Adho Mukha Vrksasana. Downward Facing Tree. Better known as handstand. What I wanted to learn in the 300-hour Effective Teaching program was handstands. I expected to work hard. I imagined myself at the studio every day kicking up against the wall over and over and over until I didn’t need the wall anymore, until I didn’t need to kick up anymore. I wanted to be taught the specific mechanics of this challenging pose. I wanted to spend 6 solid months training my body to find and hold it’s lighting rod shape.
Adho Mukha Svanasana. Downward-Facing Dog. What I did in the training was downward dog. For six months, I learned its structure, the way the spine stretches down through the crown of the head and up through the tail bone, the way the front ribs hug in as the lumbar spine lengthens. The exact placement of the fingerprints, the knuckles, the upper arm bones, the way the shoulder blades sit firm against the back. How the breath fills the low back ribs, how the belly draws in as the breath leaves the body. I learned how to feel downward dog in my own body, how to look at it, how to adjust it on other bodies. How to explain it in words. How to explain it with touch.
Actually I wasn’t really learning about downward dog, although I was practicing it a lot. I was learning about the spine, about it’s relationship to the rest of the body, it’s relationship to the breath. And by learning about those relationships I was learning how to construct any pose. Downward dog. Upward dog. Handstand.
I went in to the Octopus Garden 300-hour Effective Teaching program thinking: now lets learn the advanced poses. What I learned was: You don’t know anything. You don’t even know downward dog.
The advanced teacher training is all that an education should be—it teaches you how to learn. It takes everything you think you know and everything you think you want to know and reduces it to the size of a pinhead, and then says: “Now, learn the landscape of the pincushion.” It turns you upside down, shakes out all the shiny desires you’ve been hoarding in your pockets, and says: “Dream bigger.”
Like any good education, the first lesson is always this: Go back to the beginning. Learn to build a strong foundation. Learn to stand on two feet. And then flip it over, and you’ll see you already know how to stand on two hands.
I’m on my hands a lot these days. Bakasana. Kundinyasa II. Mayurasana. For brief, still shaky moments, Adho Mukha Vrksasana. I practice on my hands. I teach from my hands. And every time I come to the mat (metaphorically speaking—my use of a mat is sporadic at best), I start with I don’t know. I approach my own practice open to the experience of learning. My classes hold the expectation of being taught as much as teaching. I begin each one thinking: “I don’t know the bodies that are in front of me. Even when the faces are familiar, I don’t know how these bodies feel today.” I let the class evolve as I find out. I constantly refine my cues, learning what works, what doesn’t. As I make adjustments, I learn by observing how each body responds uniquely to each touch. When students ask me questions, I can say: “This is my experience. This is how I feel it in my own self.” When the answer is beyond the scope of my expertise, I’m ready to say: “I don’t know.”
Sometimes I feel like a fraud as a teacher, with all this uncertainty. Part of me wants to be authoritative, wise. But that’s just another shiny coin dream. Mostly I want to keep hovering around the edges of knowing, so that every time I step into a practice, I step into adventure. Like an explorer forging deep into the exotic jungle, we start by naming. We name the birds—crow, crane, pigeon, peacock. We learn their exact shape and anatomy. As we gain awareness, we learn their habits, how they draw breath into their feathered skins, how they take flight. Yet the depth of the jungle remains infinite, the birds just one of many layers. We learn the sheaths of flora and fauna—the tree, the frog; we start to unveil the fine web of connections that tie them all together. And still the jungle is elusive, secretive. We spend our whole lives approaching Her dark heart, but we never truly arrive.
That 300-hour training is many months, many miles away now. In reflective moments I’m able to observe the distance I’ve traversed—in myown practice, in my teaching. I’ve grown. I’ve transformed. The seeds of education germinate, blossom. In moments of radiance I think: I understand. And then the season shifts, the landscape changes once more. The bloom of knowing fades, dormant seeds settle to collect another winter’s wisdom.
Liz Huntly is a mover and shaker, a barefoot philosopher, a collector of languages. She mostly lives in Cologne, Germany, but feels at home anywhere she can comfortably get into vrksasana. She’s infinitely curious about the body & the breath, plants, art, magic, beauty, failure, and how to find the sweetness of being lost in the world. She’s writing a book that she’ll probably never get around to starting. She wants to watch you fall in love with yoga. For the multiplicity of ways to follow/get in touch with her visit www.lizhuntly.com.