Meandering into Meeting My Teachers
One of my teachers was born into a family lineage. His father is his guru. And his father’s father before him. His father is also his inspiration, his devotion, and thus he knew there was a path already prepared for him. When in his presence, the loyalty he expresses toward his tradition and his family pierces my heart.
Deobrat Mishra is an 11th generation musician and a master of the sitar. While his travels to the West to perform certainly mingle back into and influence his music, his deeper loyalty remains to the tradition into which he was born. This tradition is so majestic, ancient and infinite that the depths to which he can dive and the heights to which he can soar continue, even after 30 years. Deobrat recognizes the foundation on which his own creativity and musical luminosity rely.
We’ve inherited yoga from the East. It is an immense tradition. Those of us teaching here in the West are proportionally like a finger pointing at the moon. We sometimes forget our actual size. We are the finger pointing; the distance between here and the moon is the tradition. The moon, knowing its radiance is only a reflection from the sun, shines back at us with humility (hri hi). While our Western conditioning suggesting that our lives are primarily about us, we risk forgetting how already immense and majestic the tradition of yoga is. We may be tempted into the perspective that our teachings are “ours” and that they are somehow about us.
My own sense of smallness in the immensity of what yoga is also pierces my heart. Even after decades of teaching, I have the “goose bumps” response when I sing and feel my teachers, when I meditate and feel my teachers, when I practice pranayama and feel my teachers; and, in each case, my teachers’ teachers. When I offer my gratitude to my teachers, especially when doing so with students who have just practiced with me, I experience a palpable “dropping away” of that in me which thinks It is teaching; and an embodied remembrance of That which is teaching through me.
My Early Beginnings
When I was first teaching “yoga”, in 1992, I was an art therapy resident at a home for people living with chronic and persistent mental illness. Arriving one morning for my shift at the home, I was asked to lead the morning exercise program. Not being a person who could say no, I improvised. Though I had no formal training and no sense of a path laid out before me, I meandered my way through what I thought could help the residents (and me!).
A few years prior, that which is now called yoga had saved my life. I only knew it as stretching, breathing, and meditating. Though I practiced a kind of intuitive movement and stretching routine followed by a period of dedicated time sitting upright on a purple cushion, I would not have ventured to call it yoga. I was not connected to any sort of tradition. I didn’t know anyone else who was moving their body in this way. I was fumbling along with humble intentions and a desire to feel less isolated myself. This seemed like it could be helpful to the residents at the home.
With no real public yoga scene (even though I went to school in Harvard Square and lived nearby), I had no formal way to take a class, nor to find a teacher. What was available to me, 3-hours away, was the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA. I attended several 10-day silent retreats there over a period of a couple of years. (I was a grateful recipient of their scholarship and dana programs, without which I would not have had the capacity to attend.)
Here, I discovered Western teachers (Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, Catherine Ingram, and more) whose life journeys had already taken them deeply enough into the Vipassana tradition that they, together, founded IMS. These people sat quietly upright, walked with elegance, had radiant smiles, seemed perpetually tranquil, and spoke in luminous, poetic terms about how our minds could be freed from suffering. This I needed to hear.
Yet, still, I didn’t have a felt sense of connection to a specific tradition or lineage. Meditation caused me to feel that I was part of something much larger than my own life, but it wasn’t tied to a specific lineage. I had no “awakened master” to which I offered my prostrations. At the time, such a concept may have turned me away from these endeavors. My Western conditioning had taught me to make My efforts, to live My life, to become My better self. (And, unlike Deobrat Mishra, my parents were not my formal teachers, and I did not have a formal path to walk.)
In 1992, my meandering life adventures led me to living on Orcas Island at Doe Bay Retreat Center. Looking out over the morning ocean while setting up the café for breakfast, the two cooks, both disheveled and roughened from lives of their own (each reminded me of the musicians in the Muppet Band), would play the same music each morning.
A tamboura, a tabla, slowly a bansuri flute.
I knew I would not be moving back to the East coast (this concerned rather than delighted my parents).
I was compelled to stay a while longer on this island, magnetically pulled by this early morning magical music and the awakening of life over the ocean.
My Blossoming Moment
A year later I would be living and working at Breitenbush Hot Springs (this more deeply concerned my parents!). Listening to raga singing on the cassette player in the kitchen while preparing breakfast for 200 guests, I felt this pulse again. I was a part of something much larger than my own life. Turning sunshine into fruit trays for the breakfast offering, I remembered Thich Nhat Hanh telling us that in every bit of apple was the sunshine, soil, and rain from which this gift was grown. Feeling his teachings in my fingers, my heart was humbled.
As my not-formally-guided practices continued (without a formal teacher at Breitenbush, I relied on Nature; and with a life that had meandered to and fro, my formal times to date where only during the retreats that I had sat at IMS), a group of teachers arrived at Breitenbush one summer for a week. Ram Dass, whom I had heard of when living near Harvard Square and whose teachings on love in action would become a second catalyst for me to teach yoga; Jai Laksman, whose singing would cause a shock of recognition; and Catherine Ingram, whose dharma sessions would further pierce my heart, I experienced the awakening that prompted me toward two things: to teach yoga in prison and to more formally dedicate my life to serve the traditions that had saved and transformed my life. With these teachers, I came to recognize that these traditions were, in fact, infusing my life.
I welcomed my sense of smallness now, in the immense ocean of that to which my teachers’ lives connected me: grace, consciousness, service, and love. Upon leaving Breitenbush to go teach yoga in prison, I meandered through some obstacles on the way to meet my next community of teachers: the residents of an Oregon State Prison.
What happens from here will be in my next blog.
In the meantime, if teaching intrigues you or if meandering (thoughtfully) through India and meeting my teachers calls to you, please let us know!