Radiant sources, power lunches and the influence of all those wordy words

Star Ruby

Dominic had a ring with a mesmerizingly radiant stone, and before I had to say goodbye to him I finally asked him what the stone was. Turns out it was a star ruby. Pictured here is a star ruby housed at the American Museum of Natural History.

Dominic Corigliano, my teacher’s teaching mentor, guest taught at the Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor shala this past week during, appropriately enough, the waxing moon — a time when the moon is making its way around the earth, looming larger until it reaches its full state.

When Angela Jamison announced that Dominic was coming, I was looking forward to seeing how this would work. For one thing, yoga students like to meet their teacher’s teacher. I think part of it is awe: Who is this person who inspired someone as inspiring as my teacher? Part of it is curiosity: Will this person be anything like I’ve pictured him or her to be? Part of it is simply excitement.

For another, I’m accustomed to Ashtanga workshops structured around themes: bandhas, adjustments, and so on. So I wondered: What happens during a highly anticipated visit by a Mysore teacher to a highly traditional shala when there were no workshops or guided classes scheduled? How does all the juicy stuff — the subtle and mind-blowingly important observances culled from decades of practice, learning and teaching — get passed on?

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Dominic was wearing a T-shirt with “Shiva” written in a KISS font the first morning I met him, before the Mysore class got underway. He struck me as a down-to-earth ashtangi with a quiet punk rock vibe. HIs adjustments were firm yet gentle, and when he did use words, they were quite matter-of-fact.

By the end of his visit here, I realized I have been drinking from the energetic currents of Dominic’s teachings for years now — much in the same way you are infused with the rhythm and the passion of the pioneering blues masters when you listen to the Rolling Stones’ greatest work.

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"Before, Again II"

“Before, Again II” by Joan Mitchell, housed at the DIA. The image links to a video that discussing the artist’s influences.

The third time I was in his orbit, it was for a visit to the Detroit Institute of the Arts with a small group from AY: A2. I joined the group late, however, and contemplated calling someone’s cell phones when I arrived to avoid the goose hunt of trying to locate half a dozen people in a huge building. For whatever reason, I decided to wing it instead. I walked slowly and tried to let my intuition guide me and I guess I didn’t do too badly, considering that I found them in about five minutes. I squinted down hallways for Angela’s spritely movements, but how I actually found the group was by spotting, for a second, a ponytail gliding down a hallway. Dominic could have been any museum-goer, but there was such a calm about this figure that I figured I was in the right place. He was totally enthralled with the pieces he was viewing when I caught up. One thing I’ve noticed with the senior Western teachers I’ve met: They are so present in everything they do.

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After the DIA, we all headed to a cute little cafe called Le Petite Zinc, a healthy and delicious lunch spot a short drive away. I don’t remember what prompted this, but I asked Dominic about teaching Ashtanga yoga versus teaching its hyper-popular offshoots of power yoga and vinyasa yoga. Dominic knew that I’ve studied with Tim Miller, so he explained that he and Tim go back a long, long way — back to Encinitas, where the power yoga style was inadvertently sparked as they tried to offer Ashtanga in a way that would appeal to settings such as health clubs.

Dominic said tweaks to the method — such as modifying poses for people with knee problems — were always done in the service of trying to help students eventually connect back with the traditional Ashtanga method. The same goes for using music, which Dominic pioneered. He explained that he used music as a way of working with states of hypnosis. (What he didn’t do was use iconic songs with familiar riffs and lyrics the way some of the most popular vinyasa teachers today do.)

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I’m going to pause here to say that yesterday on the Inside Owl blog, Angela reposted one of her posts from 2007, in which she talks about Dominic’s teaching method and neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) (emphasis below is mine):

Before putting myself into bhairvasana for the first time today—or rather, letting it take me into itself with another’s guidance—I had feared that it would be something of a long, slow trainwreck: a daily undertaking that could open up my sacroiliac joints to an unsustainable gape. Make me a bag of ligamentless bones by 50.

A year ago, maybe; but my body’s been tilled for this and it’s simply a nice, new little habit that takes me to a previously unknown part of myself.

I can say this only because the way the posture was given made it second nature, if not downright natural. No big deal.

This is because my teacher understands the power of suggestion, and how to relate with a student in or near theta state to create an easy and beautiful reality out of our weirdest possibilities. Not only is this teacher on to the NLP (a comment about establishing rapport the first day made me suspicious), but he just doesn’t complicate the yoga.

Imagine what would have happened had Angela circa 2007 been introduced to this pose — “’Siva’s terrible aspect,’ a posture in honor of the deity’s skull-amulet-bearing, fratricidal side” – in a way laden with verbal cues telling her what the pose would be like or should be like for her.

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Back to the lunchtime conversation. Dominic told me that he approached non-Mysore classes as how to use fewer and fewer words. He put it so well and I wish I had taken notes (actually, that’s not really true — I don’t wish I had taken notes, because that would have destroyed the casual lunch vibe). We basically talked about the constraints placed on students when too many words are used. I was fascinated by whether some of the most seemingly feel-good words in a yoga class can actually serve as distractions from a deeper type of empowerment that could happen if a teacher were to do more of holding space than creating space.

