Over the 4th of July weekend, I sat down with my partner, Dr. Tanja Bisesi, to ask her the “essential” questions. Tanja helms our Integration, Reflective Practices and Yoga Lifestyle module in the 200 and 300 hour yoga teacher training programs, and while my chocolate labrador snoozed in the next room, we discussed everything from love to theoretical physics. Check it out!
CS: Tanja, think about a teacher you enjoy taking classes with; what is their teaching like, and how does it inform your personal practice?
TB: I guess right now I’m in a place where I’m sort of searching for a new teacher. You know we go through those places where we’re really connected to somebody, and then go through places where we’re changing enough that we’re always searching and seeking something new. But I would have to say the person I keep coming back to, and have come back to for many years, is Diane Thayer. She started the program at the Y [in Bloomington, IN] in the mid-70’s, pretty much all by herself, when nobody really knew much about yoga, and she’s the one who encouraged me to teach. She was sort of my first not only teacher, but mentor. She trained me. The thing about Diane that sticks with me, and why I keep going back to her, and will continue to, is that there’s always a freshness, a curiosity, that beginner’s mind. She’s really able to keep that freshness, herself, and then also open it up to you. She’s been teaching for around 40 years, but it’s always new, and it’s always focused on the student and the student’s experience. She came up in the Iyengar tradition, and there’s always focus on alignment and what’s safe and what’s not, but it really ultimately is about this freshness, these new eyes, this new way of looking at your practice and your life. Trying to get new insights. She keeps opening new horizons in very subtle ways, and she keeps learning. She is always going to classes of those she’s trained, and she has her own mentors. She provides a good model of continuing to grow and learn.
CS: Is that what you take most from her in terms of your own approach to teaching? That openness?
TB: Oh yeah, definitely. And I think that’s what always attracted me, because I’ve always felt very resistant to lineages and traditions. There’s this rebel in me, that’s like yeah, that’s interesting and I want to know about it, but I want it to be my own–I want to make it my own. She shows you how to do that in terms of taking concepts and saying this is how I use these concepts in my practice and in my life.
CS: How would you define yoga, and what role would you say that yoga plays in your life?
TB: Yoga is a moving target, both as a practice in our culture as well as for me. I think it has been many things for me over the years. If I had to define what it is for me right now, I would say it is an approach to life, or a lens to self-knowledge. A set of beliefs and practices that frame how I look at the world and how I move in the world, and how I go about getting information about who I am, what I want, and who I’m becoming.
CS: Can you give an example? I think what people think about when you say “yoga” is the practice on the mat. What I’m hearing from you is that it’s not just that. Can you say more about that?
TB: Oh, definitely. You know, when I first started yoga, it WAS the practice on the mat, but what I love about it is that it has become a way of life for me. It has become my spiritual center, a paradigm, a worldview, a way of looking at the world and interacting with it. It goes well beyond what I practice on the mat. Absolutely. Matter of fact, that way-of-life part is the part that’s more important for me right now.
CS: So that pretty much covers the role that yoga plays in your life right now…it is everything.
TB: YES! It’s like anyone who identifies with any spiritual or lifestyle practice–Christianity being one example–it becomes a lens for looking at the world and making sense of it, and making choices and decisions. At a conceptual level, what it is…we talk about being after peace or a sense of calm. It’s love. Unconditional love–for the self, for the world, for the universe. Practicing that love in every possible way, in every decision you make in life, and being very conscious about that. It’s a practice.
CS: That mindfulness piece becomes both essential and difficult in that practice of love.
TB: Yes, but it is the gift. It’s hard, but ultimately the biggest gift of this practice is that ability to just accept and be and acknowledge yourself and everyone around you for their uniqueness and what they contribute. It gives a hope for what we can all do together. If we all have a role to play and we’re all accepting each other and helping each other grow, to me that’s what yoga’s about.
CS: We have those moments or brief glimpses of connectedness, and it gives that hope, that sense that we are all in this together, and in fact, we’re not even we.
TB: Right, we’re one. I think that’s the part I sometimes get lost in when I go to classes now is that there seems to be this feeling of a need to go inside and almost escape what’s out there because it feels almost toxic–the “out there” in the world. But ultimately what gives us that sense of unconditional love and safety is the feeling of connectedness, whether it’s to other people, or to the universe, or to something beyond. That’s really where this sense of groundedness and safety and love comes from. From the one.
