Last year I completed my 500hr Teacher training with my beloved teachers; Mitchel Bleier of mbyoga.com (p.s. there is a free downloadable class on his website….go to it, it’s great) and Donna Jackson and Tracy Bleier of Saraswati’s Yoga Joint. It was 4 months of therapeutic training woven in with deep, intelligent, insightful and stirring conversation, meditation, pranayama and spontaneity. I, of course, started the training around the same time that I had decided that yoga kind of bored me – it was indeed my way of staying only lightly committed. So I dove in because, at 36 I am pretty aware of my ego tricks at this point and I know that when I get the urge to turn away, or run away, my best course of action is to do the opposite (unless it’s going to kill me of course).
Needless to say it turned my teaching around, re-ignited my love of the practice of yoga and connected me to a deeper sense of self.
At the end of it our final (of which I took way longer than necessary to hand in…old tricks do not completely die) was not so much about what we had learnt, but more about the kind of discussions we were having. Because, let’s face it, how many times can you talk about the alignment of Trikonasana and do it any differently than the thousands of other teachers out there? No, our teachers know that in order for us to carve out a place as a yoga teacher, conversation and inspiration and connection to our own ideas was what was necessary. So, below is the final that I handed in.
It’s an open ended discussion – no right answer – and I’d love this post to be a conduit for discussion about this topic.
The Question: If yoga is life and life is art then can we or are we separating the art from the artist particularly as a yoga teacher?
“Much has been said about Robert, and more will be added. Young men will adopt his gait. Young girls will wear white dresses and mourn his curls. He will be condemned and adored. His excesses damned and romanticized. In the end, the truth will be found in his work, the corporeal body of the artist. It will not fall away. Man cannot judge it. For art sings of God, and ultimately belongs to him.” Patti Smith ~ Just Kids.
Art holds a message of life. It is an artist’s message. Once connected to one’s true spirit art becomes the artists private conversation revealed; an offering to life itself. To the artist, there are no exceptions, it has to be shared. Like a deep breath, it has to be exhaled. And while its origin can be named, its journey cannot.
Yoga is a practice of connection. It is an art form that binds all the many things that are alive, together. Yoga, to me, is about creating an artful life through the practice of choosing that which we connect up and to. I don’t think yoga is life itself, I think it’s deeper than that. There are many people who are in this life – who make no connections to their life, choosing instead a life of commonalities, learned behaviors and cookie cutter achievements. The yogic, or artist’s life, on the other hand, neither has a single purpose or a decided destination. Instead of being life Yoga stands next to you in life and says “I’m here, turn to me, and I’ll help piece together a life that you can call completely your own. One that will be vivid in color and texture and flavors you’ve never even dreamed existed.” And from there, life imitates art.
Oscar Wilde once said “….the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realize that energy.” 1
Life then becomes the expression for which all art can be shared.
Photo: Anna Moller
To the uninitiated, the yogi’s art is in the asana – the shapes formed, the shadows against an immense sky, the multi-dimensional views of the same thing. But to the yogi, the art is in the surrender. The yogi knows that to truly create an artful life, one that is connected and engaged, is to surrender to the experience not to separate ourselves from it but to simply become it.
As yoga teachers, we hold a very personal seat. Our students come for the practice of asana, but mostly they come for the company of the teacher – those who return at least. Our art then is to simultaneously guide a student safely in their body to allow space for that surrender and to impart a truth which we hold close to our hearts. The art we chose to share then is the art of our own lives. We create concepts for our students to shape for themselves, and to apply in their life, but those concepts have to hold meaning for us, in order for them to nestle deeply in our students own hearts.
I’m a yoga teacher. I am an artist of life and my art is a message of life and of what I know to be true in my life. What I teach is an artful way to live life, not life itself.
Whether those concepts are exactly the way I am living in my own life, are a vision for myself, or simply knowledge I know to be true, is inconsequential. Rather, my message has to light me up authentically to hold value or to have any kind of transference. Not to deny that hypocrites or people who talk in contradictions are not placed in our world, but this is not quality art. Ultimately, while this can have popularity this is not art, it is mimicry and its life, as such, has an end. True art feeds itself. It sustains. And what is authentic art? It is unrehearsed, immeasurable, and forgettable for the artist. Forgettable in the sense that the artist usually has no real, comprehensible collection of thought afterward, it usually ‘just happens.’
Elizabeth Gilbert, in her now popular TED.com talk about genius educates her audience about the ancient Greek and Roman idea of Genius. She goes on to teach us that a genius was kind of a spirit fairy who lived side by side with us, or a spiritual character in our lives. It is the belief that human beings weren’t the genius, but we all had one. Everyone had their own personal creative attendant who helped us produce work, whether genius or not. The true artists work then was simply to show up and offer oneself as the conduit for the creative work of his or her genius. In short, the artist has to show up and then surrender. Thus, the artist was detached from the work he or she produced. This often explains the “I have no idea where that came from” when one has an ‘a-ha’ moment or produces work of an impeccable quality (one might argue when they don’t produce quality but, in my experience, when you’ve produced something you’re not so proud of you can usually retrace your steps and ‘understand’ the process.), or teaches a class that rocks worlds.