(As we ate our crepes and salads served up at a place dedicated to simple and classic cuisine, it was interesting to think about sourcing Ashtanga instruction the way food is sourced — whether as a consumer only or both a consumer (because all teachers have to be students first) and a producer. No matter what kind of sustenance, tapping into a strong current whose source remains vibrant and clean helps us flourish. What types of food are going into this body? What types of instruction are passing into this nervous system? As a teacher, I need to ask myself whether the words I’m using are organic — what will their effects be? Or am I relying on pretty words with artificial flavorings and empty calories, void of any true nutritional properties?)

And as Dominic talked, I had a flash to a post from earlier this year on Angela’s other blog — the AY: A2 blog — about the poverty of verbal instruction:

I wonder how we’re really using words in yoga class. Do we know how to use language to set ourselves free in our bodies… or do we more often use it to solidify difficulties and obstacles? Do words come up due to anxiety about impermanence or attempts to pin things down, a need to prove something, or maybe unwillingness to just be quiet and do the technique? I wonder, too, if talking in practice—including my own verbal instruction—increases an egoic sense that we know what it’s is all about.

Sitting across from Dominic while hearing bits of this blog post rolling around my mind felt a bit like watching time-elapsed parampara.

If you’re not familiar with parampara, it helps to go back to the KPJAYI website (emphasis below is mine):

Parampara is knowledge that is passed in succession from teacher to student. It is a Sanskrit word that denotes the principle of transmitting knowledge in its most valuable form; knowledge based on direct and practical experience. It is the basis of any lineage: the teacher and student form the links in the chain of instruction that has been passed down for thousands of years. In order for yoga instruction to be effective, true and complete, it should come from within parampara.
Knowledge can be transferred only after the student has spent many years with an experienced guru, a teacher to whom he has completely surrendered in body, mind, speech and inner being. Only then is he fit to receive knowledge. This transfer from teacher to student is parampara.
The dharma, or duty, of the student is to practice diligently and to strive to understand the teachings of the guru. The perfection of knowledge – and of yoga — lies beyond simply mastering the practice; knowledge grows from the mutual love and respect between student and teacher, a relationship that can only be cultivated over time.
The teacher’s dharma is to teach yoga exactly as he learned it from his guru. The teaching should be presented with a good heart, with good purpose and with noble intentions. There should be an absence of harmful motivations. The teacher should not mislead the student in any way or veer from what he has been taught.
The bonding of teacher and student is a tradition reaching back many thousands of years in India, and is the foundation of a rich, spiritual heritage. The teacher can make his students steady – he can make them firm where they waver. He is like a father or mother who corrects each step in his student’s spiritual practice.
The yoga tradition exists in many ancient lineages, but today some are trying to create new ones, renouncing or altering their guru’s teachings in favor of new ways. Surrendering to parampara, however, is like entering a river of teachings that has been flowing for thousands of years, a river that age-old masters have followed into an ocean of knowledge. Even so, not all rivers reach the ocean, so one should be mindful that the tradition he or she follows is true and selfless.
Many attempt to scale the peaks in the Himalayas, but not all succeed. Through courage and surrender, however, one can scale the peaks of knowledge by the grace of the guru, who is the holder of knowledge, and who works tirelessly for his students.

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It’s only now crystallizing for me that the legacy of Dominic’s teachings have been filtering to me through strong and distinct currents:

  • The power yoga classes I started taking in 2009 as part of a yoga teacher training program I had enrolled in not for the purpose of teaching, but to deepen my understanding of the eight limbs of yoga. (Interesting to reflect on power yoga classes as adaptations — sometimes truer to the original and sometimes highly marketed, far-flung versions of the original — of an Encinitas-based yoga experiment to make the Ashtanga practice more accessible all those years ago.)
  • The clean and direct transmissions as experienced through my embodied teacher’s presence when I am in her room.
  • The way my teacher writes about the practice — from a 2012 blog post about the use of language all the way back to a 2007 post on use of language in a room, as written in the Inside Owl blogger’s voice.

Here I was, having my first true conversation with a man who until now had just been a name and a relationship — Dominic, my teacher’s teacher — and what happens? The conversation we gravitated toward dealt with the subconscious — the not-quite-apparent layers. Manifestations of my teacher were playing at the edges and communicating between us at times, but those versions, while offering something, also provided inadequate words for the experience. Also inadequate was trying to use this conversation as a mirror to check out how all of this energy is being integrated within me, and how it flows out of me when I write and when I teach.

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Looking back over the week, how did transmissions happen? It wasn’t through a guided class. It wasn’t through a workshop lecture. It wasn’t even the words that were actually exchanged at lunch. 

Dominic hopped on a plane out of Detroit yesterday, and I’m wondering if his energy, his physical adjustments, and the post-practice conversation all has to simply be understood. I believe in the power of technology — of social media in particular — to help ashtangis around the world stay connected as a community. But it’s the quieter moments of being in the sphere of brilliant and deeply present teachers like Dominic that reminds me of the limitations of those mediums. What’s being passed on isn’t data — parampara is necessarily so present, so personal.

(Photo credit: “The Midnight Star” via Islespunkfan’s Flickr photostream and “Before, Again II” via Dia.org.) 

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