CS: Describe your initial experience with yoga, and, if you would be willing, describe the first time you experienced that “oneness”.
TB: The very first time I felt that one-ness, I was 9 or 10 years old. I had a lot communion with my grandmother. She was a real spiritual seeker, and she gave me that model. I didn’t have a strong sort of religious grounding or centering in my life, but my grandmother was always looking across religions for these commonalities and themes. I would sit and talk to her all the time. That’s where I started with yoga, because it was always one of the themes and strands in our discussions. I would go and visit her in the summers for a couple or three weeks, and every morning we would watch “Lilias, Yoga and You” on PBS. Six thirty in the morning she would be out there practicing. I was fascinated by the postural stuff I saw, plus these conversations we had. Being there with her, it was very peaceful. I didn’t have the drama of my life, the drama of my teenage friends. So that first moment of oneness for me, was being with her.
And you know I did yoga a lot because it was a big part of dance culture, and I’ve been a dancer most of my life. The physical part became a bigger piece in my adolescence, but I always went back to the meditative piece because I was a highly anxious kid, and I needed to keep that in my life.
Then I went into the academic world and I dropped it. I developed totally my intellectual mind for a long time, and then later, I had kids and was in my mid thirties. My body was not well. I hadn’t taken care of myself, and my mind felt totally disconnected. I saw a meditation class at my local Unitarian church, and I went and I was just amazed at how I could go into a group with people I didn’t really know and just sit quietly for 20 or 30 minutes at a time. We would take breaks and chat and then go back into it. I was amazed how connected and grounded I could feel by just sitting with other people–that feeling of acceptance, no expectations from the people around me. Just being together. That sucked me back in and got me reconnected. The rest is history. That’s the feeling. That feeling of unconditional love and groundedness and peace. I’ve only really ever experienced it at that level in the presence of others. In community. I think that’s why the community aspect is so important to me.
CS: So, that leads us into one of your focuses as an academic and an educator: this idea of a community of practice. Can you talk a little bit more about that? Was it from that moment of connectedness, sitting in that first meditation class that that seed was planted?
TB: Yes. It is the way I teach and have always taught. I have always been a teacher; I was always tutoring kids, growing up. There’s always been this drive in me to help others see their value, and help them to bring it out. When I see that , I feel it. It becomes us. I feel that one-ness, that us-ness. That’s why having kids was such a beautiful thing. You see these beings who are totally dependent on you, and there’s the constant reflection back and forth. I can’t separate that sense of spirit or mystery with who I am as a teacher and why I teach the way I do. I think teaching in an authoritarian way–someone being the knower–that’s not how knowledge is generated. I think it’s a creative process between people, and in that experience both parties, the whole community is able to learn and grow. The authoritarian model is the anti-community model of learning. In that model there’s no honoring of what the student already knows and could bring to the experience, and how the student could enhance the experience for everyone in the room.
CS: Has it been only in yoga that you’ve found that community style of education, or have you experienced it elsewhere as well?
TB: It’s everywhere. This idea of social learning and the idea that there’s this cycle of knowledge as a cultural practice –we take it in, we appropriate it, we transform it, and then we publish it in the world in some way. And then it slowly starts to transform the conventional knowledge. Lineages over time evolve whole cultures of learning, in this case, yoga and what we believe about it and think about it. That process of how we learn as human beings applies across all contexts.
CS: I’m curious about what your take is on the idea of cultural appropriation in the yoga world and the yoga community.
TB: That’s tricky. That’s a great question. I think that the old cliché is somewhat true: imitation is the highest form of flattery. And because of the way we learn and process, there is no such thing as “new knowledge”. We’re always appropriating. That’s part of the process. Where I have a problem is when we don’t acknowledge the gifts and where we got them. It’s always a conversation. While we may not always know the source of our inspiration, we must at least acknowledge. I think it’s naive to think we’ll never appropriate anything, because that’s how knowledge works.
CS: And it goes both ways.
