There I stood, like an emperor without clothes. My students nodded obediently, yet stood unsure and slightly agog.
I knew that expression. Sitting in the role of the observer, the seer, I have been blanch-faced, too. I have seen even a master muck something up, or give away a glimmer of doubt in their teachings. Sometimes things that once rang true slink into obsolescence.
You see, in that moment in front of my own students, I had radically shifted mid-course and sort of made a mess of things when I had wanted to do my best to not muck.
This week marks the start of my thirtieth teacher training. At this point, I could just walk in, dial up, and let the teachings flow because they are deeply ingrained within an inner academic foundation as solid as bedrock. But it doesn’t mean I always get it right. Last session, like a naked visage in a mirror reflection, I felt somehow had gotten it wrong. And it wasn't the Sanskrit, nor anatomy, but instead my identity as a teacher.
But this week was not like that week. Like I said, I did that once. The teachings became so easy, they lost their own sense of skin. Certain ideas or concepts around yoga become inalienable, categorical imperatives. My approach grown rigid like a stiff muscle. What I thought was punctuated wisdom conveyed like credo became a bit like avidya, or ignorance.
Teachers are the seen, but I also make an effort to maintain my muscle of a seer's questioning and examining of what is the teaching. I had lost some of that muscle memory over the course of studying under a particular system. When you lose sight of this as an educator, teacher, or mentor, you have lost something special. But it can become foolish when you fail to see that something’s missing, like a sartorially-bereft ‘avidyic’ King strutting amongst his loyal subjects.
Inevitably, we come to a place (sometimes long down the road) when all of that dismantles and the teachings as we know them, like suspensions in time, suddenly seem limited. It’s as if the moment something becomes dogma, locked in the permanence of ideologue, the lesson of the universe weaves a flaw in the fabric and the rubric starts to rimple. Svadyaya helped me see this: the coarseness of the rise and the discontinuity of pattern. I saw that I needed to come into my own expression as a teacher, no longer a puppet of another. Those teachings no longer sat well in the suit of my self. They belonged to another journeyman with a separate destiny.
Without shirking responsibility or placing blame on anyone but myself, I recognized the way this had manifested in my teaching, which I saw as wholly-consumed in the way of one of my earlier teachers. So I did what anyone in authority probably would not do. I immediately recanted, retreated, and reinvented my program. I had found myself caught in a way of communicating and teaching that I no longer embraced, namely donning the dress of a man when called to address yoga in the voice of a woman. But I didn’t see this, nor could I have recognized it without going deep into different systems of yoga. I had to show deference and respect to them equally and keep my mind and heart open. From one system I gained tremendous intellect, and from another, an ever-expanding heart.
Some teachers I suspect never would change or walk outside of their lineage, but I also know of some teachers who have. I have observed writ large and within myself the erroneous idea that once a system has been studied in depth and then dogmatized, one must cease to study or seek to understand other systems. This prevents empathy and limits the vantage point of the horizon of truth.
It’s from a sincere heart place and rigorous mental one that I continue the procession down the road of yoga studies. It is my role to be a teacher, but not one without self-reflection, accountability and the ability to transform and move closer to knowing true authenticity.
For a full list of Ali's work, go here.