Knowing and Not-knowing – Interview with The Essence of Yoga Center partner Tanja Bisesi

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.

You’re unique–shouldn’t your yoga be?

Yoga has a dirty secret: it’s not perfect, it’s not a panacea, and it’s not one-size fits all.

When I began a regular yoga practice over a decade ago, I was amazed at the benefits–my body felt better, my mind clearer, my heart lighter. I wanted to share this practice with EVERYONE. But when I began to try teaching to obliging family and friends, it immediately became clear to me that a few of my favorite poses just weren’t accessible to everyone. Not only that, but I began to feel the niggling sense that something was missing. Luckily, in 2011 I began yoga teacher training with our lead-trainer, Amanda McMaine.

Amanda has spent decades as a dancer, a trained kinesiologist, an Iyengar yogi, a Level III Yoga Nidra teacher, a practitioner of Body-Mind Centering, Alexander Technique, tai chi, and qi gong, a hiker, climber, swimmer and hula-hooper. In my years of study with Amanda and a community of like-minded practitioners, I’ve been able to cultivate the understanding that body and mind are meant to MOVE, and thrive on variability of demand. We can’t practice the same 26 (or 30…or 50) postures every day or week and expect to avoid injury, much less to flourish. While yoga certainly offers some diversity of movement, it doesn’t offer everything – for the body OR the mind.

Our  yoga teacher trainers come from diverse backgrounds, both in life and in yoga. We believe being open to exploring the breadth of styles and knowledge that the yoga tradition has to offer, while learning the kinesiology and safe practice of asana, AND being open to experiencing other modalities, allows us to teach the yoga we want to teach. 

Check out this article from Yoga International on Cross-Training. What are your thoughts?

And enroll today if you’re ready to begin your exploration into all that yoga has to offer, without limiting yourself to that rectangular yoga mat! You’re unique–shouldn’t your yoga be?

Post by Cara Sparkman

Why do we practice?

Most of us come to yoga as a way to help ourselves–to relieve pain, to breathe, to feel the body moving, to still the mind. And it works! Evidence based research is beginning to catch up to what we feel in our bones: that yoga just flat-out works. Studies have shown that yoga does, in fact, relieve pain, that it improves the quality of the breath, that it enhances overall physical health, and that it helps relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression. We feel more connected. More bright. More free.

So we go along doing yoga for ourselves, and then one day, we realize that the benefits of our yoga reach into our jobs and our relationships. We feel ourselves getting angry about so-and-so, and we pause. We take a step back. We make a different choice. We share our light.

And finally, one day, we reach the conclusion that when we get on our mat, we’re doing it for the world. The time we spend on that two by six piece of sticky mat creates ripples that reach out into our local, and even global community. We don’t always know how our down dog will affect someone else, but we know somehow it will. So when we begin to feel the dark divisiveness of the 24-hour news-cycle, we step onto our mats, we practice, and we SHINE.

Here at The Essence of Yoga Center, our vision is the ‘higher purpose’ of evolving the consciousness of the planet, one student at a time, starting with ourselves.  We want to set new standards for yoga practice and teacher training that combine modern, evidenced-based, scientific research and reflective methodologies with ancient philosophy, and mindful, spiritual practices. Interested in learning more about our 200 and 300 hour Yoga Immersion and Teacher Training Programs? Contact us!

Yowza!

Our lead trainer, Amanda McMaine, has been hard at work transforming her studio into a supportive environment for our Community of Practice. Check out these gorgeous photos!

Sneak peek!

We’ve been continuing to work hard to refine our offerings for our 200 and 300 hour Yoga Immersion Teacher Training Programs. Whether you’re already enrolled, or still thinking about enrolling, but looking for a bit more information, check out the coursework descriptions for the first weekend of the 200 hour Yoga Immersion Program!

