Some stereotypes of a yoga teacher:
–She has a tranquil demeanor.
–He is graceful.
–She has conquered the demons, or at least has moved on.
–He has a clear belief in God or an obvious spiritualism.
This might describe my first two yoga teachers, whom I admired while despairing of ever emulating. One of them, Karin O’Bannon, encouraged me to teach; she helped me struggle with philosophical questions; her faith was the foundation of my faith in myself. So, when she died June 10, 2013, 16 years after we first met, my world faltered.
Now for a superficial description of my teacher for the past 12 years, Manouso Manos:
–He curses. He yells. He gets angry, even furious.
–When demonstrating poses, he is somewhat famous for moving his shorts around until much of his buttocks or even tailbone is visible, so that we might see subtle actions not evident through fabric.
–He will risk physical injury to himself to help his students.
–He exhausts himself exhorting us to understand how to help ourselves.
–He laughs, mostly at himself.
Less obvious is that he is one of the most compassionate people I have ever met. Whatever his spiritualism or beliefs in a higher power, he pretty much keeps them to himself.
Having just spent a week-long intensive with him, I have much more of an idea of where his compassion comes from. I know better why I was drawn to his classes even during the first several years that I was so terrified of the challenges I would face in his weekend workshops. At first I thought it was the physical challenges that sent me out of the room in tears. Over time, I realized that it was coming face-to-face with my weakness of will.
Karin once told one of my students that my student and I were made of the same “clay dust.” Manouso has said that we are attracted to teachers who are like us. I now know that is certainly the case with Manouso, at least in terms of attitudes. Clearly not in terms of teaching abilities.
After 16 years of teaching, I still approach each class and student with a feeling of “I am not worthy.”
It was a shock the first time I heard Manouso tell us that he approaches each class terrified. He tells teachers that if we ever feel competent, quit. By that yardstick, I have permanent job safety.
Over time I’ve gleaned a bit of information from Manouso himself and from other students about his childhood traumas. I have enough of my own that I’ve come to realize that it is something I can draw on to reach out to students suffering from heartache.
This past week, he described his first experience in pranayama in India with his teacher, B.K.S. Iyengar. He related a tale of a disaster, of a feeling that he was so damaged that he couldn’t possibly do this thing.
This story and others that morning had a moral: That, from a certain perspective, damage adds value. I realized that this very damage is the foundation of his compassion, of his determination to help others find emancipation from our sorrows, our damage, through yoga, just as he is doing.
I do not have the strength and inquisitiveness that Manouso has demonstrated in reaching the point not of overcoming his demons, but of living with them.
I do have another asset. I am stubborn. I don’t know how to quit.
I finally have an understanding of why some of my students have said I am inspiring. I never really got it until I realized how inspired I am by Manouso. Maybe it’s because I am so deeply flawed, and those flaws are so visible, both in my poses and in my attempts to live yogically, that I am inspiring.
At the end of our week’s classes. Manouso grinned and announced that he was the luckiest man on earth. I understand the feeling. All of my flaws have brought me to this place where I am so fortunate as to be a yoga teacher.
Manouso left us with several pithy pieces of advice:
He egged us on in our practice. We’re SUPPOSED to make mistakes.
Try waking up every morning with a sense of “Wow!”
Be in it for the journey.
Keep a sense of wonder at what might happen next.