The artist then has to have the desire for something unknown and be willing to show up. What they are not separate from, but fully responsible for, is their participation in something bigger than themselves. What they have to connect to becomes something they can’t see, but have to trust exists.
A yogi is not separate from time on the mat, in meditation, or the practice of pranayama. He, or she, is not separate from the act of seeking connection and relationship. However, when they show up they aren’t guaranteed what they will find. A yogi trusts in this ‘outer genius’ to illuminate the way forward, the next breath, the longer hold. A yoga teacher, in order to be artful, must create relationships with their knowledge and then their students. They must be willing to give up what they know in order to create more to know. Their act of participating in their art lies then, in their listening. But they are never guaranteed what is heard.
As a yoga teacher I have to participate in the art I produce; the class I teach, the lessons I choose to espouse, and the students I build relationships with. Thus, I cannot be separate from it however, what I am separate from is how and when this shows up and then the life of my art. I can labor my thoughts and ideas, experiencing contractions of good and bad, right and wrong, tears and joy, gains and losses. What I ultimately deliver has connection to me but its umbilical cord weaves itself through interpretation and experience.
I think once an artist has produced their work, they essentially have given birth to a new world; a new life. Like a parent and child, they have connection to each other but remain separate in order to create life. So that life renews itself again and again.
There are many elements to a life and there are many ways to live a life. For so many, living simply in the intellect is enough. Occasionally feeling moments of spirit and instinct but reducing them simply to a good ‘smart decision’. Afraid to step into that unknown, one will measure and seek to find comfort in result only, avoiding consequences that will challenge order. An artist mines his spirit and soul to find experience only, understanding that sometimes the consequences might become his, or her, finest work.
An artist is at peace with his, or her, fear knowing it is fuel for one’s fire, it keeps their keen sense of instinct alert, preventing it from atrophy. Such is the life of a yogi, stepping forward day after day into fear and unknown, flexing over and over again the muscle of knowing, without measure and without security. Knowing how to engage in a world that is in flux and beyond one’s control and yet in reach all the time.
Human beings are a complex species, often said the most complex in this world (ironically said by other human beings!). We are the only species, discovered so far, to have the ability to change our physical nature, live in varied environments, evolve spiritually and emotionally and extend our lives to live longer and longer with each generation. At our very core we do this through our intellect and our instinct, and we engage in the world through our physical bodies, our thinking mind, our feeling heart, our untamed spirit, our pure soul and, of course, a deep breath.
We are the ultimate, unfinished piece of art work, ever evolving and multi-dimensional. Produced from a source that keeps distance and connection a choice for us to make but ultimately where all our art comes from.
A source that is so vast, its intelligence lies in its ability to be right in front of us at all times, yet always so secretly hidden. So powerful it is everything all at once but seems to be nothing at all. One that gives us choice to live a life where we can choose to connect with merely our mortal thoughts and judgments, fears, insecurities and inflated egos only, or to connect to something larger, and larger still. And perhaps this very choice ultimately defines an artist. Not someone who produces art but someone who can connect beyond what is seen or known.
An artist, a yogi, sees art before it exists. They feel it and hear it from a source unknown and show up day after day, courageously renouncing protocol and accepted definitions so that they may interpret it for the mortal world. And of that mortal world? We are hungry for art. We need it to escape, we need it to learn, to grow and think beyond a conditioned boundary. If art is relevant to us, we will see beyond the artist and seek only to indulge ourselves in the art and be moved by it.
Some of the greatest artists of our time had less than honorable characters in the moral world, think Roman Polanski, O.J. Simpson and Pablo Picasso. Despite what we know about them, personally, we can’t deny the relevance of their art, or talent.
So, while I don’t think an artist can be fully separated from his, or her, art I don’t think they can be fully responsible for it either. It seems to me that, where so many parts of us can seem scrappy in the moral world, our art may just be the only way the best part of us can be expressed. Perhaps, without art, the part of us that knows love and connection – the good part of us – has no other way to be seen.
I like to refer to Douglas Brooks quote “I am not you, I am something like you, I am nothing but you.” Perhaps it can help us understand how we relate to art, as an artist when we look at it like this “I am not my art, I am something like my art, I am nothing but my art.”
Personally, I don’t want to separate myself from my art, I simply want to create a deeper, more respected, relationship with it. I want to engage more in my life, so that I feed my art. I want to find more places where I can surrender and listen more. This, I know, ensures that I can continue to participate in the expression of my art. Ultimately, I then participate fully in my life which, like all great works of art in the eye of the artist, is never fully complete.