Saturday October 21

9:00am-1:00pm & 3:30-6:00pm

Breath and Posture:  Growing into greater harmony

  • Amanda McMaine, MS, E-RYT 500 YACEP Lead Teacher

Description:  What is optimal posture and how does it affect our future? Learn a safe way to practice yoga through the study of anatomy and kinesiology and refinement of basic postural poses.  Understand how to create optimal alignment and axial extension in the spine to support a sense of balance in the musculoskeletal system and ease in the breath. Learn common postural patterns and therapeutic applications to encourage a sense of safety and fluidity in movement. Breath work will provide a sense of embodiment, body-mind awareness, and freedom from unconscious restrictions.  This class will also introduce sanskrit terminology for postural poses.

2:00pm-3:00pm

Yoga Anatomy:  Postural Skeleton—The Spine

  •  Mark Bisesi, MD, RYT 200

Description:  What is the anatomy of the spine that supports our posture? Learn normal boney structure—joints, ligaments, tendons—and function of the postural skeleton.

Sunday October 22

9:00- 10:30am

Postural Poses & Breath Work: Establishing a personal practice routine

  • Cara Sparkman, RYT 500

Description:  How do we begin a personal practice routine following the principles of alignment-based, therapeutically-oriented asana? Review, discuss and practice asanas and breath work that are the building blocks of better posture in a safe and supportive yoga community of practice.

11:00pm-12:00pm, 1:00pm-2:00pm

Yoga Anatomy:  Postural Muscles—Inner core unit & postural diaphragms 

  •  Mark Bisesi, MD, RYT 200

Description:  What are the postural muscles? Learn about the structure and function of the three postural diaphragms and the inner core unit which stabilize and support our postural poses and breathing. Understand the differences between the intrinsic stabilizer and the extrinsic mobilizer muscles of the core.

2:00-5:00pm

Establishing a Yoga Community of Practice (CoP):  Learning circle rituals & reflective self-inquiry

  • Tanja Bisesi PhD, E-RYT 200, RYT 500, YACEP

Description:  What is a yoga Community of Practice (CoP)?  What are Learning Circles and reflective practices and how can they support personal transformation and growth within community?  Participate in a Learning Circle as we engage in reflective self-inquiry and establish a yoga (CoP) for ongoing personal and community learning and development.

 

(photo courtesy of Mandy Kiley, LMT, RYT 500)

Journeying Together – What is a Community of Practice?

Communities of Practice: a Brief Introduction by Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayners (2015) introduces a concept that has resonated with me since I first encountered it during my graduate studies nearly 20 years ago.  Anyone who has ever practiced yoga in community intuitively understands its power to foster and inspire self-awareness, transformation, and empowered action.  As modern yoga practitioners we know the energizing sensation of a community practice that balances the body, expands the mind, and brings the blissful realization of life’s unity.  This embodied consciousness is our collective purpose, a path of yoga which spiritual seekers have followed for centuries.  And while practicing yoga in community is a relatively recent phenomenon, the Wenger-Trayners’ Community of Practice (CoP) model, borrowed from research on social organizations, challenges us to reflect on how it might further enrich our beloved yoga journey.

The Wenger-Trayers suggest that the primary intention of CoPs is to help “groups of people who share a…passion for something they do, learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”  They identify three elements that are essential to any CoP.  First, CoPs are made up of groups of people coming together, a community, around a common practice.  Second, CoPs take up a shared practice which includes common goals, dialogue and activity—intentions, words and deeds.  Third, the focus of CoPs is the generation of a knowledge domain, new knowledge in all its forms— information, concepts, understandings, beliefs, identities, insights, skills, and wisdom.  So, what do we have to gain by adopting this teaching-practice model in yoga?