TB: It absolutely does, and we give it back to culture, and that’s how the culture evolves. So I think people’s desire to go back and be just like such and such lineage in India…well that lineage in india isn’t like that anymore anyway, but going back and respecting what it was and the fact that the culture was different and what it was like and understanding it from a historical perspective can tell us a lot about how those concepts are relevant now. Or how they’re not. And it also honors. It’s important to honor.
CS: I think you’re such a renaissance woman, in the sense that your interests and your knowledge-base are so broad. If I made you pin yourself down, what would you say that your focus has been over the last few years?
TB: I’m really interested in ways of knowing, ways of understanding. I think one reason I got out of academia, not just because of the politics and the drama–the obvious things that make it difficult when you’re raising kids and being a woman in this culture. One reason is that I felt limited. I love science and the fact that there are rules, and it’s objective, and there’s reason involved. But what bothered me was that alternative ways of knowing were excluded. The rules and reason and what we can see together were privileged. But here’s the rub, as a psychologist, the internal experience, what we know, we can’t see in that way, the scientific reasoning way. The only way we can see the inner experience is to use our inner experience. This has been a conflict in psychology: do we use introspective methods? Or do we only use what we can look at outside together. So I’m very interested in how we can respect multiple ways of knowing, and then how do we bring those together in a way that enhances our self-knowledge and enhances our practice on the mat, and our experience in the world. I can know by faith, and intuition, and science. How do I balance these ways of knowing at any given time? And how do I integrate them in a way that makes me feel a sense of aliveness?
CS: I think that’s one of the things we’re after–that aliveness, that presence.
TB: Yes! And it expands that lens.
CS: I’m thinking of my dad right now, who’s also a psychologist. He and I had a conversation a couple weeks ago about faith, which really I think comes down to these ways of knowing, because for me, and I think maybe you would agree, it’s just there. It’s in me; I feel it; I just know.
TB: It’s your ground!
CS: Yes, and for him, he not only does not believe that, but to a certain extent, rejects it. And he holds fast to that logic and the things we can see and quantify and measure. How would you approach a student like that?
TB : I have lots of students like that.
CS: And not that we want or need to convert them…that’s not the point.
TB: No no, not at all. That’s something that I struggle with–in a good way. I think that’s why I’m so interested right now in theoretical physics, and the Akashic Field Theory and String Theory. This research brings some of these bigger ideas that we FEEL and makes them concrete for people. So explaining for instance the Akashic Field, which Vivekananda wrote about at the end of the 19th century when he came over to the United States. Now it’s been taken up by some theoretical physicists as this Field that underlies the whole universe, and we’re just these sort of ripples–ripples in the field of these manifestations. So our physical bodies are just physical manifestations out of this field. Finding effective ways to fit that into the practice…I’m not sure I’ve been completely successful at that yet, but I think those are the ways people will start to feel more grounding to their beliefs, to that connectedness. The physical knowing is confirmed by the faith-knowing. It’s all sort of the same knowing. It’s just different evidence, different ways of judging. More evidence and opening to more ways of knowing. And that’s not easy.
That’s why the teacher part is so important. I don’t think going in there and taking people through a series of poses is where it is. This cosmic, bigger mystery is just one of the ways of knowing.
We think of mindfulness as being this anchor and this key–we’re in the present, in the now, that’s all we have. We hear that all the time. But our mind, like our body, is meant to move, so there must be some power in it there. So while we anchor in the present, we can explore going back, reflecting on the past, reframing it, making sense of it now. We can go to the future, imagine what could be, use manifestations and affirmations. And even taking photographs of our thinking now, maybe in the form of a journal, so we can go back and look at how we thought about the world at that moment. We can be in the present, we can expand it to include the past and the future, we can expand it to include all of humanity, all of the cosmos. Different lenses on our own mindfulness and reflection. That’s the power of the mind. Yoga needs to expand and understand the mind in new ways that go beyond “can we train it and control it.” Our mind is so powerful, and as long as we keep it connected to the fact that we are living in this body in this time, the power comes from using it in different ways to open our field, to clear our lens, to see wider vistas.
CS: You know, I’m thinking of Patanjali, and the beginning of the sutras: “yoga is the stilling of the revolutions of the mind.” Something I think about often, is that the Sutras is just one piece of literature that survived. For whatever reason, probably because Patanjali was a gifted marketer, it’s the thing that survived. And it is kind of the one that is latched onto by most practices, most schools as THE yoga text, but it’s not at all the only yoga text. At any point in time, there are people writing about their experiences, about their practice, and about their lives, but because of the way literature works, and because of the way history works, it just doesn’t make it to us here in the present.
