the mind of a student

By on Sep 11, 2014 in The Unruly Ascetic

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The mind of a student is an exceptional thing.

Anyone who finds themselves regularly taking on the role of a teacher (or information provider) knows that students don’t always know how to learn. Sometimes they know too much of the wrong thing, sometimes they don’t want to admit what they don’t know, and sometimes they simply don’t know that they don’t know.

But sometimes you’ll get one (or a few) of those wonderful students who know that they don’t know. They come into the room looking for newness and inspiration, happy and willing to make space in their mind for new information.

I recently spent a few months teaching in a Mysore program run at one of America’s most prominent universities. As you might imagine, the participants in this program were university students, professors, and medical professionals, some of the most gifted minds you could hope you come across. As anyone with an established Mysore practice knows, it’s a lot of work for your mind. Not only are we required to remember a complex series of postures, but we have to confront the mind’s reactions to the same (or worse, different!) successes and failures each day.

The practice teaches us, often slowly, that we cannot expect immediate results anywhere in life. If we want to accomplish something we must put effort towards it with steadiness and compassion. For many new students the traditional approach to Ashtanga yoga feels painfully slow. They would rather take a guided class and stretch and twist and lift themselves to oblivion, never really doing it right, but never really confronting doing it wrong. The feeling of success that comes from a lot of arduous work (whether done correctly or incorrectly) is satisfying. (Un)fortunately, taking on the practice in a Mysore setting requires us to accept, from the very beginning, that this is going to take time. Our success or failure is not determined by how much we sweat or how long our practice takes, but rather how closely we look at ourselves and our expectations.

So when I began teaching these academics, these intellectuals, I expected that they would be impatient. Maybe they’d expect to be good at it because they have gifted minds and perceive themselves to be exceptional. Maybe they would take criticism badly or expect to be moved on quickly. Maybe they’d back talk because they’re used to arguing their points and having their opinions considered.

Boy was I wrong.

All of the things I mentally prepared myself for (all of the things that I feared would make them ‘bad’ students) made them, collectively, the most gifted group I’ve ever taught.

They would arrive each day ready to surrender.

To surrender to me as their teacher and guide, to surrender to the struggle and success or failure of their mental and physical work. They came onto their mats knowing, truly grokking, that this takes time. The role they already play in the greater community of the university trained them to know that they don’t know. They are curious and eager, supportive of one another and patient with themselves.

Most importantly, these intellectuals have never let go of the childhood awareness that you have to keep working toward what you want. You don’t have to stop growing and settle in, as so many find themselves doing. After highschool or college, after getting that dream job or getting married, each person has the option to stop expecting more, to stop working toward goals and just settle into what is. Even worse, sometimes people distance themselves so much from the slow, methodical process of daily schooling that they begin to think that results can somehow come instantaneously, that a lack of results in their own life is ‘bad luck’ or some else’s fault for not presenting or facilitating an opportunity.

In avoidance of this mental attitude, we can seek out new projects and activities that keep us inspired and proactive toward new goals. Ashtanga yoga is a method of yoga practice that focuses largely on the long term. The practice is about surrender to the time and steady commitment that the system requires. 99% practice, 1% theory. Try, and try again.
For those of us who came to Ashtanga as immediate-gratification-approval-seeking-adults, this is a hard lesson. But for these new practitioners, their whole lives are dedicated to being a student or being a teacher. They understand, inherently, that results require patience and perseverance. They require steadiness, hard work, and compassion.
I am awed and humbled by these people who so easily embrace the open surrender to teacher and practice that even some of the most physically advanced students struggle with. The genuine love and support they cultivate for one another, encouraging and (lovingly) berating each other as appropriate, has created one of the most inspiring communities I’ve found outside of Gokulam.