The simple answer to this question is: we unleash the power of this ancient spiritual practice to support practitioners’ needs for embodied connection, through community participation, ownership and innovation.  The CoP model is highly responsive to modern yoga practitioners because it reorients us toward dedication to the practice, rather than to the teacher. At least three features of this model foster this reorientation: it is decentralized, collaborative, and generativeDecentralized means authority and expertise are not concentrated in the teacher or the lineage, but determined by the unique experiences and needs of the community members.  In other words, this models is inherently student (and teacher-as-student) and practice-centered.  CoPs are designed to support the individual yoga path, practice flexibility and innovation, and the yogi’s search to find the teacher within—instead of the mindless allegiance to a single yoga lineage or a teacher’s pre-determined goals.  Because new understandings and practice innovations emerge from student need, knowledge and, therefore, power are distributed among members of the community.  This fact makes CoPs highly resistant to the corrupting influences of ego, lineage-brand attachment, conflict of interest, and self-promotion.  The teacher, as founder of a yoga CoP (i.e, class), is a model for self-inquiry practice and becomes a container—a reservoir that collects and holds knowledge established through community practice over time as new members join and leave the community.  Furthermore, the teacher releases control of and shares responsibility for learning, becoming a resource and guide for dedicated students on the path. Emphasis on the unique journey of each member naturally fosters a safe space for physical exploration, emotional healing, intellectual curiosity, and spiritual expansion.  And because everyone is viewed as an active participant, with unique challenges and talents, each member is encouraged to take ownership of their practice and growth.  In CoPs, individual spiritual seekers, students and teachers alike, come together to support each other on their self-directed paths of self-care, self-discovery and self-empowerment, while simultaneously transforming community knowledge and identity.

CoPs are also collaborative, in the sense that individual growth is dependent on and takes place as a result of participation in a practice community. Community is considered both the means and source of new practices. From this perspective, all knowledge is negotiated through community dialogue and practice, rather than through direct transmission of teacher experience or lineage expertise. Not only does every member take responsibility for their own body-mind-spirit growth, regardless of experience level, but also, the transformation of the community is every bit as important as the individual.  Both teacher and students share ownership over their own learning and the development of the entire CoP.   The primary role of the teacher in CoPs shifts from power-authority expert to community-support builder.  In this context, the teacher watches students mindfully for opportunities—teachable moments—during group practice to offer direction, advice, and encouragement on their unique yoga paths.  In addition to facilitating the practice of self-inquiry, CoP teachers also encourage student-to-student collaborative dialogue that benefits the entire community.

Finally, the CoP model is generative in the sense that it recognizes the fluid nature of knowledge and supports innovation both for individuals and communities, rather than the strict adherence to a fixed lineage or teaching authority. Individual practitioners grows their expertise as the group practices together over time.  And because practitioners, both students and teacher, share as they gain new wisdom, the community practice is not fixed.  It also grows and changes as fresh techniques and insights become part of the community ‘treasure chest.’   Thus, CoPs continually generate new understandings and practices—shaped over time by the diverse needs, voices, and self-inquiry paths of all practitioners—while spurring growth and innovation at every level of the community.  In VK Harber article on the pitfalls of the traditional guru-student yoga model (Yoga International, April, 2016) she poses a critical question for modern yoga practitioners: “how do we reconfigure..[our] relationship toward dedication to the practice, rather than the teacher?”  I believe that embracing the CoP model in yoga, as we have here at The Essence of Yoga Center for Self Inquiry, may be one strong move toward this teaching-practice ideal.

Post by Tanja Bisesi

A Spiritual Map – Interview with guest teacher Matt Branstetter

Last week, I was lucky enough to sit down with Matt Branstetter, our meditation and philosophy teacher. Here are some of his thoughts on yoga, and the peace of the present moment.

CS: Thinking about a teacher you enjoy taking classes with–yoga, or otherwise–what is their teaching like, and how does that inform your personal practice?

Matt: So, my main practice these days is taiji (tai chi), so I study with a master of the chen style of taiji, and I study with him 3 times a week. The thing that draws me to Master Ding is his joy in what he does. He moves with freedom and with joy, and that is infectious. It creates this kind of energy in class, where you’re driven to do that yourself. You’re driven to find that freedom and that joy of movement, without restrictions or inhibitions.

CS: It’s contagious joy.

Matt: Contagious joy, yes! Enthusiasm, and a pursuit of excellence…with joy. Not with stress. Excellence through joy rather than through have to or need to or must, but you have the opportunity to bring out what is best in you, and it is pleasant to do that. So here is one avenue for you to do that. So, I would say that he is a great inspiration to keep going deeper into the practice.

