Ashtanga, Boulder, Colorado, Buddhism, Chakrasana, David Swenson, Flow, Hatha Yoga, Healing, Health & Wellness, Hinduism, India, Krishnamacharya, Liberation, Lineage, Meditation, NYC, Primary Series, Sexual Assault, Shanti, Sharath Jois, Sri K Pattabhi Jois, Sustainability, Teachers, Tradition, Water, Yoga

Advanced Teacher Primary Student

“Right now, I want it to be about him [acknowledging Sharath Jois in the front of the room]. He’s about to begin.”

~ David Swenson

They say we live in degenerate times. How do we, as yoga practitioners and dharma practitioners, develop and maintain a genuine respect for our teachers and our lineage? This is a little anecdote with some personal reflections about rediscovering respect and regeneration by observing an advanced teacher being a primary student.

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Photo by Agathe Padovani thanks to Sonima. Sandi Higgins practicing next to David Swenson at the Led Primary Series with Sharath Jois in Brooklyn, 2019

David Swenson has lived and breathed the Ashtanga Yoga practice longer than I’ve been alive. Known as one of the world’s foremost practitioners and instructors of Ashtanga Yoga, David is also one of the original disciples of guru Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. 

Jois was himself the disciple of Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, often referred to as the grandfather of all modern yoga in the West. Other disciples of Krishnamacharya include: B.K.S. Iyengar, Indra Devi, T. K. V. Desikachar, and Srivatsa Ramaswami.

Back to David: I had the joy of first meeting David Swenson when he came to give a Weekend Workshop at the Shala in NYC, where I had just started practicing Mysore Ashtanga Yoga with my first teachers, Barbara Verrochi & Kristin Leigh. I recorded the talk that he gave that weekend and listened to it several times after. If I knew where that audio file is today, I’d listen to it again! In a spirit of casual question & answer conversation, David elucidated many difficult aspects of the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga practice, or sadhana (spiritual practice), in his down-to-earth and accessible style – while also making everybody laugh a lot. He shared a great sense of humor about Ashtanga and how he relates with it in his own life. To this day, I continue to quote him from that talk in many of my own yoga classes.

Since then, I have only seen David Swenson once a year when Sri R. Sharath Jois comes to the USA to teach on tour from Mysore, India. For those of you who don’t know R. Sharath Jois, he is the grandson of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, and probably the most coveted transmitter of traditional Ashtanga Yoga in the world. Although David Swenson has a very advanced practice, and an extensive international student body of his own, he has consistently shown up in NYC to practice as a student with Sri R. Sharath Jois. I have always seen David place his mat humbly in the back of the big auditorium, filled with practitioners from all backgrounds and experiences. If you’re not familiar with this scene, it is common for advanced students to put their mats as close to the front-row-and-center as possible. I’m not as advanced, but I certainly do that too, especially when I haven’t seen my teacher in many months or even years and I want to be held accountable by his inescapable eye-line. The back of the room asks for more personal accountability.

One year, probably 2016, I had been following Sharath-ji for practice on tour through California and then in NYC. My body was a little tired after 3 consecutive weeks of Led Intermediate and Primary Series classes with him! I had a back spasm during the second or third day of practice in NYC and I had to sit-out on the side of the auditorium in the middle of the practice. While watching the whole room move in its ritual ebb and flow, I couldn’t help but notice David Swenson practicing in one of the back rows. I particularly appreciated his way of doing the Ashtanga-style chakrasana transition. He had a very simple and economical manner about this sophisticated backwards roll. Instead of rolling directly into chaturanga, he rolled directly into adho mukha svanasana. It was like a little revelation. Somehow I had never seen chakrasana done that way before. It was very soft and slow and strong, and super mindful of the space behind and around him (which is especially a good idea when all the mats are very close together). I later tried and found this way of doing chakrasana very difficult compared to the way I had previously learned it. Yet it looked easy when David did it. Since then, the image of this way of doing chakrasana stuck with me. One day, I just found the way to do it! New mindful tool in my practice belt! A lot of practice works like that. An image is imprinted in the mind and gradually the body awakens to it. Now I can chakrasana either way (depending on whether or not I want to be kind to the person behind me – just kidding – let’s be kind whenever possible).

