“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.
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:
even the most advanced teachers are humble students
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!”