The Poverty of Verbal Instruction

by Angela

Here are some words and concepts organized to question all use of words and concepts in yoga.

Hey, we work with what we’ve got; and bootstrapping is all over this practice starting with the first loop we close ‘round the toes in padangusthasana. Anyway, here’s a prolegomenon to any future blogging.

Pattabhi Jois started out saying that ashtanga method was 5% theory, 95% practice. He later scaled that back to 1% theory. Perhaps the 5% was getting abused.

Talking about experience tends to insulate us from a moment’s raw intensity, from subtle layers of experience, and from the transience of pain and pleasure.

I wonder how we’re really using words in yoga class. Do we know how to use language to set ourselves free in our bodies… or do we more often use it to solidify difficulties and obstacles? Do words come up due to anxiety about impermanence or attempts to pin things down, a need to prove something, or maybe unwillingness to just be quiet and do the technique? I wonder, too, if talking in practice—including my own verbal instruction—increases an egoic sense that we know what it’s is all about.

Who knows. Subtle mindbody activity—and some shocking physical abilities—live below the threshold of language.  To the degree that we are anchored in discursive mind only, we might miss out on a lot of this.

Actually, in a verbally-instructed class, this might be what students want. At first, it can be helpful to be distracted from inner chaos by a teacher who can hold attention strongly. This. Is. Ok. Teachers holding my attention to technique were exactly what I needed for the first few hundred hours of practice. Thank you.

But honestly. In the direct experience business, unless you’re a stand up comic, words are dull tools.

In yoga class, even the most precise, relaxing verbal instruction gets old. When it does, there are two options: (1) progress laterally by genereating 1001 postural and sequence variations, or (2) go deeper** into the bodymind by moving from content-based to rhythmic insruction. In rhythmic instruction, the teacher just pretends to be a metronome. This is where, sometimes, the practice starts to do itself.

Often though, rhythmic instruction still pulls a practitioner’s attention toward a teacher. But in silent, self-led practice, ohhhh….

(smiles dumbly)

Where were we. Ok.  Silent practice. Ok. I dunno. Once the concentration is there to stay with it, we come upon our own brilliance and stupidity; and beneath that is raw sensation that sometimes begins to vibrate or flow in the weirdest ways; and beneath that might be some intertwined thought-muscle-memory samskaras; and then maybe nothingness; and whatever… and there’s really nothing worthwhile to say about any of it. It’s more interesting than stand up comedy. Or the movies. Or this here internet. It’s personal. Impersonal. Empty. Exquisite. Boring. Pointless. Ineffable.

Anyway. The reason I offered the mental hygiene workshop two weeks ago was to suggest why I say so little the rest of the time. It only seemed fair. My teachers have taught me to give little or no response to students’ self-limiting stories, to teach with one’s own personality glazed over to support students’ depth of internal focus, and to do everything possible to prevent chit-chat in the room. My teaching mentors see discursive talk in a practice room as mostly useless. So gradually, and without using words, they showed me how to teach from a very quiet place.

I do offer new students verbal instruction. If someone is reaching out for an anchor or feedback, I’ll even give a little eye contact. And there might be some talk to smooth the transition into the odd culture of a Mysore room. Proprioception and concentration are still developing, after all. But pretty soon in this scenario, we come into contact with the ways that chit-chat and personality-to-personality interactions weaken and clutter the practice. I become more still in order to get out of your way, to let you refine your own beautiful habits of mind-body. It is so nice to be in the room as you realize that you’re ok with whatever arises, as you open to new sensations, as you settle in to just being there, creating and experiencing experience.