What makes a model student?

By on Mar 10, 2016 in The Unruly Ascetic

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Someone asked me a while back what makes a model student.  I provided an answer that got lost in the ether. I remember thinking that since it didn’t show up in the publication it was requested for, I must have been to harsh or dictatorial.  I can be unintentionally difficult or abrasive at times and assumed that was the case with this piece.

The topic came up again recently and I was interested in touching base with the answer I gave a few months ago and I think it must have fallen through the cracks because I didn’t cringe and hate my big mouth when I read it.

So here’s my answer:

Oh Good Lord Ganesha. This question scares me just looking at it.

The answer to this question will be intensely personal for any teacher who addresses it.  We are all human and as a result we have quirks and foibles that will annoy one person and endear another. I am sure that my answer could be read by other teachers who would immediately be reminded of why they don’t like me.

But hey, not everyone dislikes my mode of communication (dubbed “psuedo spiritual pop psychology” by one peer who did not succeed in insulting me. ha! jokes on you, I think that sounds cool!) so I’ll answer as it applies to me as a student and a teacher.

I used to have raging anxiety over the need to be a good student.  I was told for a couple of years by an ex boyfriend with aspiration of Gurudom that I was a terrible student and that I had to be someone I’m not in order to be “truly dedicated” to Yoga. Whether or not you’re coming from that kind of mind fuvk, most of us go through a phase of wondering what we could be doing better, how we could get more results and make the people we love (namely, our teachers and practice companions) like and respect us more.

The obvious answers are:

Practice every day that you are supposed to.

Defer to your teacher’s authority (have a teacher! I’m taking that for granted).

Don’t be an attention seeking narcissist.

I think that list is pretty thorough, but I’ll elucidate a few points that make it specific.

It really is important to practice every day (that we are scheduled to).  This is often interpreted to mean ‘get on your mat and destroy yourself, body-mind-soul, and offer your suffering up to your teacher to judge as worthy or unworthy.’  Maybe my tone gives me away, but I don’t really vibe with this extremist idea.  Our senior Guruji (who I can’t help but think of as Grandpaji because the current boss is my Guru and his Grandpa is this other worldly ideal that I can’t quite grasp, despite having met him in his later years) told someone or another as some point that surya namaskar A and the final bind-breath-lift up constitutes practice. I take that to heart.

When I am being a model student I show up on my mat every day and I do a practice.  Sometimes there isn’t time for the whole damned miserable series of torturous shapes.  Sometimes there isn’t energy.  Sometimes there isn’t the heart it takes to drag myself through.  The request I make of my students (and importantly, of myself) is that I don’t decide that there isn’t energy or effort available ahead of time.  Many times my practice has reminded me that my body is a pathological liar and my mind is a lazy trickster.  It is not possible to know what is possible before effort is applied.  A model student will apply the effort and observe the results and cater appropriately to the information the practice provides.

This work becomes much easier when I have a teacher around who I trust (and kind of obsessively love).  Being motivated to try for the sake of living up to another person’s example will get an amazing amount of stuff done.  Deferring to a teacher means that you will at least try to do the basics of showing up on time, being consistent, and behaving humbly.  The practice is all about helping us admit what we don’t know and even what we don’t know we don’t know.  The teacher is the person we practice acknowledging our lack to.  It can be really hard to admit to ourselves that we are lacking in something, but having a teacher you desperately want to be honest and vulnerable with will facilitate that work in amazingly effective ways.  They will help us double check the moments when we think failure is imminent and show us that we have more potential than we believe.  In the early years of practice we frequently feel like they are holding us back from that potential but in reality this ego destroying work is the only path to real progress.

Lastly, to my mind, the practice is about learning that we are not special.  We are not exceptionally unique beings who have some sort of ingrained right to an ecstatically individual experience.  We are all part of a mundane repetitive existence that the practice offers clarity on.  The clarity can come from the realization that we share in the mental and emotional processing that the shapes of the asana require.  It happens for each of us is different places, with different struggles.  I learned a hell of a lot more from Supta Kurmasana than I did from Karandavasana, but I would bet my authorization that someone out there thinks that the intermediate arm balance constitutes better Yoga.  Wanting more for the sake of saying you do it is working in the wrong direction.  An ideal student will seek out the lesson in the work the practice presents and the lessons the teacher prioritizes. It doesn’t always give us progress that we can prove to the world on instagram, but crushing of the ego and fighting down the need to be unique (read: separate from everything else) is a pretty clearly stated goal of Yoga.

I know for a fact that not everyone agrees with me on these terms.  I know some well respected teachers who prefer students to learn from strict deference (the kind that is humbling from a lack of information and the trust it requires).  I know some teachers who prefer their students to be empowered by taking on more than they can chew and mulling it out through the individual suffering that comes from working without strict guidelines.  The point is, there is no right answer.  I will fight like a cornered opossum if someone tries to say that Sharath is ‘wrong’ just as old guard teachers will vehemently defend traditions as the younger generation alters or discards them. I don’t think either of us are wrong.  A different teacher will communicate the work of the practice in a different way, so their model student will come to them with a very specific set of qualifications and interests.

For me, my pseudo spiritual pop psychological approach relishes in students who constantly ask themselves about their own experience (and ask me about it too! I do enjoy a good dialogue).  The shapes are secondary to the information that comes from our reactions to the work in the heart and the mind. Students who are trusting an isolated interest in asana should seek out another teacher, no hard feelings.  A model student corresponds with a model teacher.  Our desire to categorize ourselves and have a correct and incorrect method beyond “do your practice and have one teacher” Sharath easily dismisses with a shake of the head, reminding us not to get distracted by our western minds.