The humility to learn

“Do you still take classes?” a student asked, upon hearing that I’d be attending a weekend workshop.

For a moment I was speechless. I can’t imagine ever not taking classes. I explained that most Iyengar yoga teachers continue taking classes and workshops (and, if possible, trips to RIMYI in India)–for life.

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That weekend workshop was taught by Mahyar Raz, a Junior Advanced II level teacher based in Toronto and Tehran. Attendees ranged from decades-long practitioners to keen novices. Many, including myself, were unfamiliar with Mahyar, who delved deeply, with drama and with humor, into the fundamentals. Click here for a few memorable quotes.

Among the attendees was Ingelise Nherlan, also a senior-level teacher who has studied directly with BKS Iyengar. In my occasional contact with Ingelise, she’s typically the teacher or teacher trainer. Here, it struck me how she becomes purely a student when the context calls for it. Once, when Mahyar was teaching us fully to release the neck (cervical vertebrae 5, 6, and 7) in Uttanasana, she adjusted Ingelise’s spine. Later, as we repeated Uttanasana (over and over), Ingelise asked Mahyar to check her pose: “I want to make sure that I’ve got it.” It was a request that a beginner might make, and her enthusiasm, curiosity, and openness to being corrected were obvious.

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On the last day, when Mahyar opened the floor to questions, Ingelise raised her hand. First, she asked, “Is it acceptable to sit in Virasana [rather than Sukhasana] for the invocation?” Second, regarding the prior day’s set-up for supine pranayama, she found her lumbar spine overarching if the bolster was nestled against her sacrum. “Must the prop support the entire spine?” she asked.

As a teacher, Ingelise could opine on her own questions. But here she asked based on her experience as a student. She asked rudimentary questions, not esoteric, teacher-to-teacher, insider-to-insider ones.

It can be hard for people to think like students, once they become teachers. A teacher might take a class and seem engaged, yet continue thinking like a teacher. It takes a different mindset to throw that role out the window and to experience as a student–better yet, as a beginner student. I’m reminded of Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

Coincidentally, the first time I saw Ingelise and Mahyar was in November 2007. New to Vancouver, I participated as a “student” for a Junior Intermediate II assessment, and both were assessors. (The other two were Marlene Mawhinney and Marlene Miller, with Claudia MacDonald as assessor-in-training. That was the first time I witnessed an assessment. And that was one formidable panel, let me tell you.)

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Further contemplating my student’s question, I noticed that teachers (at any level) generally take classes or workshops only with those senior to themselves, not with peers. That might be due to time and money. Classes and workshops aren’t cheap, so why not choose those taught by the most-experienced, most-profound teachers, preferably those who are direct disciples of Mr Iyengar? But we can learn a lot from peers.

My own teacher, Louie Ettling, attends countless classes taught by all levels: Mr Iyengar, Geeta, and Prashant, senior international teachers, Canadian peers, and the recently certified. And she is just as attentive and gracious toward novice teachers as toward established ones.

Watching Ingelise and Louie in learning, not only teaching, mode is a real, if subtler, lesson. I am reminded of a Geeta quote* about why we chant the invocation to Patanjali:

We chant so that at the very beginning that feeling of sanctification comes from inside, with the feeling of surrendering oneself, because nothing can be learned in this world unless you have the humility to learn…. You know that you are “coming down” to learn something. And you can’t learn anything unless you come down; if you think you are on the top and you know everything, then you are not a learner at all…

*Interview conducted by Margot Kitchen at the 1992 Canadian Intensive in Pune, India.

Images: Uttanasana, Yoga Journal; Meghan Goodman and pranayama bolster, Halfmoon; old copy of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shambala Sun

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8 thoughts on “The humility to learn

    1. Thanks, Nancy! Here’s the gist of her answers:

      1. In general, Sukhasana is easier and more neutral (and thus the preferred centering pose). Virasana generally requires more effort and “actions.” But, for some, the reverse is true. (Nancy, I clearly recall your natural ease in Virasana and in Supta Virasana.) Also, Ingelise commented that the sitting bones seem more firmly and evenly grounded in Virasana.

      2. Where to place a bolster for supine pranayama depends on one’s individual lumbar spine and also bolster size. (We had used round or flat bolsters, both too large for most people to place near the lumbar spine. Pranayama bolsters could go farther down.) If using folded blankets, however, place the bottom edge at the sacrum, to support the entire spine.

  1. this is a great post- and so insightful. I think being open to learning and growing also keeps you connected to your students and as such makes you a better teacher. I don’t know how it would be possible to teach something to someone that you are so beyond relating with. 🙂

  2. Thank you again Luci for your wonderful post.
    Reading your list of memorable quotes of Mahyar brought back great memories of that super workshop.
    Continuous learning whether it be from other teachers or our own inner teacher is an ongoing and delightful journey. As teachers, we learn and then we teach, and when we teach we learn again from our students… Learning and teaching, teaching and learning, how gratifying is that!

  3. as a teacher (not of yoga) I loved this. of COURSE we still learn, not only from those more ‘advanced’ than us, but also from peers and those apparently less advanced. I have never observed or taken someone else’s class without learning at least one thing. if not about content, then about how to teach!
    unfortunately ego and fear often interfere; people aren’t confident enough to ask basic questions for fear of seeming stupid. when great teachers openly admit that they are still learning, it helps everyone and sets a great example.

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