There is this really lovely notion, among teachers who teach strong physical practices, that students, over time, will eventually turn inward. I wish that were true. In my 12 years of practice, I have met many people who started out as ego maniacs that are still ego maniacs today.
If someone does not feel or know that they have a problem, then there is no problem to be solved. If you do not know that something exists, why would you search for it? Many people do embark on a spiritual practice after years of just doing physical work but something within them really wanted to experience this transformation. If that is not present in the student, then it will never awaken.
Traditionally, people only came to yoga who were looking for spiritual awakening. Now, we have people teaching and practicing who just see it as a workout. If a teacher, only teaches yoga as a workout, it sends a message to the student that they don’t need to delve any further. Many will find the spiritual path of yoga regardless, but many will also stay in shallow waters for it is easier to change the outer body than it is the inner body. If a teacher is giving their students permission to stay in the realm of physicality, then it is possible that they will never go far outside of that.
Teachers cannot assume that people will make the jump from physicality into spirituality. It is our job to give the students the seeds and they can plant them if they like. I will illustrate this with my own story. I started practicing Ashtanga in Atlanta with a beautiful woman named Adele Gale. Every now and then, she would quote, “yoga citta vritti nirodha” which is from the Yoga Sutras of Pantajali and it means, “yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind”. Until then, my interest in yoga was purely physical. Yes, I knew that yoga had some spiritual roots but I really wasn’t that interested. She said this line and from time to time and as my respect for her grew my interest in her words grew. She was my teacher so this must be important. I found out where the line was from and proceeded to study the Sutras.
The same thing happened with Bhakti. I came to Ashtanga, which has no music but I got there early before class started and one of my good friends, who was also a teacher, Rhonda, was playing Krishna Das. I asked her about it, she was a friend and a teacher that I respected so I wanted to learn more.
One of my favorite books on yoga teaching is Guruji which is a memoir of stories from Pattabhi Jois’s students. Even during the later years, when he was not teaching as much philosophy, he had his ways of breaking down the ego. He would give and take affection. He would give poses to some and not to others. Without words, he would use the poses themselves to break down the ego. If the practice is delivered in this fashion, than it is possible to ignite the destruction of the ego but how many people really teach this way? Many teachers are afraid of alienating students so they cater to their wants which is different from what they actually need. Also the students themselves must be open to this process and they must be willing to practice with one teacher and surrender to their guidance.
In this day and time, practice with one teacher is not common. Most people jump from teacher to teacher. If one makes you uncomfortable, you can just find one who doesn’t. The long process of breaking down the ego, is not reasonable. However, if we drop a pointer like my teachers did, once the student leaves, even if they never come back, they heard it and they can decide where to go with their practice. I no longer practice with these two ladies, I moved and they moved, but their seeds are still growing.
Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.