In Hawai’i, studying hula can be akin to studying yoga: it’s physical training, but also mental and spiritual practices. Like yoga, hula also comes in many flavors, from flashy tourist shows to serious halau (schools) whose members consider hula a lifestyle choice.
An acquaintance (whom I’ll call Maki) studies with a renowned kumu hula (hula master) whose family is legendary in hula circles. This teacher is tough on all students but treats Hawaiian students much more favorably than non-Hawaiian students. (Maki is not Hawaiian.)
Nowadays teachers of any ilk avoid the slightest semblance of unequal treatment: it’s not PC. So Maki’s anecdotes seemed over the top. “Why study with a teacher who treats students unfairly?” I asked.
“I wanted to study a particular style of hula, ai’ha’a,” she said. “The first time I saw her halau perform, I knew I wanted to learn this style.
“I chose to study from a particular family and lineage. The driving force is this style of hula, not the teacher. She happens to be the ‘transmitter.'”
Naturally, I applied her story to my frame of reference: yoga. While I actually like tough teachers (and don’t mind abrasive personalities), I dislike favoritism. Harshness is acceptable if uniformly doled out. But Maki was sanguine about the situation (and patient with my probing). “Once again, I am there to study hula in the aiha’a style,” she said. “It’s obvious that she likes some more than others; I think that’s a given.”
“But her knowledge and strength as a kumu trump everything?”
Regarding favoritism, Maki commented that her kumu (and also her Zen sensei) would say, “GET OVER IT. Practice, practice, practice, and practice some more.”
I found Maki’s perspective to be remarkably mature. (Let me clarify here that her kumu does show kindness and generosity to Maki sometimes at unexpected moments. The teacher never rejects the student; she just never tries to “be nice.”)
Would I likewise study with a teacher who treats me more harshly than she treats others, but who undoubtedly has something to teach? Should the criterion be the practice, not the personality?
Most Westerners focus on personality. Most want not only for their teachers to “like” them but, if they are also teachers, for their students to “like” them. Behavior is modified and softened. In other words, students kiss their teachers’ behinds, while teachers refrain from any criticism that might offend.
Yoga has grown very “social” in the West. Teachers and students often become friends (or more than friends). Personally, I steer clear from yoga cliques. In the primary relationship between teacher and student, however, I do seek real rapport. But is this necessary? Or am I filling another need in myself, too?
Images: Merrie Monarch Festival 2008