Wednesday, 27 July 2011

The teacher student relationship, dropbacks and a grown-up gap year

So much time, so little inclination to write here...

Actually that's not quite true; I have the inclination, it just rarely translates to action. There is quite a lot I want to share given that since I last wrote both my life and my practice have been somewhat transformed. I was ruminating on a post about the teacher student relationship last week, which could have been a good'un if I'd got around to it, but the opening of that post was to be this:

To the casual observer of this blog (and how could you be anything else, given the scarcity of my posts?) it may seem that I swing from workshop to workshop, gathering experiences and advice and slightly varying technique wherever I go. In actual fact, although I was perhaps guilty of this in my first year of practice (because I was so convinced that I wouldn't stick with this practice that I was keen to soak up as many experiences as I could before I threw in the towel), this is something I try to avoid. Having found a number of travelling or overseas teachers I gel with, I now try to stick with them. After two weeks with Kino and Tim in Goa this year (having twice previously taken weekend workshops with Kino) I am going to see Tim again in August (and possibly September), and then I will see both of them again next year. But actually, yoga holidays aside, I strongly believe in building a relationship with one teacher. There is something so special involved in finding somebody you can work with day in day out, through injury and stiffness, through bendy days and bereavements, through personal triumphs and professional disasters; finding somebody who knows your body, knows your practice, and (it turns out) seems to know your mind is completely invaluable on this path.
I had the perfect example of this last week. After months of working on backbending (including three months recovering from an injury which prevented me working on them at all) I made a mental connection one day last week which seemed to provide the missing jigsaw piece. I was on my way to work, walking along the road and the question popped into my head "What am I waiting for?" and immediately I answered my own question: I'm waiting for the floor to be closer when I hang back. Having spent a few weeks (maybe less) dropping back to the floor without assistance in February I knew that the further the "drop", the greater the likelihood of hurting my wrists - which was what led me to stop dropping back all those months ago. But I also immediately knew that the floor isn't going to come any closer via my back: I would have to bend my knees. So there and then I made the decision, that's what I will do tomorrow. Of course "tomorrow" came, and I was knackered - I dragged my body through my practice and was tempted to quit before I even got to seated. But finding renewed energy after the Maris (it's amazing how the marichyasana through to garbha section energises you!) I reached the end of my practice, and as I stood hanging back deeply, telling myself to bend my knees, my teacher called to me from the back of the room "Mel - when you get to that point, BEND your knees." 

It was the first time she had ever called out to me to encourage me to try and drop back alone: on the very day I had made all of the mental and physical connections I needed to make to do just that.
So I dropped back. Not once, but three times, with C bringing me to standing after the third. And then we did assisted hangbacks before I again dropped back alone to hold for 5 breaths, walk in, and be brought back to standing again. Afterwards I spoke to her, and told her that she seemed to have read my mind, and she told me that when you build a relationship with a student over a length of time as we have, you get to be able to read just where they are. And I totally get this.
I think this is also the reason that sometimes the day you're given new poses is the day you were going to stay in bed. It's also the reason you sometimes get new poses the very day you had accepted your practice exactly where it was
Backbending with Tim in Goa

Anyway, so that was something I wanted to write more about, but that'll do for now. My practice is in a really interested phase now, where dropping back has ceased to be surrounded by trauma or drama, I am just doing it (I'm now 4 days in with my solo drop-backs, so I fully expect the drama to return at some point but for now I'm happy it's gone!). I also seem to be gaining so much awareness in my practice, in all kinds of different areas. And of course that is the point of this whole endeavour, it's not the physical "achievement" of any given asana, but the way in which we approach it, and deal with the fear or discomfort or drama that is the real yoga. So I'm happy that I'm doing some good work at the moment. C and I discussed the approaches yesterday, and she said that for some people they jump into the dark first, and work out the details later, whereas I have worked it all out along the way. So in terms of backbending, when I first began I remember not doing anything - I just allowed myself to be moved in certain ways to do the assisted dropbacks, without finding any of the action in my own strength or engagement (it all just came from natural flexibility). For me the fear came quite a lot later, after I had connected with and opened my back and it started to seem like I should try and drop back on my own. But other phases I needed to go through included "finding" my legs in assisted dropbacks, then REALLY finding them in urdhva danurasana - using a block between my feet to stop them turning out has been utterly invaluable for this, and I credit Claire Missingham for doing this with me in a vinyasa class and making me realise why I was being told everyday "heels out Mel!". On an intellectual level I needed to get to the point of realising that when I released the fear and dropped to the floor I would actually be doing less work. And one day a few weeks ago laziness crept in, and I started to think that the sooner I could do it the better for that reason alone. So now I'm doing it, but trying to control it is difficult, and I said to C that I feel the same way as I did in the initial days of assisted dbs, that I am just "doing" but still need to find what exactly it is that I'm doing. But yesterday she uttered the immortal words "I'm proud of you" and today she told me that each one just gets better, so hopefully day by day I am finding a tiny degree more control. It's all a process.

