If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
--Isaac Newton, Letter to Robert Hooke, February 5, 1675
As a teacher, so much of what I say comes straight out of my mouth, verbatim, from what my teachers have said to me. I often feel like a channel, a medium, spouting information handed down to me then woven into my imagination. Every so often, I will realize that something I've just said was actually original material. I think to myself, 'I should write that down!' (The blog has really helped with this process.)
I have been thinking so much recently about my role, my Dharma, as a yoga teacher, how I got here, and the teacher/student relationship in general. Okay, I think about it all the time. I have been thinking about it even more in the past few weeks, though, because I just got a new job. I will be teaching people how to teach yoga!!! I am officially a part of the Yoga Yoga Teacher Training faculty and will begin teaching the sections on Literature, Language, Philosophy and History in the 200hr RYT program. This is something I've been wanting to do for so long--to dive deeply into the material, for me as a student and as a teacher, and now as a teacher of teachers. I really do feel that this is a calling. I think--no, I feel--this is my Dharma. To use this word, dharma, means that this opportunity is nothing smaller than my own recognition of my stake in the betterment of humanity.
The more I study the Bhagavad Gita, the more I am inspired to think of life as an epic battle for the understanding of the Self and my Self's stake in the world. In the Gita, Arjuna must come to terms with his role in an epic battle. He asks his friend and mentor, Krishna (who we learn quickly is more than human,) for help in navigating what the hell he's supposed to do with his life, with this epic moment.
In so many ways, this story has helped me to realize I've been asking my mentors, my teachers, what the hell to do with my life and how to figure out who I really am and what I have to offer. Most importantly, though, the battle for Self has helped me realize my own inner teacher: I have within me, in this body, the potential to realize true joy, to recognize the divine spark. That, (to quote Buddhist scholar Ruth Fuller-Sasaki,) "God--if I may borrow that word for a moment--" isn't something that's waiting for me when I shuffle off this mortal coil, but something true and real here and now. Self-realization isn't waiting for me in a cave, away from society, and it isn't waiting someplace away from life itself, but that it is through life itself that I can realize my own potential.
These questions, these teachers, this yogic battle has helped me to discover I'm fighting the good fight, asking people to take a good look into themselves and the nature of their own humanity on this planet; to live their dreams for the betterment of humanity. It's big and scary! Being able to share this information, to move more deeply into the conversation with students, is something that brings me the kind of joy that's almost indescribable. I feel so lucky, so humbled. This is lofty, HUGE stuff. But what it's all really done is made me more--just--myself.
This is so much in keeping with process and deeply related to our conversation about Kali and puking/regurgitating: being able to teach this information is an excellent opportunity to understand and integrate it better myself. (What is the medical field's surgical learning process? Watch one, do one, teach one? I'm sure there are plenty of great metaphors about guts/surgery/puking/healing/observing/inner knowing that I could insert here, but that's beyond the (stetho)scope of this blog post for now.) Suffice it to say, this is my chance to continue integrating all the amazing ideas and teachings that I have received from my teachers, and to pass it on so it can live into the minds, hearts and bodies of other yoga students and future yoga teachers.
That said, what I'd like to offer now are direct quotes from one of my favorite teachers on two subjects near and dear to my heart: yoga and tantra. I have learned through yoga and asana how to stand on my own two feet as a teacher; but those feet stand on the shoulders of giants.
With all of this in mind, I'd like to offer two different paragraphs from the heart and mind of Dr. Douglas Brooks. The first is on yoga; the second is the promised pontification on "wait a second: what is Tantra?" The former is from Srividyalaya, the latter from Poised for Grace: Annotations on the Bhagavad Gita from a Tantric View, Douglas's brilliant book.
"Yoga is engagement, even if that engagement means to disengage, as the ascetics exhort us. Yoga in the early traditions is the means by which one creates that kind of engagement that liberates one from the bondage of the temporal, material world. Just what this means depends who you ask, that is, which texts, traditions, sources, etc. When we reach a yoga like Rajanaka (a school of Sakta Srividya) there is less emphasis on extricating oneself from the world's terms and more about engaging them as deeply as possible, including those terms (like suffering or fear or pick your thing you don't like) and making those things, too, opportunities of engagement."
"Wait, I thought you were going to talk about yoga philosophy. What the heck is Tantric Philosophy?"
Shakti’pata-anusarena shishyo’nugraham arhati
“By falling into the current of Grace the seeker becomes capable of holding the constancy of the Heart.... By stepping into the current, by falling into the energies of Grace, the seeker becomes capable of becoming weighty, of becoming the Guru.”
