Catharsis: On Teaching and Practice

peachOne afternoon last summer I rolled out my mat in the back of the upstairs studio at Wanderlust Hollywood. Noah was teaching. I didn’t want to be near the front of the room, I didn’t want to be seen. I was tired. I wanted practice for practice’s sake. Not for community and not for achievement. Not really even for learning. But for the experience of experience: for time to dive into my body as a felt being, a breathing beast capable of sensing her physicality from the inside out.

I love back bends. Let me tell you, they are hard for me. But I have learned to love them through practice and practice and practice. And let me tell you, I don’t always seek asana for catharsis. I don’t even often seek asana for catharsis. I seek asana most days for fortification, for clarification, for the disciplined and measured experience that holds me accountable to myself and my responsibilities. But some days, asana is cathartic. It comes when it comes, and it catches me off guard.

That afternoon in LA, the back bends came. I don’t remember what we did except that we got to drop backs. Which I do not always practice, which do not always show up at the right time or in the most accessible way. But sometimes, they are just out of reach enough that I can merge with them for a moment, a few rounds, enough to feel something that doesn’t usually open itself crack wide and leave me gaping at what must have been there all along but wasn’t immediately before revealing itself to me.

Here’s one thing I love about Noah: he’s not an emotionally obvious teacher. His gifts are in clarity of instruction, precision, organized and purpose driven teaching. In fact, one of his gifts is his ability to teach without being overridden by his own emotions and thereby diverting the class on his personal path. Yet still, what remains so profound in my experience as his student is that though his teaching does not directly beg for it, it has culled so much transformation in my life that I’m no longer able to keep track.

Noah steps out of the way of himself to let the practice speak for itself — to let me have my own experience. This way, the asana shows up undiluted.

That afternoon in LA I wept so uncontrollably in Savasana I didn’t know what hit me. But, I do know: what hit me was the precious experience of coming undone by the grace of years of hard work at the hand of steady instruction. By the willingness of a body that has trained for decades to do one or two things well enough to then let go of them. And in a room that feels safe because it’s being held by a teacher who has honed his skill set to a remarkable level.

I am preparing to teach a couple of 300 hour teacher trainings this year. I am sifting through my values as I prepare. Asking what I most want to impart on the teachers who will study with me. What really matters in the quality of a teacher? What impacts students in the most notable ways? And as I catalog my memory bank as a yoga student, and keep track of my successes as a teacher, I am reminded time and again that I must step out of my own way both to teach well and to learn well.

Learn in order to then Unlearn. Teaching is not osmosis. There is certain craft and skill involved. I believe some of the best teachers in the world do have gifts, but I know that their gifts were honed through countless hours of nothing other than work. And then after all of the disciplined study, after all of the intricate development of curriculum and order of operations, there is the necessity to let it all go enough to trust that it’s in you. This is where pedagogy meets presence.

Not all of us get there. Most of us don’t. To get there requires a deep trust in the process and a temperament that either doesn’t bore, or that can sustain periods that may feel tedious.

The rare moments of catharsis are not even the goal, and certainly not the end result. Because the power of practice comes with circling again and again through all of the experiences of staying. There is no end result of a practice like yoga — there is no ultimate arrival or pinnacle moment. There is only learning and unlearning, showing up day after day. Plenty of days creaky, off rhythm, stuck. Some days graceful, filled with ease and pleasure. Other days just good enough.

And as teachers, of course we are students too. Certainly human, we are not always able to get out of our own way. We are clouded, we are fettered and distracted. And sometimes, just like as students, when we are tired, when we don’t necessarily want to even be seen, when we are not showing up to teach for any reason other than just to teach, the build-up falls away and the asana comes through clear, clean, undiluted.