Off the mat, life is pretty sweet at the moment too.Considering the state I was in back at the beginning of this year, I can scarcely believe how well things turned out. So in April I found myself out of work, and after a couple of months being a lady of leisure (month one: pure bliss! month two: pure boredom and loneliness) a combination of intriguing twists of fate brought me a part-time job working on reception in the largest yoga centre in London. I KNOW!!! It was pretty tough to begin with as there is a huge amount to learn, and being in the front-line as it were you need to be quick, friendly and extremely knowledgeable. I'm now a month and a bit in from my training, and as a general rule, I am absolutely loving it. On Saturday (the hours are pretty anti-social too...) when the next person arrived to relieve me from my shift I had that feeling of "owww, do I really have to go?" - how lucky am I??! The obvious drawback is that working shifts is tough (especially sometimes getting home from work at 11pm and getting up at 5ish to practice the next day - and next month I have a few 5.30am shifts, which mean leaving home at 4.30!), and there are a few challenging dynamics to work through, not to mention the financial aspect of doing a job like this, but the benefits completely outweigh them. And as I'm working only twenty hours a week, I have all this time to just do as I please...I have read so many books, been a lot more social than normal, visited my family, not to mention the extra yoga classes and treatments I can take advantage of at my place of work (half the time I'm there even when I'm not working!). The obvious answer of course would be to switch my mysore practice there as well (which would be far more cost effective) but aside from the fact that I'd have to travel twice as far to practice each day, how could I throw out the relationship I just wrote a whole post about? 
So things are working out pretty well. I'm thrilled that my belief that "something would come up" seems to be working so far, and my loose plan at the moment is to take a whole year out from my previous 9-5 existence, and see where it takes me by April next year. But I have to say, given that I am sitting at home with a coffee writing this post before heading off for afternoon tea and cakes with my fellow new-trainee colleagues, and then possibly taking a class with a highly popular and slightly swoon-worthy teacher this evening: life is pretty sweet.


  1. Worth waiting for. Reading this made me as happy as if it had happened to me. GO Mel!

  2. Absolutely, this was lovely to read! Glad your gap year is working out so well for you, I wonder if having that 'space' in your life is helping on the mat as well?

    Also, I kept forgetting to say to you, remember when you encouraged me a few weeks ago by saying that one day soon I'd have a week day of reading in the sun while I knew everyone else was at work . . ? I had that day. It was fantastic! You were very right indeed, thanks again for your kind words.

  3. love it Melly! this is one of my favourite blogs. keep posting xoxo

  4. It's so heart-warming to read your journey through your blog posts Mel, and I'm so happy for you that everything is working out after you made the leap from the security of a job! Totally agree about the benefits of working with one teacher everyday - I'm still mourning the loss of our teacher to another country and am starting to build another relationship all over again. It's a little disruptive to say the least, but that's the way life goes. Nice hangback you've got there and it's lovely to read your journey from assisted to solo dropbacks too. I'm currently working on the hangback stage, so am absorbing everyone's experiences like a sponge :D

  5. Such lovely comments, thank you ladies :) R I'm glad you got your day in the sunshine (though it'd be nice to have a few more wouldn't it?)
    D - having been through the process of acclimatising to a different teacher while mine was away, I'm not sure how I would handle it if that was a permanent loss, pretty tricky I'm guessing. And with the backbending I think reading stuff can be helpful, but then sometimes you can read or be told the same thing a hundred times and somehow it doesn't sink in until you and your body are ready for it :)

  6. Wow. This read was amazing and really profound. It's really opened my eyes in many ways about how I used to interact with certain people in my past (not just those trying to teach me in life). Thank you for your inspiring post! :D