CS: And do you find yourself seeking out that joyfulness in your own practice, or does it arise naturally?

Matt: I find that it’s there. I find that when the body is in its natural state, joy is just kind of the essence of who we are.

CS: Thank goodness! And how does that then translate from your relationship with your teacher as a student, into your practice, and then from there for yourself as a teacher. Where do you find that joy?

Matt: Well, in all of the above. You know, when I have the time, I’m practicing. I love to do it. I love to explore. I love to do the same thing over and over and over again. For some reason I get great satisfaction out of that. And I feel like I’m pursuing something. You know, I’m pursuing a kind of wholeness. And that’s very appealing to me because it seems like if we’re living with less than whole, then it’s not time spent as fully as it could be otherwise. So the pursuit of that wholeness is also the pursuit of something true about life, and something true about living. So in my teaching, that’s it. The idea of the emotional quality and the feeling aspect of learning about qigong and taiji, it’s just so central to what it is. The felt quality of practice is the essence of it. I couldn’t conceive of movement or technique independent of the feeling that gives it life. They really are one. It’s a transmission of that joy of living.

CS: That direct experience.

Matt: That’s right, that direct experience. It’s an invitation not to mimic techniques, but to find yourself.

CS: Your focus and practice is taiji and qigong, but obviously you’re very steeped in the yogic tradition as well. How would you define yoga?

Matt: There are different levels that we can talk about. And I don’t want it to sound like the advanced levels exclude the more beginner’s level because you’re a beginner all the way through. Definitely I think there’s something about finding peace in this body; making a home in this body; finding comfort in this body, which is essential to every level of yoga. Dealing with our own discomfort; dealing with pain… It’s only by inhabiting this body that we really inhabit the present moment. So it’s kind of there, either as a barrier or as a means to being present in our lives.
That being said, I think when we start to make a home in the present moment, there’s a kind of spiritual map that’s there also, and that’s for me the essence of the yoga philosophy. It’s not concepts, it’s not the presentation of a world view, but it’s giving language to a process that happens as we go deeper into the present moment, and as we get more still, as we get more comfortable with being. So yoga would be…the art of being.

CS: Is that something that you found in your initial experience of yoga? That spiritual map?

Matt: For me, and I don’t think this is necessarily the normal pathway for people, but for me, philosophy came first. So I was a student of philosophy, Western philosophy, and then eventually Eastern philosophy. And then it became clear to me that to understand what these people were talking about, you had to be in the same or similar mental state to where they were when they were saying what they were saying. So the idea of meditation, that made sense to me. In order to understand what these philosophers were talking about, you need to meditate. So I found a meditation teacher who also ended up being a martial arts teacher. It was a quest for philosophical truth, for knowledge. And I think for a lot of philosophers, and this was definitely the case for me, it was looking for something stable. Because my early life as a child was unstable, so there was some quest for stability. Does the center hold? Is there something that abides through the changes in life? And the answers from the East were always couched in a mastery of meditation. So the answer was yes, but not one that’s going to be immediately accessible to you. In order to find this abiding place, you’re going to have to strip away various layers, and you’re going to have to make this inward journey. And that seemed fair. It seemed fair that if you were going to find something like that, you would have to make a journey to get there.
So my very first yoga class was after a martial arts training session. One of our students became interested in yoga, and started teaching yoga to the rest of us. It was the deepest relaxation I had ever felt. Ever. I was used to doing things with my body, but to really go in and relax everything, and to let things let go at their own pace. I can remember just driving home in a state of bliss. And relaxation. It was just like OH MAN. This is GREAT. We can just go in and chill ourselves out. And that was it. Ever since it has just become part of my life and part of my practice. And that initial hit, that initial hit of philosophy, the initial hit of insight into what these guys were talking about, and the initial experience of that yoga class, they continue to live. Those initial glimpses continue to live in my practice today and inform and inspire it.

CS: So for most people, we would probably agree they get to yoga through the asana, through the body, and you came at it from the other side of things. Do you find that that is something that sets you apart from other teachers?

