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The Tyranny of Style, The Freedom of Inquiry

lotus-unfolding-dave-millsI am a work in progress
dressed in the fabric of a world unfolding
offering me intricate patterns of questions
rhythms that never come clean
and strengths that you still haven’t seen
~ ani difranco

 There is one question that has always challenged me as a teacher of yoga, and that question is “what style do you teach?” It is an innocent enough question for people to ask, I get that, but I have always found it a challenge to answer and it always seems like a test I am bound to fail. Like many of us in this modern world of yoga I have put my time in practicing, studying, and teaching a number of different styles, and each one has given me something different. And yet every time I have tried to define myself, or what I do, by one branded name or style description I feel I come up short.  As well I don’t think that the answer to a question as simple as “what style do you teach” often provides the real answers that the questioner is looking for.

And yet I do think it is valuable to want to know more about a prospective teacher, especially if you are considering doing a longer training or retreat with them.  For when you spend that kind of time with a teacher you are opening yourself to a transmission of their deeper teachings and philosophy and I think that is worth knowing, along with how they approach asana practice (ie what style they teach). I am often surprised that students will sign up for teacher training with me without asking me more about myself and have at times wished later that they had because they might have realized that I am not really the ideal teacher for them. So in this post I will address a few key questions I think are worth asking your teacher, or at least asking yourself about your teacher. These are also questions that I recommend teachers ask of themselves as it will make their offerings and the way they choose to present themselves to the world that much more clear, while also providing a valuable process of inquiry that is worth engaging.

What Is Your Philosophy?

Honestly this is what I most want to know about a teacher and this is what I am continually asking myself, for when I am clear on this then I feel I live and act from the place of greatest authenticity within me. If you can’t get a clear idea of what a teachers philosophy is from their written material or web copy then get to a class with them. And if you still can’t get a good idea consider asking them. It will be a great question for them to contemplate if they haven’t already. As a teacher understand that getting clear about your philosophy is not about choosing a great tag line that sells but is itself a process of inquiry that will likely take some time. And it is deeply valuable work. Getting to know who we are as teachers will take time as we must move through the early stages of taking on all that we have learned from our own teachers and gradually extracting our own philosophy from within that. This can’t be rushed. And though asking yourself this question will help you along on this path of knowing yourself each of us will live into the answer in our own time. For myself I keep coming back to a few verses of poetry that I have written inside the cover of each new diary I have started since I was fifteen years old. It is by Rainer Maria Rilke and goes like this-

You see I want a lot
Perhaps I want everything
The infinite darkness that comes with every great fall
And the shivering blaze of every fiery step up

Now while this may seem like my message is to have great extremes in your life that is not how I live or what I teach. Rather to me these verses speak of saying a brave and heartfelt yes to life with all of its beauty and its joy, its terror and it’s suffering. This is a message I live by as I have learned that to say no to one aspect of life is to say no to its opposite and it is what I teach as well. I do not believe that progress on the path of practice is linear.  Rather it is a an ever fluctuating, wave like spiral, that takes us into and out of ourselves in a rhythm that is often mysterious, and never entirely within our control, but that we can learn to dance with.  Yoga is a practice that has given me some tools for cultivating the skillfulness and awareness that allows me to navigate this great dance while remaining open to life and so I continue to practice, and I simply offer what I know back to my students so that they can use these same tools to wake up to the beauty of their own lives. This message is continually woven into the fabric of what I do and what I say as a teacher. It is more enduring than the approach to practice I may be offering at any one time as I progress along on my own explorations with asana (posture practice) and I have found this to be the same with the teachers I most respect. Though their styles and approaches to practice may change, their message doesn’t, and the longer that they teach the stronger and clearer their message becomes.

What Do You Value and Respect?

This question may seem similar to the first but I think it can yield slightly different answers. For myself what I value and respect is practice. I value the process of committing to something, and staying in relationship with it over a long period of time. I am more inspired by this than I am by the achievement of extraordinarily advanced asanas, or great feats of asceticism such as meditating for hours a day or juice fasting for a month. I’m being cheeky but honestly what I value most is what occurs when a person makes a commitment to a life of practice that will shift and change as they do. I value and respect the fluidity, discipline and trust that practice will demand of us if we are going to stay in relationship to it.  Its this quality of discipline and commitment that I am asking of myself and that I encourage in my students. I want to practice with devotion, but I am not afraid to ask questions of my practice or of my teachers and I am not afraid to change my approach if I feel it is no longer serving me or helping me to evolve.  This questioning is something I will also encourage in my students as I much prefer to work with engaged and curious practitioners than those that blindly follow what I say and do.  For it is in their questioning that I am called to greater clarity, and it is in my own questioning that I am called to a greater trust in myself.  So you can tell from this answer that I am not a particularly casual student, or teacher, and that is worth knowing. Knowing what your teacher values will give you a lot of valuable information about how they will approach practice and study and what they may ask of you.

What Are Your Honest Strengths?

It has taken me a long time to realize that I truly can’t be every teacher to every student and that I can’t have all the best qualities of all the teachers I admire! I wish it could be so but it can’t. Every one of us has gifts that come naturally and I think it is part of our work to be able to own those and draw them forth, while continuing to cultivate our strength in areas where we may struggle as teachers. I believe that my natural strengths are my passion for living and learning, and my ability to inspire others. I am not afraid to bring myself to my teaching and do not shy away from sharing my faults or struggles. And while I would not call myself a funny teacher,  I can laugh at myself, and at life. I am more likely to lead you on an emotional journey than to provide a class that is loaded with technical details. I value the study of anatomy and am interested in learning the biomechanics of movement, but my classes will more likely emphasize breath and movement than a static study of the forms. I like to make my classes accessible to everyone but nobody could call my classes gentle and I am not the ideal teacher for anyone looking for one on one or therapeutic work as I love the dynamic of what happens when we get together as a group, and practice as individuals within that group. I am not a restorative teacher, a yin teacher or an Iyengar teacher. My classes are fluid and feminine and at they’re best evocative and challenging.  I am more comfortable with the elements of Fire, Water and Air than I am with Earth and Ether and my classes inevitably reflect this. I have skill in using language to command action and inspire feeling so I will reach out to with words. I am good at observing what is happening in the room so you will be witnessed and seen. But I am not as open with touch and so you are not likely to get massaged by me while you practice in my classes. I tend to move and speak quickly and my excitement will infect you if you are open to it but I am never going to move or act with the Zen like containment of other teachers you may know, its just not how I roll.  I love meeting new people and traveling locally to new communities, but more than that I love getting to know my students and would rather work within a small community of committed students than teach in big studios or on big stages to many people I will never get to know. I am an introvert, except when I teach, and you are more likely to find me at home nerding out with a book than being social any night of the week. This means that I am often hopelessly out of touch with fashion and current events, but I will talk your ear off about eastern philosophy, Indian mythology, or Ayurveda.

Now please know that I tell you all this not because I love to talk about myself but so that you can determine whether or not you and I would be a good fit as student and teacher, because I know that there is a teacher for everyone and if it is not me than it will be someone else. But if you really want to know a teacher than consider asking them the questions I’ve brought up here, and while you are at it ask them of yourelf too as it may help you find the teacher or community that is ideal for you. . These questions are more personal than “what style do you teach” but I believe these questions will allow you to know your teachers better, rather than to box them into answers that can be given easily but only tell a fraction of the story of who they are.


© 2017 Natalie Rousseau.
Site by Paul Jarvis.