- trans. Dr. Douglas Brooks
Below is a passage from Douglas's notes on Chapter One of the Bhagavad Gita. I love this passage, because, in less than 500 words, he takes us through some of the most integral concepts of the Gita and of yogic practice: namely Dharma and action.
First, a note about Dharma. Dharma means, according to the great Tantric adept, Abhinavagupta, "the notion that we, as human beings, do here, on earth to support justice, nurture our collective value for civilization, and empower a system of laws that connects us to the higher claims of our innermost reality." (Poised for Grace: p. 29) In short, dharma stands for the natural order of the world and our stake in it. This is that moment when confusions abound about what yoga is and how we practice it in the light of the modern world. Can yoga offer me a way to become a better person? Do I go meditate in a cave away from society? Can I be a yogi if I work at McDonald's? Do I exact the law? Do I become a politician? A schoolteacher? A wife? A mother? What do I do with this life?? How can I possibly figure this out?? This is what the Gita is about. How do we reengage with the world once we have had a yogic experience? Once we've had glimpse of the bigger picture?
Through a two sentence history of Tantric schools of thought (Darshanas--Philosophical schools; literally darshana means"to see,") Douglas leads us through ways that the Gita addresses some of the classical concepts of what it means to be in a body and on a spiritual path, outlining ways that this material changes when filtered through a Tantric lens.
Here we go:
"Some Tantrics (read also: yogis) think themselves above Dharma, as if obligations to the world don't apply to the sage but only for those who can't quite fathom the depths of transcendent freedom. But others, particularly the Kashmir Shaivites and later Goddess-centered Tantrics of the Srividya schools, remind us that we are woven wholly into a single fabric of Consciousness made up of infinite threads and possibilities that invite our attention. Our bodies, minds and hearts are integral elements to Self-recognition. In contrast to many non-Tantric traditions where the limited and conditioned terms of mortal embodiment are, at best, means and more properly impediments to the recognition of our sublime, divine nature, the Tantric takes an integrated view of the whole person. Every feature of our experience and existence will be part of the process and the realization of the divine. The body will be just as important and real as the mind, the heart, and all other features of experiential identity of the Self. The yogic process of support, nurture, and growth comes from Dharma itself, which is the way in which the universe has provided all the terms and conditions necessary for an integrated recognition of the Self. Dharma, simply put, is not only the structure that nurtures and supports the possibility of Self-recognition, is is the process through with the Self reaches recognition. To ignore wholly or claim transcendence of Dharma is tantamount to refusing the very nature of reality and gifts of embodiment."
A while ago, I taught a workshop inspired by Douglas Brooks’ talk on the Triadic Heart of the Goddess: Kali, Saraswati and Lakśmi. Like a good Tantrika, I proceeded to describe how these goddesses manifest as us, and that when we take on their characteristics, we see them come to light in our actions. One of the attributes of Kali, as I understand it, is her amazing ability (in some depictions of her) a. to gross us out, and b. to vomit and regurgitate.
Have you ever come home from a life-changing movie/lecture/class/training and said to your roommate/lover/friend, “I’ve just got to share this with you! I had the most amazing experience and I can’t keep it inside”? Sometimes life, yoga, this stuff is too big for us to keep inside (like Kali the big Black Hole attracting everything in her direction.) We have to share it, to teach it, to learn and re-learn it. We have to puke it back up, partially digested, and take a good look at what we’ve made of it so far.
At the end of a 2 ½ hour lecture and asana class, hoping to integrate these stories and information into my students’ bodies, one of my students came up to me and said, “I wish I could puke like you do.”
My response, respectfully, ir/reverently, was “It takes practice.” I think this image applies to the learning process and the process of sharing one’s insights from practicing yoga. As a student of yoga, I am constantly in a process of digesting the information that my yoga gives me. When I teach, all I have to offer is this—partially digested, regurgitated insight. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m still, always, in a process of learning. This process is scary!
Sometimes I wish I just knew the "right" answer, that I could simply offer something to students with a definitive sense of authority. Yet so often, yoga doesn't provide answers. As Judith Lasater says, "Asanas aren't answers; they're questions." We have to get out of our heads and into our bodies and hearts. (Hence all the severed heads.) That deep exploration, that undefined process is scary just like Kali is scary. She’s the darkness. She’s the blackness of the unknown. She represents Death. But, you see, when we’re dead, that’s it for corporeal learning. But Kali also represents rebirth and a mother's love for the birth of humanity. So, can we invite ourselves in our humanity into the unknown and see it as a gift, as a learning process; as a process? I am a student of partially digested process.