Matt: Maybe…I’ve taught philosophy in college, in the classroom, and I realize with these philosophies it’s about a lived experience. That’s what it’s about. And I really have that sense ingrained in my being at this point. I would say my teaching, when it’s effective, is a really open invitation to meet each other at a certain level of being. You know? And then the concepts that we use will make sense, because we’re kind of in the state that the people were when they started saying, “Hey, how can we talk about what we’re experiencing right now? Let’s put some words on this.” And so they put certain words on that, and as we get close to where they were when they had that idea, we can more easily assimilate the words because it’s not some foreign concept to us anymore. It’s a way of getting to the essence of what we’re experiencing in the moment of experience. So satsang is a shared experience of truth, where we are somehow kind of resonating with it together, and I recognize it in you and you recognize it in me. So when it’s explained that way it has very little to do with concepts, and I think the yogic philosophy, in the final analysis, has very little to do with concepts. It has to do with being. With a capital B.

CS: What role does yoga play in your life?

Matt: The practice of asana is still pretty central to what I do. Between movement, mindful movement (which is what I believe the internal martial arts are based on), and the practice of asana, the practice of breathing and the practice of meditation, I would say my practice these days is to try to get a sense of a continuum between all those. Even when you’re sitting in meditation, you’re breathing…most of the time. So the body is moving, the diaphragm is moving, the ribcage is expanding. So there’s always a sense of movement. There’s always a sense of meditative awareness, and there’s always a sense that sensation is never still. There’s something about the way our nervous system is arranged, so that in order for us to feel anything, that nerve has to fire, and fire again, and if it doesn’t fire, we’re not going to feel anything. So the fact that when we feel, it means that things are moving, things are changing, things are shifting, so that is the awareness that I think is common to all those practices. The awareness itself is quiet, still, but everything else is moving, changing, flowing. So being comfortable with that change, relaxing into that change, surrendering to that change, and even learning how to surf that change is how I would define yoga, and say how it’s playing a role in all these different practices right now.

CS: What would you say is the “essence of yoga”?

Matt: I like “peace”. There’s a lot of directions I could go with that question, but I like this idea of shanti. May there be peace in the world, may there be peace in our households, in our surroundings, and may there be peace in our own bodies and minds. I think that’s a very worthy goal. It’s definitely true in our time, but it’s been true of every time. It’s not an easy goal to achieve, but I think it’s a really meaningful one. I think we should continue to inspire ourselves and one another to continue to pursue this goal of peace. Let it go. Let it be, at least for this moment.

CS: What drew you to the practice of taiji, qigong and East/West philosophy?

Matt: When I was studying philosophy as a student, I really started with ancient Greek philosophy. I had been waiting for people to talk like this since I was born! That was my sensation, and I really wasn’t finding people, you know, my mom, my family, they were not using that kind of language. So just the fact that people were asking these fundamental questions. All of a sudden a light went on in me, and I very quickly learned that vocabulary of asking those questions and seeking the answers. It was a great awakening for me, but it was also kind of systematic. You know, I started with the Greeks, and then I got into European philosophy and after stewing in that, and the questions they were concerned with for a while, Eastern philosophy came. In a survey course, you usually get a smattering of traditions, so the Hindu tradition and their philosophy, the Daoist, so ancient Chinese, and Buddhist, and Zen. These all kind of hit me at the same time in this survey course, and they’ve all been constant companions throughout the whole process. And qigong is really just the yoga of China. Just as in India, there’s breathing techniques, there’s physical techniques of the body, there’s philosophical techniques, and they’re all intertwined with one another. In China it’s the exact same scenario, you have all these subtle techniques for the body and the breath, and they inform a certain way of looking at life and a certain way of experiencing life. And fundamental to the practice of yoga in India is the idea of Prana, or life force, and fundamental to the practice of taiji is Qi or life force. That is something that we kind of are always tasting. We’re always feeling that at some level, but I think the moment we really become conscious that, hey, I’m alive. Not because my doctor tells me, or because my fitbit say that I am. I’m alive because I feel alive. Because I feel these life processes happening inside of me, and I am somehow one with those life processes. I think when people get that initial sense of that, you naturally want more of that; you naturally want to explore that deeper; you naturally think, this has something to do, not just with a fleeting experience, but the meaning of what it is to be alive. And so this is the force that’s underneath all of that. This is the force that’s making that happen. And it’s more intimate to us than we are to ourselves. It’s closer to us than our own thoughts.