Last year in 2018, Sharath-ji didn’t make it to teach in NYC during his tour and I didn’t have the opportunity to catch him in any other city. This year in 2019, however, he did. Although I currently live in Boulder, Colorado, I flew back to New York City and attended his classes. Happily, I saw David Swenson again and somehow this year I had the courage to ask David if I could put my mat down next to his all the way in the back row. He welcomed me and my mat kindly and continued to chat with his mat neighbor on the other side.

The chattery excitement in the Brooklyn auditorium began quieting down and drawing itself inward as we neared the start of practice. Sri R. Sharath Jois was looking softly over the sea of mats and bodies and minds before him. He had not yet stood up to call “Samastitihi” which brings everyone to the top of their mats to begin the Surya Namaskars, so there was still some lingering chatter through the auditorium. David Swenson had stopped talking to the person on his other side, thus just before putting my phone away and getting quiet myself, I seized the moment to ask him for a seemingly-obligatory-aspiring-ashtangi-selfie: “Hey David, can I take a picture with you?” 

His response continues to resonate with me. “You know what, let’s do it after.” he said. “Right now, I want it to be about him [acknowledging Sharath Jois in the front of the room]. He’s about to begin.”

Sure enough, David took a picture with me at the end of the practice, and there were lots of pictures taken by the event’s official photographer in the middle (see above). But in that brief and casual way at the beginning, David pointed out something to me that is perhaps more valuable and enduring than any photo: 

  1. even the most advanced teachers are humble students

  2. there are many ways to show respect and disrespect to our teachers 

It made me reflect. These are some of my reflections. I claim no authority on truth, nor truth on authority!

What does it mean to be a student? What does it mean to be a teacher? Why is it important for students to show respect to their teachers, and vice versa? 

Although I haven’t had a chance to ask him directly (and maybe after writing this I will ask him), I don’t think David Swenson shows up as a student in Sharath-ji’s Led Primary Series classes to get adjustments or to further perfect his asana practice.

My guess is that David shows up as a student, not only because he likes getting on his mat and he trusts the count of this teacher!, but because he respects the lineage that has gifted him the tools that he has used to craft his own lifelong Ashtanga practice. Being a student in this way means that you are staying connected to the source from which you drink, from which you have tapped your own well, and you are tending to that flow. 

If, as teachers, we act as though we are no longer students, that our wells are so full, that we know more than our lineage: eventually, we will no longer recognize the source of the water we are drinking, and if the well runs dry, we can’t get very far without water. These days, we also need to be more vigilant than ever about what’s going into our waters.

Now, let’s say we find some pollution in the water (for example, the accusations of sexual assault against Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, or any guru in any lineage for that matter) and we just want to distance ourselves as much as possible from feeling in any way complicit or connected with such violence, and yet we want to keep practicing what we’ve learned. This is totally understandable, but unfortunately, unworkable. We do not purify our wells by pretending that they are somehow separate from their ground source. We cannot really clean the water we drink by ignoring where it comes from and using our own filters. For the long run, we have to acknowledge the pollution at the source and work to clean it there as well as in the flow – if we want clean water, or a karmically clear practice, for ourselves and for others to continue drinking. 

The source of a lineage is always a living continuation from one person to another, a parampara, that leads back to the guru. Yes, perhaps the ultimate guru is the Om in every heart, but it manifest in often “imperfect” human forms. Every genuine teacher we learn from within a lineage leads back to the source and is part of our flow. If we don’t respect the flow, we don’t respect the source nor the need for flowing water.

Why is it important to sometimes make the teaching more “about” the other?

A teaching can only be given and received in proportion to how much attention and respect is shared between student and teacher. I think that this is probably true no matter what we are learning. Ashtanga Yoga is ultimately a sadhana, a spiritual practice, an organic, living, lineage of knowledge, skills, tools – wisdom – that has a unique healing power. It is a transformative learning process. As such, learning a sadhana, as far as I understand, is at some point about taking one’s fixation completely off of oneself and one’s story, and putting it instead into the sadhana – and thereby, towards the one who embodies the sadhana. Some teachers may embody it in its entirety, but often different teachers reveal different proportions of skills, knowledge, insights, and qualities of the sadhana that we want to learn. 

