The Teacher and the Student

There is a good zen saying (well, there are actually many great zen sayings), but this one is particularly relevant to the teacher-student relationship. It reminds us as students to empty ourselves if we want to learn from a teacher. The zen phrase states it beautifully by using the image of a tea pot and a cup. The tea pot is the teacher and the cup is the student. When the teacher teaches they pour out their knowledge and into the student. If the student's cup is empty they can receive the teachings. However, if their cup is already full they cannot receive anything and the tea (re: knowledge) is wasted.

The trouble, however, with many 'good' sayings is just that. They sound good, but are hard to follow. It can be relatively easy to believe that you are open-minded and that there should be no problems with learning under a 'new' teacher. And yet when in a 'real-live' teacher-student situation one may find that this is not ex-actly the case. One may feel very resistant to everything the teacher says and/or how they say it.

Last Friday, Yogacharya offered a talk on how it is important to be open to the teachings. He said that he cannot teach us if we are closed; there is nothing he can offer. But how do you become open? What does it truly mean to be 'empty'? Is it really possible given the hundreds of thousands of ideas and impressions we carry with us from all of our experiences? How can we truly become open?

Years ago in the time of 'true' Masters and Gurus, it was very common for the Master to provide lessons in humility (re: lessening pride, ego and arrogance) as well as testing the sincerity of the student. Many swamis such as Swami Rama and Vishnu-devnanada describe the lessons they received in humility from their Master. Today, I think this type of teaching is dead. In fact, if many yoga teachers to test or to treat their students in a similiar fashion they would probably find they had no students. I really feel, however, that many of these lessons were important in order for the student to progress. Without them they would have at best remained the same or at worst regressed. Today many of these lessons have not been well understood by Western students who sneer at the austere practices of the Master or consider it "bullyin". We just don't understand what it means to surrender ego. Some people even take offense from the word, "surrener". But the fact is we live in a totally different time, context and era....

Teaching is a 2-way street; something that should be kept in mind. Essentially the more open one becomes the more one can learn and receive the teachings.

Today during class Yogacharya instructed 3 of the students undergoing the AtmaVikasa Teacher Training program to hold a posture. He said, "Hold it until I tell you to come out". A few seconds later one of the students gave an instruction to her fellow collague. A few seconds after that Yogacharya asked her, "Why are you telling the student what to do? Did someone give you authority? Am I not here?"

This was followed by a few defensive comments by the student in question. Yogacharya lost his patience and told the her, "Roll up your mat. Your practice is over." This was also followed by a few more defensive comments including one of the students jumping to the rescue of the accused. Yogacharya continued, "When I tell you to stay in a posture, you stay. If I give you the authority to talk then you can talk. Otherwise you have no such authority in the class."

The student rolled up her mat and left.

I know as a teacher it can be very tempting to want to say something to another student especially if you see they are doing something incorrectly and/or you feel your suggesstion would benefit them. But why? Really? I know, as well, when one is undergoing a training program it can feel good to be able to spread your wings a bit by applying what you know. One of my students did this to me while she was undergoing a teacher training program I was running at the school. Not only was it not her place to do so, but the instructions she gave to her fellow student was incorrect.

Overall, these are good lessons in understanding that:
1) it may only be your ego wanting you to tell another person to do something, which should be saved for your own classes (if you are a teacher) and,
2) when you are a student in a class enjoy being a student and do not mix your roles.

There is also another good zen saying:

When walking just walk,
When talking just talk,
When eating just eat,
And when sleeping just sleep.

This also relates to the role of the teacher and the student. When you are a student be a student, with the mind of a child. When you are a teacher be a teacher, with the mind of a student.

It's pretty straight-forward.


Berni said...

Wonderful blog! Thanks for sharing.

Heather said...

Just read your comment recently. It's always great to study again under my teachers in India; so many stories and 'live' material to write home about. Thanks for your comments.

The Journey So Far

Life is an adventure and yoga is the greatest one of all. Here I share my love of Yoga, travel, practice and becoming a part-time cook. My life adventures have taken me from growing up in Toronto to living and working in South Korea to studying in India, marriage and finally closing my Yoga school of 15 years.

What I can say so far is that I truly believe that it is necessary in life to let go of one dream in order for another to be born. This might be painful to do so but it is the only way to move forward. We often believe that if our original plan does not succeed it is the recipe for failure. But what if it is the door to something new and great? The horizon is wide and life is not a straight line. This is the way I see it and my journey so far. Having also recently given birth to my first child and at 43, it is another new beginning.


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Heather Morton
is a perennial teacher and devoted student of yoga. Having made 18 extended trips to India she studies with her teachers annually. In 1997 she founded and directed The Yoga Way (TYW), Toronto's only school for 6-week yoga programs and not drop-in classes. For 15 years, TYW was a part of the growing Toronto yoga community and supported many charities by offering karma classes. As a teacher she holds many academic degrees including a BFA (Fine Arts in Theatre) and a Masters of Education. With a published thesis on Yoga for Children in School, her post-graduate work was a 2-year ethnographic project in the Indian school system. Heather has produced 2 dvds, meditation cds, a backbending manual and podcasts. Freedom of the Body DVD is the first of its kind as an instructional practice to the backbends of yoga. Heather has been featured in the Toronto Life magazine, The Globe & Mail, Yoga4Everybody and other on-line sources. She contributes to MindBodyGreen, Hello Yoga in Japan and Elephant Journal. She writes to inspire and share her experiences with others on yoga as a life's practice.
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