TB: And I think we latch onto that one because of the ways of knowing that are privileged in our society. The Yoga Sutras are a very scientific, external, almost formulaic text. Science is that way, it has nice neat rules, so we can all compare our work. There are reasons for the rules, but some people have taken that really literally. A lot of yoga I see being done now has gone so far down the hatha path. The physical practice has become all-important. But in this sort of mental way, we’ve taken that text and interpreted it to mean that all we have is the present, and we need to just shut the mind up.
CS: And if it doesn’t shut up, then I’m broken.
TB: Right, or I’m not doing it right. And harnessing that power of our mind, that’s how we’re different than, bless her heart, your puppy laying there in the next room. But the mind needs practice at it. It needs practice putting itself in different mindsets, imagining what it’s like to be the dog. That’s how we expand our consciousness, or help clean the lens to see how god-like we are. To see what God would see, which is, what it looks like from the dog’s eyes, what it looks like from this table’s eyes, what it looks like from your eyes. So I guess when I say multiple ways of knowing and multiple lenses, that’s what the mind needs to expand, but always grounded in the body and in the present moment.
CS: And science is beginning to catch up to this.
TB: Science wants to reduce everything to its pieces, but it’s always emergent. Just like you and me, our knowledge emerges from our experiences, and it’s the same here. It emerges from that internal knowing.
I do wonder sometimes if we’re not born with that internal knowing.
CS: Do you think it goes the other way as well–that some people are born without it, or that it’s not as strong?
TB: Sure, I think we all come into the world with strengths and weaknesses, and with things we have to learn. I think that knowing can probably emerge and develop through interactions. I have to have faith that that’s possible. We all have the potential to let go of those samskaras, those things we’ve come into the world with. Maybe that belief is why I have the desire as a teacher to help people feel that. To be able to reflect it for someone and have them say, “Oh yes, I sense that I have this deep ground of being that I can always fall back on.”
CS: Would you say that that is “the essence of yoga,” that ground of being?
TB: Oh yeah, I would. I said love at the beginning, but it is also that ground. They are the same. It’s the sense that I know there’s something there holding me. I know that. No matter what I do. No matter what our politicians do. I think it is that sense of faith-knowing. That is the essence.
CS: Is there anything else that you would like us or our students or the world at large to know about you, about your practice, about your teaching, or about the world?
TB: I want people to know that things are always changing. I’m going through a period of time right now where I feel less like I know things. I’m going through a period where I’m confused, and not knowing, and that’s hard for somebody for whom being competent and knowing a lot is so important. I would really encourage students and practitioners and teachers to know that the not-knowing is ok. That that’s honestly where the juice is. Talking and rambling like I’m doing right now is a huge way to try to figure things out. That’s what we’re all here for. Those periods of not-knowing just spur you to grow. Don’t be afraid of them.
CS: There’s that story of the kidnapped selkie woman whose son, stumbling around in the dark, finds his mother’s lost seal-skin. That metaphor that we have to stumble around in the dark, in the not-knowing, to find our true treasure.
TB: Yes, challenge is the only way to growth. You know, if we lived in “perfect” we would just be all sitting still and not growing. Getting on the mat and wanting this escape is problematic. Feeling like you can’t go beyond those “good-feelings” because it’s hard is problematic. It’s the challenge and the feeling that it’s hard that brings growth. As long as we care for ourselves and continue to restore when we need it, it is those moments of challenge, of hard-ness, of not-knowing that show us what we’re made of. And yoga is one way to challenge ourselves.
CS: We think of the word “yoga” which means union or yoking–it’s challenging to be yoked to something, or to someone.
TB: Ha, is it ever. Because it requires integration and strength.
CS: Oh yeah–those ox pulling the cart.
TB: Yes, the push-pull. The opposite energies and the continuum in between, but staying in balance at the center. Finding that center. In the present moment, in this body, in this time so that we feel safe to explore other lenses. That is the practice.
Post by Cara Sparkman; edited for clarity and content.