Apprenticing in Yoga: the first steps

The following ideas have been gleaned from Robert Greene’s book, Mastery, which is serving as the basis for my new course on The Business of Yoga, starting this fall.  The first part of this course will be “How to Be a Student of Yoga.”  We will then cover, in subsequent courses, how to be: a yoga teacher, a studio manager, a studio director, and a brand.  The overarching goal of this series is to generate a dialogue for the student and for the community about what it means to practice yoga, in all of its forms and manifestations, and to encourage a more thoughtful, profitable, systematic approach to yoga teaching as a business.


Mastery is about the transformation of your mind and your inner attitude.  Mastery in any field of study begins with a period of apprenticeship, where you subjugate your own opinions and preferences to learn the rules and conventions of the field.  Contrary to current popular notions about skill acquisition and refinement, there is no shortcut to mastery.  It takes time and effort – the proverbial “blood, sweat, and tears.”  This view applies to the study of yoga as well.

In essence, you must learn the rules before you start to break them.  And it can take a significant amount of time to reach that stage, sometimes between 7 and 10 years (or more) of consistent, persistent, thoughtful study.  Our current cultural attitude does not support such endeavors, as we want instant gratification, instant success, and a feeling of having mastered some skill or practice in a short period of time.  “Accelerated learning,” “life hacking,” and other phrases indicating that you can master something in a quick, bloodless manner are boosts to the ego, but rarely result in any truly lasting mastery and proficiency.

Let’s take a look at the model of apprenticeship.

In the traditional model of apprenticeship, most commonly associated with the medieval period, there are 3 phases:apprentice

  1. Apprentice
  2. Journeyman
  3. Master

As an apprentice, a student would spend a minimum of 7 years with a master, imitating his work through countless repetitions and lots of hands-on work, often supervised and reviewed by the master. At the end of the 7 years, the apprentice had to pass a Master Test, at which point they were elevated to the rank of Journeyman.  As a journeyman, the student could then travel wherever he or she wanted, practicing skills and techniques in different settings.

But they were still not masters yet.  It may take many, many more years and many projects before the Journeyman could demonstrate mastery or his or her field. Success and, more commonly, failure were essential ingredients to the Journeyman’s progress to mastery.

How does this apply to the practice of yoga?

Most people are introduced to yoga through the following four practices:yoga mudra

  1. Asana (the practice of yoga postures)
  2. Meditation (the practice of calming and stilling the mind)
  3. Pranayama (the practice of experimenting with and refining breathing patterns and the underlying psychological patterns)
  4. Devotion (the practice of devoting your efforts and actions to some higher cause or being)

Regardless of which practice you take up, you will need to go through the following three phases that Robert Greene outlines as keys to an ideal apprenticeship:

  1. Deep observation (the passive mode)
  2. Skills acquisition (the practice mode)
  3. Experimentation (the active mode)

We will discuss Deep Observation in this post.  Skills acquisition and Experimentation (Stages 2 and 3, respectively) will be discussed in forthcoming posts.

In Deep Observation, you want to learn the rules and procedures that govern any system of practice.  You want to learn the fundamental styles and values in that system. This will make the acquisition of skills and the experimentation further on easier and more stable.

For instance, Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga places a great deal of emphasis on:

  • daily practice of the Seriessurya A banner
  • adhering to the set sequence, with little to no variation
  • respecting the traditional lineage (parampara) as taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
  • studying with an authorized or certified Ashtanga teacher
  • humility
  • patience

The rules and procedures will be different for practices such as meditation, devotion, and pranayama, but the underlying principle remains the same.  Also, this way of looking at practices can give you a solid, reliable way of separating passing trends from more stable methods.  It will make you a more discriminating student of yoga.

Every day spent in practice is an opportunity for you to observe these rules in action.  By practicing daily, you memorize the sequence.  By adhering to the set sequence, you build up neuromuscular patterns to make the practice, over time, more efficient and smooth, than if you just practiced sporadically or without method.  By respecting the tradition (at first, more on this in later posts), you avoid the costly mistakes of causing emotional turmoil with a teacher or a community.  By cultivating humility and patience (acquired skills, no one is born with either), you open yourself to a positive learning environment.

In closing, I want to relate something about how students used to learn Ashtanga, when the first Westerners were visiting Pattabhi Jois in Mysore.  andre van lysebeth 2

Back then, there were no videos, books or primers on Ashtanga Yoga.  Outside of Mysore, India, Ashtanga Yoga was unknown.  If someone was interested in the series, the student was told to sit on the side of the room and to watch a regular Mysore session.  If the student liked it and wanted to learn the series, then Pattabhi Jois would tell them to come back the next day, and they would learn Surya Namaskar  A and B.

If the student could demonstrate enthusiasm, memorization and drive, then he or she would learn the series in the traditional manner: one posture at a time, one day at a time, progressing based upon skill and stamina.  Learn and earn, in essence.

This is in direct contrast to how most people learn yoga nowadays: from a video, from Youtube increasingly, from group conducted classes.  Although such an approach has some advantages (increased popularity of yoga practices, building a larger community, and exposure to the teachings), it tends, in my mind, to stifle individual progress in postures, sequences, and methods.

In exchange, you get students focused on exploiting strengths at the cost of addressing weaknesses; on “nailing” a posture at the cost of the well-rounded development of breathing, movement, and method; of investing in the superficial aspects of practice at the cost of understanding the deep principles.

In short, the student makes uneven progress across the spectrum of postures and practices and has an incomplete picture of the bigger picture of what yoga is about.

That being said, I hope that these series inspire you to re-evaluate your practice and to start asking high-quality questions about what you are doing, how you are doing, and most importantly, why you are doing it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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