“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.” -Martha Graham, as quoted in The Life and Work of Martha Graham (1991) by Agnes de Mille
When I was a little kid, I loved to draw. I could draw lots of kind of funny-looking things: people, flowers, animals. Often there was a joy in the simple expression of putting pencil to paper. As I grew older, however, and began to compare my artistic attempts to others’, I would get frustrated. I could see that what I was doing wasn’t the same, but I didn’t know how to make it “right.”
One particularly upsetting day, I was struggling to draw a person. I tried again and again to draw a nose that made sense- that looked like what I thought a drawing of a nose on a face should look like- but it just wasn’t happening. I was overwhelmed with frustration and maybe even the beginning of a sense of grief that I wasn’t able to live up to what I thought I should be able to do. This is when my mother intervened with a little bit of absolutely brilliant parenting.
She opened one of the many magazines that we had around the house and flipped to a cartoon of some little kids that was part of a frequent column. “Look,” she said. I looked: the children had been drawn with no noses at all. And yet they were still clearly children. They were a different expression of an idea of children, but they were people, and the nose was assumed, or it wasn’t, but it didn’t matter, because suddenly it became clear to me that there were many different ways to draw, to visualize, to convey the idea of something.
My lovely mom in that moment, took on the role of a teacher. Teachers can cultivate our individuality or (perhaps with the best of intentions) impose someone else’s idea on us. My mother had given me a gift that is still carrying me 30 years later: the knowledge that self-expression is individual, unique, and not better or worse than anyone else’s expression.
Perhaps you can remember a time when you felt stifled by a teacher. Last week, for some reason, I recalled with stunning clarity a picture of a potato that I drew in high school. Well, let me be clear– I had started drawing this potato in my art class, but it wasn’t going very well. My attempts to capture the essence of potato in colored pencil form were failing pretty spectacularly. Our art teacher was a demanding and troubled guy, and the best you could sort of hope for in that class was to be left alone. Sadly, his eye fell on me and the potato art that day. He sat down beside me, took the drawing, and completed it for me. It was a masterpiece. Subtle shading, deep-set eyes and utterly potato-like curves. It could have been promo material for the Idaho Potato Board.
I remember watching him draw my potato, explaining where I’d gone wrong; I remember taking it home and somehow it even ended up framed over my dresser for a time! But every time I looked at it, I felt sad, a little shamed- it wasn’t really mine, and in fact it was a reminder of how I had failed as an artist according to the teacher’s standards.
This memory came to me during a class I was teaching last week, actually. I was watching a group of my students in Warrior 1. Each of them looked different. Their feet were in different places, their knees were more or less bent, their arms were doing slightly different things, and their hips were in varying degrees of proverbial Warrior 1 “square”-ness. And I thought of how, in previous years, I would ask them to place their feet in particular ways, and move their hips into a certain position, and place their arms just so, in an attempt to “get them into the pose.” I’ve attended classes recently that asked the same thing of me. And knowing now what I do about my body, and my students’ bodies, I wouldn’t confine them to exacting specifications. The cues I give to the class at large are much broader and likely to ask them to explore their own range of motion and comfort. My assists or adjustments are becoming more rare- while I love the idea of communicating through touch, I’m more cognizant now of how I may be inadvertently indicating “wrongness” on their part- that I might be sort of metaphorically taking their pen and drawing their potato.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I believe that we are always trying to do the best we can as teachers. I certainly was. It’s simply that with time, I’ve gotten more information- injuries in my body, observation of my students, research from teachers that I respect, and communication with my students. While I have no interest in taking on the role of a guru, there is an element of power inherent in the word teacher. I believe that entails moral responsibility. For me, it means that I want to empower my students to recognize their own power, grace, and strength within their yoga practice. I want them to learn the value of their own unique expression of creativity in their body.
How could I do better than to emulate the instinctive wisdom of a mother? To demonstrate to my students that however their creativity presents itself- as artists, as yogis, as human beings- is not only okay, it’s an expression of their luminous, radiant nature and an opportunity to celebrate their singular essential goodness. To me, if a yoga practice is making me feel like I am wrong in any way, I’m happy to hand the pencil back to the teacher and move on.
(Gratitude and love to my wonderful mother, whose love of me and celebration of my life is so complete that she would be proud of me if I lived in a cardboard box down by the river).