Respect is the way we approach this process, the way we shift our “fixation”, or the way we give our “attention”, with a healthy sense of balance. Disrespect is the way we try to bypass that balance and ultimately cheat ourselves of trusting our process – that we actually do have more to learn and to receive.

Learning and receiving is the sustainable way to continue teaching and giving. 

My first yoga teachers in NYC, Barbara & Kristin, would host many yoga workshops with visiting teachers/colleagues/friends from around the country and the world. Every time I was at a yoga workshop hosted by Barbara and Kristin, but taught by another teacher, the two of them would be in the room practicing or listening, pen and paper nearby, taking notes and exploring the teachings right alongside their students.

Respecting a teacher or a student doesn’t mean agreeing with them about everything. It means being open and curious about the truth they are expressing.

Sometimes there is a fine line between respect and disrespect. What might appear “irreverent” might feel more “reverent” in certain situations. I don’t think these things can always be understood by looking from the outside-in, because respect is not really something that can be codified in external gestures like “touching the feet” of the guru. Codified gestures without a genuine heart-intent can be more disrespectful than “disrespectful” gestures with a genuine heartfelt intent.

Respecting the teacher, and for that matter, respecting the student, does not mean disrespecting one’s own self. To the contrary, the more we respect ourselves, the more we can respect each other. Discerning respect in a relationship might appear differently at any moment in any relationship.

Personally, I am still learning this discernment and these distinctions, and it’s a great thing to be learning!

Thank you David Swenson for inspiring this reflection.

And then Sharath-ji called, “Samasthiti!”

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Sandi’s selfie with Sharath-ji after practice in NYC, 2019

 

Activism, Ahimsa, Ashtanga, Health & Wellness, Hinduism, India, Liberation, Media, Meditation, MeToo, Paradox, Satya, Sexual Health and Wellness, SexualHealing, Shastriya Sangeet, Social Justice, Sustainability, Tradition, Violence, Womens Wellness, Yoga

#MeToo Healing Part 2: Media, Truth & Non-Violence (Satya & Ahimsa)

This is a video from the Indian TV news after I was raped/sexually assaulted at the International Society for Krishna Consciousness guesthouse in Mumbai, India in 2009. I still do not know what the reporters are saying in this video but I can tell you for sure that the animated depiction of two men knocking on my door, and “me” opening the door to converse with them in my room, is totally false. The way I am depicted is in blatant disregard for the facts, as if a fantasy by the reporters is acceptable journalism. I never wore a crop-top at ISKCON. I wore long kurtas. Nobody knocked on my door at the guesthouse apart from the man from room service delivering tea to my room the night before the attack. After drinking that tea, I blacked out. I woke up semi-conscious in the dark hours of morning with a man already violently moving on top of me.

Sexual violence does not heal in private. It festers. The mediation of our #MeToo stories – and the public investment therein – is essential to the healing of sexual violence because sexual violence is a social epidemic that can only survive if it can promote itself as something “private”.  Assuming that we want to end the epidemic of sexual violence that plagues the planet today – and that on this battlefield we are fighting for a healthier future for all – we must acknowledge that the media has a great responsibility to bring such “private” matters to the “public” in a skillful way that both public and private can win, or heal, together. Skills are what we go to school to develop, along with knowledge. However, speaking from my personal and direct experience, the mediation of sexual violence has felt like an unskillful, losing battle. 

When the media lacks integrity, we all lose. There is no healing where there is no truth nor, at least, the intention of seeking the truth. In Ashtanga yoga philosophy, the value of ahimsa (non-violence/non-harming) is connected with that of satya (truthfulness). Ahimsa and satya go hand in hand such that we do not use the seeking nor telling of the truth in a way that could be harmful to another. Telling our truth requires as much conscious intent as does seeking to know our truth.

This seems like a conundrum, especially for victims of sexual violence. How can I speak my truth about the harm that another has caused me without causing them harm in return? Two concepts need to be clarified to answer this question. First, what is harm? Second, what is my relationship with the one who has harmed me and the one to whom I am speaking about this harm?

First, harm is that which hinders or injures the integrity of another. We harm ourselves when we harm others. If one has already injured their own integrity by acting in a harmful way towards themselves or another, then it is actually helpful and not harmful to articulate this loss of integrity. Only by accepting a loss can we accept a gain to restore it. A crime can only be brought to justice if it is acknowledged as a crime. Justice is the restoration of balance in the pursuit of an ethical relationship with each other.

