My knowledge of Chuck, like most, comes from those wonderful grainy Encinitas videos of Pattabhi Jois leading the now senior teachers through the Ashtanga series. In the videos, aside from his impressive and otherworldly postures, he appears as if deeply absorbed in the process of Yoga: intense, steady, the epitome of yogic concentration. Watching these videos to ready myself for what was to come, I made the mistake of assuming that we would be led through the practice much like he was led through the practice by Jois. I was preparing myself mentally for the ‘big’ postures, the supta kurmasanas and fancy lifts and jump throughs.
Instead, the intensity came from a different source. It came from the very root of this practice, it came from the first word, the first posture, and if practiced in the full vinyasic way, the very last posture: Samastithi.
On the first day of practice, we stood in samstithi for what felt like hours, while Chuck told us about the importance of this word, sama, and how it had risen to the top of his yogic chart, giving a directionality to all the postures, a place to move towards. He explained, as our legs began to burn and our shoulders involuntarily hunched up only to be pulled back down by his firm reminders of maintaining samastithi, that sama, same-ness, non-separateness is the goal; that yoga is the process of waking up to the realization of non-separation. That there is no separation between the feet and the earth that they press against; the earth gives back as much as we give her. We pressed our feet and grew taller; we swayed a bit, but returned to our core using the breath. Our fingertips grew heavy towards the earth. Our sacrum broadened. He placed a deity inside our bodies, her feet on our pelvic floor, her palms pressing against the inside of our breastbones. Our collective hearts expanded, and we grew roots that connected us to our core.
We stood in this way, or, we attempted to stand in this way as we moved through the postures of Surya Namaskara A. He applauded the ‘approach’ to samastithi, and challenged our conditioned bodyminds: ‘where are you driving from? so what if you get your face to your shins in uttanasana?’ He reminded us that we are here to raise our consciousness, to increase the prana, our life force; we weren’t there to reinforce the egoic habits of striving and comparing, of pushing and grasping.
In asana practice, we make sure that the container is strong enough to handle this increased engery flow, he reminded us; that asana practice is like pigeons pecking at crumbs on the sidewalk, it’s small stuff in the huge universe of yoga. He urged us to go toward that which is expansive and permanent, rather than the mundane. The tangible aspect of the postures drove his point home: mundane is striving to bring the heels down in downward facing dog, to let the ego run the show. We felt silly, some giggled knowingly, and we walked our feet back and surrendered to the difficult work of driving from our roots: the palms of our hands became the earth that aided the lengthening of our spines. We breathed deeper.
As we struggled to hold the far too difficult half-chuttarangas without collapsing our shoulders, he reminded us (warned us?) that practice alone does not make perfect. That practice makes permanent: the good and the bad. That there is nothing that we cannot do if we move slowly enough. As some of us resisted the urge to pull into up dog and straighten the arms out of habit, he implored us to use the mirror of yoga as we would use a literal mirror: to acknowledge what we see, and without judgment, correct it. ‘Take that piece of spinach out of your teeth, don’t just leave it there!’ The practice is strong enough to withstand scrutiny; take the time to polish it. Practice is not another thing you check on your list; it’s never done, there is no end...
The teacher intensive started earlier today. He told a small group of us that we could all go teach tricks and flips, and that our classes would be full; we could hand out fancy postures like candy to kids, and our students would love us for it. But, he urged us to teach authentically, and to teach a advanced classes with simple postures. To ask ourselves what drives us. To go into the roots of our own practice.
I cannot quite wrap my mind around how the past four days have altered me as a teacher and a student of this practice. It is incredibly simple, in some ways, boring even, as he jokingly said, once you see that all the postures are the same, sama, but simple does not mean easy.
I had to leave the intensive early today to rush over the hill to teach my class. On the way to the studio, Chuck’s words echoed in my mind: Samastithi is standing authentically. The class that I taught was a poor imitation, I’m sure, of what I’ve experienced and learned in the past few days. A child playing dress up. But imitation is how we learn until we integrate and assimilate the information. I slowed the sun salutations down, and implored my students to be patient, to use the practice to go deeper and polish their postures. In the beginning I felt scared, felt like they may be hating this, that they may be hating me, that they might never come back.
Then I breathed along with them, and let the fears go; we are all vulnerable in this practice, whether we realize it or not. Teaching in this way takes a whole lot of courage.