Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Nearly-Wordless Wednesday

 Ice Storm

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Saturday, January 15, 2011

Civility is Just the Beginning

This past week following the shootings in Tucson and attempted assassination of a member of Congress, a great deal of commentary has been broadcast by the media calling for more civility in our discussions with one another. In my view, civility is just a first step. We need to strive for so much more than mere civility in our dealings with one another. 

We need to strive for kindness and treating each other with compassion. Violence is never justified, and the weapons used in violent attacks on one another are sometimes physical, but can also be verbal.

This week, my yoga studio posted Judith Lasater's four-sentence definition and description of "ahimsa," one of the niyamas, or daily practices, put forth in the yoga sutras: 

"Ahimsa, usually translated as 'nonviolence.' This refers not only to physical violence, but also to the violence of words or thoughts. What we think about ourselves or others can be as powerful as any physical attempt to harm. To practice ahimsa is to be constantly vigilant, to observe ourselves in interaction with others and to notice our thoughts and intentions."

The combination of the yamas, or ethical practices, and the niyamas form, according to Stephen Cope, author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, the "eternal religion, because they represent the core practices of most religious systems." 

Advocating for nonviolence in "thought, word and deed" is not unique to the practice of yoga, but should be a principle that all in a civilized society strive to live by.

Let us treat each other as we would like to be treated. Let us choose our words with kindness, always striving to do no harm when we act or speak. Let us practice ahimsa in all that we do, remembering that when we say to each other "Namaste," we are not just acknowledging, but bowing to, the core divinity within each person.  


Friday, January 7, 2011

The Courage to Teach

Yesterday, I began the apprenticeship portion of yoga teacher training by sitting in, along with several of my fellow teacher-trainees, on a beginner-level yoga class. I sat up along the wall, by the door, scribbling copious notes into my notebook, relieved that I had two fellow trainees to sit there with me. I took a lot of notes and tried to be inconspicuous and I was further relieved when the students in the class began, one by one, to close their eyes and turn inward to follow their own process. Very quickly it seemed that they forgot we were even there--which was just fine with me!

I had been quite nervous about apprenticing, counting down the days until we started, and the uneasiness surprised me very much. There have been a number of things about this training program that have generated a case of the jitters for me, but coming into a class of beginners to be introduced as one who was actually deliberating seeking to teach yoga really threw me for a loop. 

Why would this particular part of the training program be so nerve-wracking? I asked myself this question a number of times. After all, I was a teacher for over two decades (in one of my previous lives, and about a subject that is very different from yoga: chemistry!) so I can envision myself as a teacher. I assumed, at first, that the nervousness was about the usual sense of not being quite as athletically-accomplished as I used to think a yoga teacher must be.

This is part of it, and the thought of having to demonstrate a pose in front of a group can easily account for at least some of the fear. I also remember, though, that there was a great deal of fear involved in teaching chemistry--and not only for the students, many of whom are afraid of the subject, worried about their grades, fearful of the math they often felt they didn't understand, and on and on. Fear runs both ways in the classroom: teachers are often quite fearful and this fear can amplify the student's fears. 

I was no different than most teachers and always felt nervous and, yes, afraid on the first day of class. I never got over the first-day jitters when I was teaching chemistry, even though I was very confident about my knowledge of the material. Those first-day jitters became every-day jitters whenever I taught one of the large lecture courses. It's scary to walk to the front of a room filled with two, three or four hundred people, especially people who mostly don't want to be there and who sometimes see you as a barrier between themselves and where they want to be (like medical school!)

So, thinking about being a yoga teacher has reminded me of what it means to be a teacher, period, and I realize that I am continuing a process begun long ago when I first began exploring what Parker Palmer calls the "inner landscape of a teacher's life." This is a phrase from Parker's wonderful book The Courage to Teach, and I benefited greatly both from the book and from Parker himself as he led me and hundreds of other teachers through workshops and retreats designed to help us find the courage to teach and keep teaching.

Now, as I look through this book, which I have not opened for at least ten years, I see so many things that seem they might have at least a little to do with how a Chemistry professor could start in the lab and lecture hall and end up on a yoga mat. Parker says, "Teaching holds a mirror to the soul," and "Knowing myself is as crucial to good teaching as knowing my students and my subject." Ideas like these encouraged me to consider the possibility that knowing myself better, such as through the practice of yoga, was good not only for me but for my students. It's probably no accident that I began the study of yoga about the time I first encountered Parker and his ideas.

Parker's ideas were always quite unique among those I engaged with in academia and I was thrilled to recently learn that he is continuing his work at the Center for Courage and Renewal. The programs at the center are mostly aimed at classroom teachers for academic subjects, since there is so little support in the academy for the idea that "knowing oneself" can have anything to do with good teaching. Most yoga teachers would never question this truth, but until I opened up Parker's book this week, I had managed to suppress the memory that it was, and is, a completely foreign idea in most universities and colleges.

Parker writes a lot, and eloquently, about the academic bias that says "objective facts are regarded as pure, while subjective feelings are suspect and sullied." This is true in all academic subjects, but is nearly an article of faith in the physical sciences, which was my subject. As Parker has observed, in this type of culture, the self is not the source within but, somehow, dangerous and truth-obscuring. In this culture, subjective feelings are not a potential source of guidance but obstacles to be overcome. In this culture, the truth is "out there," while "in here" all we can hope to find are our muddled, confused thoughts--which, of course, we need a teacher to help us sort through.

So, I think I will read some more of Parker's book, remembering just how much courage it took to teach science for so many decades, and just how it was that I tried to stay true to the principle of "know thyself" that he taught to us--and, what a privilege it is going to be to be a teacher again.