Second, all relationships are non-dual. This means that our experience of harm is something that has arisen in relationship, in a connection between the parts of a whole, and therefore it can only be resolved through relationship – not in some isolated and disconnected idea about “self” or “other”.  We too often take the part for the whole.

Perhaps the best metaphor for non-duality is to look at our own bodies. If there is pain in the knee joint, then there is something that has gone awry in the relationship between the hip and the ankle. If the knee doesn’t say anything, the hip and the ankle joints may not accept the problem in their relationship, and the pain will only get worse. The knee must speak up for itself in order to correct alignment to prevent further pain. Should the knee fear harming the reputation of the hips by expressing the truth of its pain? Of course not. And our knees naturally have no hesitation. Similarly, we should not hesitate to speak up about the truth of our experience in fear of doing harm. Where the harm has already been done, the integrity has already been lost.

Keeping with our metaphor between the hips and the ankles, we may need to recruit new muscular assistance from our body in order to correct the alignment that is causing pain. This is akin to the role of the media. In reporting on sexual violence, the media should be employed to help correct the alignment that caused the violence. However, adjusting one’s alignment can go either way – properly to relieve the pain, or improperly to make it worse. If the media increases the tension in the joint by misreporting the violence, or by sensationalizing the experience of pain, the alignment is not going to improve and the pain is only going to get worse.

In my experience, the media’s reporting on sexual violence was harmful, even if it was helpful to bring attention to the problem.

I am grateful that the crime was of interest to the news, but it was re-traumatizing to see it so blatantly and rampantly mis-reported. Without any real investigation, the media ran the story like wildfire across TV, print, and online. Not only were the myriad reports rampant with errors, they were also sensational. Sensationalizing and dramatizing reports of sexual violence in the news can feed the same social hunger that drives these crimes to occur: the craving of sensation, the fear of fear, the need for power, the experience of powerlessness.

According to RAINN, an American is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds. Since reading this blog post, how many Americans do you think have been sexually assaulted?

I am an American citizen and I was the victim of sexual violence in India.  I wonder: did this crime ever get counted? If so, where? As a statistic in India or in the USA?

Where are such international crimes brought to justice?

Courage,

Sandi

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Activism, Ashtanga, Buddhism, Health & Wellness, India, Liberation, Meditation, MeToo, Paradox, Sexual Health and Wellness, SexualHealing, Shambhala, Social Justice, Sustainability, Tradition, Womens Wellness, Yoga

#MeToo Healing Part 1: Paradox

The true testament of any practice (spiritual, physical, mental, etc) is what life experiences it can help you to work through. What does it help you to move through, to get unstuck from? My yoga practice (particularly, Ashtanga Yoga – in synergy with other elements, which I will also discuss in future blog posts) has helped me to work through the experience of rape/sexual assault/violence, trauma, and PTSD.

Ashtanga yoga practice helps me to get unstuck. Getting unstuck doesn’t necessarily mean getting rid of something, like karma – though it could be interpreted that way. What I mean by getting unstuck is getting space between “you” and your “experience” or “story”. It means getting a greater sense of freedom to choose. It also means being present. This journey of unsticking, to put it lightly, is one that perhaps other survivors can relate to, despite all the differences in the details of our journeys.

The worldwide Ashtanga Yoga community is today reckoning with accusations of sexual assault against its beloved founder-guru Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (as are many other students with controversial gurus from many other yogic and spiritual traditions, such as in the Shambhala Buddhist community). This compels me to discuss my paradoxical experience at greater length.

The paradox that I and all people who share my scars must confront is: how can the founder of a yogic and spiritual tradition that has helped me to heal from sexual violence be himself a perpetrator of sexual violence? Can I still spiritually bow to him and his teachings with true respect? Can I carry on my practice without feeling confused or even complicit in some kind of contradictory value system, and thereby compromised in the healing process?

I tend to agree with the founder of the #MeToo movement, Tarana Burke, that we must speak out from wherever we are. It can be risky – but so is the alternative, to carry on as if nothing happened. We help to heal ourselves, each other, and our world by acknowledging and exposing pain while aligning this pain with the purpose of social justice and spiritual growth.

More in the next post.

Courage,

Sandi

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