A discipline like yoga humbles the earnest practitioner to such a degree that the idea of mastery is a distant dream – a point B to keep us going. In one sense, this is just perfect, as we should always see ourself as at point A. And yet. During a recent class at the Iyengar Institute of New York, teacher Kevin Gardiner said, “This work is intermediate/advanced – it isn’t how you teach a beginner, nor is it how a beginner should practice.” He then went on to discuss how Iyengar himself practiced differently than his students. I don’t think Mr. Gardiner meant that as a lofty, divisive statement. I took it to mean that there was a depth Iyengar was practicing toward that required he treat his movements and actions in a more refined manner, and that it was the natural result of all his prior work.
In my teaching, I’m often working with students to create a clear framework. In one sense, the idea of mastery is akin to fine motor skills developing in a child – i.e. they have ‘mastered’ the use of their hands when they can pick things up, open doors, etc. When a beginner struggles with the physical movement of Trikonasana, that period of wrestling with the shape is essential to learning. Once we are established in the idea of Trikonasana, it makes room for another level of observation and experience. It doesn’t in any way say that the pose is finished or perfected, it just allows the work to occur on another level – because it can and, I think Mr. Gardiner, and Mr Iyengar, in fact, would say because it must.
Suffice it to say, one struggles to find accurate or effective wording to convey this. Mr. Gardiner lead us through familiar postures, such as Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose), imbued with a distinct depth of detail in the abdomen, frontal pelvis and various parts of the hand. The work of the hand made a familiar movement, that I had done literally thousands of times, feel completely different. We tell a beginner to stretch their arms, but this approach made the arms feel alert yet more relaxed. It was confusing and amazing.
And so I left the room both confused and amazed, ever more aware of the work needed to be done. Mastery on a very superficial level might mean having a big picture idea of what a posture is. It makes room for another point A, and an ever more wonderfully distant point B.