CS: This question is a little bit off the beaten path, but why do you think it is that the Western world created or imagined such a fragmentation, such a divide between the body and mind, while the East has these systems that are so mind-bogglingly simple and complex at the same time, and that work so beautifully?

Matt: That’s right…well, I think the ancient traditions of the West, you don’t see that quite as much. In the indigenous traditions of the West, you don’t see that as much. It’s a whole process, but I think you hit one of the key factors, and that is the separation between the mind and the body, which is just not the case in the East. It doesn’t tend to be the case in the East, it tends to be that these are obviously part of a single process. So beginning with Descartes and some of those European thinkers and the Enlightenment; and the separation of material pursuits from spiritual pursuits, so the material people kind of have their realm, and the spiritual people kind of have their realm; the process of beginning to see nature as a resource, rather than something that was living and valuable in its own right; the shift from “being” to “having” in all kinds of ways. All of that plays a role, and then science really seeming, in those early stages to create a world that could exist independently of our experience of it. It was solid, it was real, it was out there. So that’s one of the fascinating things about more contemporary science. The belief that the world is solid real and out there has crumbled from every direction that we’ve approached it. It’s crumbled from the neurological perspective, it’s crumbled from the perspective of physics, and this is an ancient concept, the idea of maya. Which is not that the world is a trick, it’s just not ultimately and totally real. I mean, a rainbow is real. We can see it! There it is! We can experience its beautiful colors. But the closer you get to it, the more it seems to recede, and that’s the same thing we could say with biology, chemistry–they’re real, from a certain level, but the closer we get to them, the more powerful our microscopes, the more they seem to dissolve and disappear. And I think that’s the fundamental idea of maya–don’t seek the eternal or the abiding in terms of these material processes, because they’re neither. In fact, they come from and are rooted in a more profound reality that you can’t own, you can’t store up, you can’t have it, like you can have material things, but ultimately, that’s what’s going to be fulfilling to you. That’s what’s going to give you a meaningful human life, and one that aligns you with the way things are.

CS: Is there anything that you would like your future students to know about you? Or about the world? Or about the practice of yoga?

Matt: I would say this is a common thing, because I approach things, in a way, backwards. Because the philosophical way of speaking is so second nature to me, that I feel like that can be intimidating to some students. I guess the primary thing is don’t be intimidated. The kind of knowledge that I’m interested in is really just an invitation for us to be together, which means both–we’re being and we’re together. So both of those have to be there. Because we can be together, but not be being. Or we can be being, but we are either on our own cushion, doing our own thing, or we’re out on a mountaintop somewhere, and this is neither. This kind of philosophy is about being together. And one of the things that humans do when we’re together is we speak to one another. And this is not to say the ancient yogis had the best vocabulary for our day, but they did really go deeply into the questions. So the essence of what they were saying I think will remain the same, but the words that we put it in? I think those have to evolve. Because traditions just get created around particular words. And it’s very easy in that scenario…you can master the whole system, but not know what the hell it was really about, and that’s our goal. Our goal is not to be the master of some ancient vocabulary, our goal is to try to tap into the essence of what they were talking about…why they felt compelled to bring forth these words in the first place. And I think people will find that that it’s very pleasant to feel like you’re sharing with somebody at a deep, fundamental and essential level. And I think that’s what satsang was all about. You know, having people talking and meditating at the same time. We’re being and speaking and interacting at the same time. Somehow when those things become separate from one another, we have the scenario you were just talking about with the Western world. We end up with fragmentation. Ultimately, I don’t want to know anything that you can’t also participate in at the moment I know it. The knowledge I’m interested in is where we meet together…in peace.

CS: In peace–the essence of yoga.

 

Post by Cara Sparkman