Last week I participated in a five day Ashtanga yoga intensive with the revered certified teacher Richard Freeman and his incredibly accomplished wife Mary Taylor. I have been studying with Richard for almost ten years, and most of what I’ve learned of the inner sequencing and breath-work of the Ashtanga lineage has come from him. Richard is not a teacher one studies with on a day to day basis – for that I have the luck to know Joan Isbell and Eric Stauffer, two authorized teachers who are so dedicated one can’t help but be inspired in their presence – but is more a guide one can look to and reflect upon for balance and re-balancing along the long path of practice, which is never ending both in time and depth.
Each day began with a three hour long asana practice, guided by Richard and supported by the ever nurturing and knowledgeable hands of Mary. Richard teaches with the metaphors of a poet, the comprehension of a scholar, and the precision of a senior Iyengar teacher (he studied with Iyengar before dedicating himself to Shr K. Pattabhi Jois). He is the only teacher I’ve ever known who can make the instructions on Surya Namaskara A (basic sun salutions) last for 90 minutes and feel in the body as if no time at all has passed. A magic trick, or a trick of a great meditation teacher, which is really what Richard is: asana, the physicality of Ashtanga yoga, is for him simply a window unto the breath, the inner workings of the body’s ever evolving patterns, and a bridge to stillness, observation, and meditative awareness.
As beautiful as the Ashtanga vinyasa sequences are, by far my favorite part of Richard’s teachings are his lectures on philosophy and the texts of yoga. In this training we covered the Katha and Kena Upanishads, some of the yoga sutras, and a bit of the Bhagavad Gita, which I have heard Richard speak about many times; I suspect this text is his favorite.
Richard has the uncanny ability, like most scholars who are also gifted teachers, to bring new and often challenging, even controversial perspectives to texts many people find not only dense, but also sometimes analyzed to the point of completion. For instance, his explication of Samkhya philosophy, which is the foundation of many theories about yoga, is one of non-dualism, even though on its surface Samkhya seems to be the essence of a dualistic worldview.
I have not taught a yoga class in many years. First I took time off because I wanted to be with my first two children; then the practice itself seemed to escape me as I sank into a limitless despair during and after my third pregnancy. The practice of asana, the study of philosophy, which has been a focus of my life since my undergraduate years (I was a philosophy major), and the cultivation of meditation sank into the background of my depression: it became part of the life I “used” to have.
One thing I learned from being with Richard and Mary last week, these two sages I have been blessed to know for so long, is that part of me has indeed, in a quite tangible manner, died. The life of being a hyper-flexible, curious, somewhat extroverted but unstable young yoga practitioner is over. As I listened to Richard guide us through savasana, the most sacred of all poses, my mind flickered back in time to the days of my childless body. When I saw that body, and remembered the person who inhabited it, I did not recognize either one. That lack of recognition was a grief, but oddly a relief too.
Teachers like Richard and Mary cause one to gain insight into what remains after a death, whether it be of a period of one’s own life or the death of an entire culture or civilization. Time passes, change is constant, death is constant: what remains? What remains? Is it the Atman, the great inner, Universal Self; is it emptiness; or is it just form following form following form? And if it is a chain of form, what lies behind the chain?
In the years leading up to my breakdown, I was deeply enamored of my own physical asana practice. I had a “strong” practice in many ways: flexible from dancing, and vigorous because of my youth. Although I was aware of my egoistic attachment to the image of my body moving through advanced asanas, I wasn’t too concerned with the attachment. It was just a part of me: vain, but very unstable, like a rose gazing into a fragile mirror.
Now, after children and a depression that lingers and pulls, my attachment to asana, to having a “beautiful practice,” is lessening more and more with each passing day. I love asana, but I appreciate the inner sweetness of those rare moments of “letting go” ever so much more. “Letting go” is an odd and nebulous phrase, and one that is over-used in the yoga community, but there is, occasionally, a taste of it for those who stick it out with meditation and philosophical inquiry, and the taste is lovelier than anything I’ve ever known in the material world. I think the phrase ultimately refers to the ego being willing, just for a second, to soften, and get comfortable with the idea of its own artifice, and that it, too, will pass away like a drying river, although the river is far more real than the ego ever was.
Someday soon I would love to teach yoga again. I would love to share the tiny shreds of wisdom I have gained from the texts I have read and the words I have absorbed from people like Richard Freeman. That is why these texts exist, I think: to pass from one mind to another, and to invite one another to be free.