Joy: When you observe a student practicing do you do an initial assessment of them? Like when they are enjoying their practice and when they aren't?
David: Yes. I definitely do that. And this is a funny thing because enjoying your practice is either a total beginner thing-like they don't know any better—and then also a kind of intermediate concept. There are many people who don't know what to do with an instruction like 'what would your posture look like if you were thoroughly enjoying yourself?'. Some do. Some know what that means and they can go within themselves and allow subtle enjoyment to better lead their efforts. But for some the instruction has to be more specific about how to work in the asana or with the breathing. I have to give them a series of specific actions that will automatically lead them to a more subtle and enjoyable experience.
Joy: So as a teacher there is a slippery slope of making sure the student stays engaged, doesn't get bored, retains interest, and learns. Can you expand on your ideas of how you keep students in the Mysore room?
David: There is a direction of flow and this is very key. And the direction of flow is that the student has got to want the teacher's knowledge and that desire has to be very strong. And so without that there is nothing you can do for the student as a teacher. But when there is a sincere and sustained desire to learn then the teacher has a lot to work with. It is necessary for the teacher to be encouraging of the direction that the student wants to learn, to be enthusiastic about the particular aspects of the practice that interest the student. I do this with the aim of finding the overlap between what I find interesting about what their doing and what they find interesting about what they're doing. This is my starting point and I let the teaching go forward from there because when I'm trying to get them to work on something that's hard or different for them to do I have to have them in total agreement.
Joy: Or else there will be no success or pleasure?
David: Really its there won't be success. Often I'm trying to create a new pattern where an old, rutted pattern exists. And the chances of that rutted pattern continuing are great and so to create a new pattern takes a total investment from the student and I have to have that agreement. Hence my phrase "backing them into a corner." The phrase means that for this time period they don't feel any other type of instruction will work except except what I'm providing. They agree with me that this is the best choice for now.
Joy: Can you talk about the importance behind trying to retain the students energy?
David: Its a large part of my job to keep them having energy for their practice. But at the same time part of the energy that is coming from them is harmful and its not leading to maturity and progress.
Joy: For example?
David: Somebody might do twenty harmful backbends and to try and get them to correct the harmful patterns could mean that all of a sudden the motivation won't be there. How did that happen?! They were willing to do twenty backbends before and now with the new more difficult pattern its a struggle to do more than 3?! The energy leaves because right now the new pattern doesn't necessarily feel or look as good and it doesn't feel like you're doing the posture anymore. And so the sense of accomplishment diminishes because that's where part of the motivation is coming from. In order for the energy to flow into that new pattern the student needs to rethink what it means to accomplish something in that asana and this can be really challenging. Even though the new pattern is more healthy, healing and more subtle.
Joy: So as a teacher how do you create the new pattern within the student and still have them retain their energy and motivation?
David: This is where the initial assessment of the student comes in. "What is the person's limit…physically and psychologically and even the limit of their present self perception?" A teacher needs to have clarity in their assessment of where the student is at and what they are capable of absorbing. A proper assessment of the student will lead to an accurate prioritization of work, a setting of a workable order of steps in the progression that leads to asana knowledge. Instructing someone means dealing with their limits, when you make an assessment you have to see those limits clearly and that's the hard part -
Joy: Because you can be wrong?
David: Its more than that. There's a part as a teacher where its hard to accept a student's limit. Its almost this crazy trick of the universe. This meanness. The thing they probably can't change is the exact thing you want to change. And so you find yourself continually wanting to probe it or question it but yet its probably not the way to go. And so right at the beginning you need the assessment to be as accurate as possible and you have to respect those limits, even if later the student will go way beyond them. Joy: Because an improper assessment could mean they don't stick around?
Joy: But a student's limit can change, correct?
David: Yes. Ashtanga yoga is potent because it helps you to do or be what you never even dreamed. But of course there are challenges involved, a lot of limits are also quite fixed, and thus they remain somewhat stable. And so as the teacher you must be patient, some of the instructions, the patterns you want to help the student change, the new thing you want to introduce to them, you must wait…and you can wait a long time— maybe. And also humor is essential. Whenever I'm backing a student into the corner and we are up against what seems to be something impossible to change, that is when a bit of humor has to come. Encountering difficulty creates a certain build up of energy, and this increased pressure tends to create resistance in the student. Thus you have to disarm them, temporarily relieve some of the pressure, so that they don't go into despair, and so that they see the positive learning that can take place around attempting the impossible. The teacher must not convey an inflexibility at that moment otherwise learning won't happen. The teacher must have an appreciation of the difficulty then the student is more willing to entertain the possibility of doing the challenging work. I want the student to trust me enough to experiment and see if maybe something different can happen after all-or at least see the value in trying to make something new happen in a particular way even if significant change doesn't happen. I'll push somebody really hard, put them up against something really challenging but then all of a sudden we'll be laughing. So its like two objectives can be achieved. I've showed the student that they need to go way further in new, different more challenging directions, and the student can entertain possibilities and start imagining this new thing that I am asking of them.
Joy: Any other secrets?
David: A teacher needs a continual LOVE of the subject—the beloved hatha yoga techniques-and the desire to share that knowledge with your students. For example, I endeavor to make my contemplation of mula bandha as large, multi faceted and extensive as possible. I want to have a lot of ideas that I can share with each different student. I think you need to be open to and knowledgeable about any line of questioning that comes from the student.
Joy: So I think what you're saying is that a teacher continuing to renew and discover their own knowledge of hatha yoga is infectious and students gravitate towards that enthusiasm and are inspired?
David: Yes and that leads them into their own exploration. I'm open to students questions and unique ways of seeing the techniques and that is inspiring to them and helps them to go deeper into those techniques for themselves. I also think there's a need for imagination and creativity to be more involved in how each of us approaches the techniques. There is a place for set ideas about what this is or that is, but there is also a lot to be gained by awakening your imagination and creativity and allowing your own idea's to lead you further into your practice. Study is not only defined by getting on your mat each day even if that's a huge part of what you do. Chanting, becoming more absorbed in sanskrit, sacred texts, trying to understand what the sutras are saying, continuing to expand your yoga vocabulary, and making a careful study of the imagery and stories of Yoga. A teacher needs an arsenal of teaching tools. I encourage every teacher to have an entire armory in their back pocket because you'll never know what will inspire a student to learn.
Photo by Joe Longo Photography. Photographed at Ashtanga Yoga School of Philadelphia