention was to share an exploration of this great thing called yoga, and an approach inspired by a great teacher named BKS Iyengar. It was intention to share what had most deeply connected me to these teachings, and to connect to these students through this sharing. But most importantly to provide a space or context for them to experience their own connections, to the subject and to themselves.

Now there were practical matters to contend with, such as the particularly large class I taught on the upper back, neck and shoulders. I had hoped to confine the teaching to the use of only two props, that being a belt and a block, which I thought we would have. As it turned out, just moments before teaching, I found out that the belts would not be available. Ok, I thought at least we have the block…and the wall. Oops! That will not work, because there are too many windows and radiators to use the wall. Ok, I thought…they have a block, they have the floor, they have their bodies…and we have each other!

So we worked through a series of standing and supine poses, used the block in various ways, did some simple partner work, and in then in the last portion of class, went face down on the ground. When the students were face down on the floor, working with their shoulders by being in contact with the earth, a palpable shift occurred in the room. The room became absolutely silent. We were here. We were alone, each in our experience, but together in that solitude. The room felt full of a focused presence that comes from the grace of the great thing called yoga. And the profound simplicity that comes from of being with the earth, ear to the ground, ear to oneself. There was a listening happening. There were other such moments over the course of the four days I spent teaching there. And I am grateful for all the difficulties that made those moments possible.

Grateful for the difficulties, because in almost every one of these classes, I was challenged in some way that stretched my imagination and required me to connect even more deeply to the students present just as they were, and to the space that held us just as it was, and to trust in the power of doing just that. Because the subject itself – that great thing called yoga, is about the communion that comes from being fully in the present moment as it is! Then we can use our imaginations, and use anything and everything in service of making whatever we are teaching potentially accessible and effective in any context and to anyone. But if we are not challenged by circumstance, complacency or dullness, or a lack of presence, can set in.

Teaching in Poland and at Wanderlust, as different as these experiences were from one another, were about traveling into new territories as a teacher, and as a practitioner of yoga. This opportunity is always present anytime every time we practice or teach. But traveling into new communities, or countries, or new teaching contexts, requires that much more of us. It requires honoring, and trusting, the power of the great things called love and respect. The deep love and respect for ourselves, the subject, and each other that is the very heart of practice, and teaching.

“It is clear that we must trust in what is difficult; everything alive trusts in it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself anyway it can and is spontaneously itself, tries to be itself at all costs and opposition. We know little, but that we must trust in what is difficult is a certainty that will never abandon us; it is good to be solitary; for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason to do it.
It is also good to love: because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.” – Rainer Maria Rilke