As a yoga teacher, it is a deeply enriching experience to spend time as a student of a master teacher. A week ago, I did just that in a weekend workshop with senior Iyengar teacher, Father Joe Pereira. Father Joe is a skilled teacher with many years in devoted service and study both as a yogi and as a Jesuit priest. His devotion to his teachers, Mother Teresa and BKS Iyengar, inform the core of his teaching. His commitment and obvious love for his teachers and his practice inspired me to revisit what it means to be a student of yoga.
It might be slightly shocking but being a student is not always as simple as it seems. It could be argued that being a student is a skill and therefore like any skill it can be developed. Above and beyond the particulars of any class or course, what a master teacher truly addresses is the development of that skill. It will be of no surprise, then, that the experience of the student coincides with his or her ability to receive, be open to be instructed and have a receptive attitude towards the teacher. The plain truth is that no one can be taught if unprepared to really sit in the role of student. Miracles, however, can happen when the sincere student encounters a dedicated teacher. Inherent, of course, in the dedicated teacher is the receptive student. Father Joe is clearly such a student and, as a consequence, such a teacher. As a result, students are liable to leave his courses transformed.
Being of a certain tradition and lineage, Father Joe’s expectations of his audience is not to be underestimated. I would venture to say that Father Joe’s expectations of the student’s attributes go back to the classics of yoga where humility, equanimity, perseverance in the face of hardship were part and parcel of the teacher – student relationship. Having said that, one expectation on the part of the teacher stands above the rest. That is the willingness of the student to surrender to the teacher’s authority and the recognition of the teacher as the holder of yogic attainment. In the inability to side step the ego, it is hard to believe that the student could benefit from the full scope of the teacher’s subtle knowledge.
This traditional model of teacher – student relationship is one that Father Joe has been able to mould into a more modern form. He weaves precise physical instruction to bring the mind and the body in alignment together with subtle energetic concepts, and a deep understanding of the ultimate purpose of yoga. Through his recurring use of elements like Mula Bandha and Uddhiyana Bandha, Father Joe allows for an internalizing of the specific physical instruction to transcend the limitations of the body and come to rest in the divine spark of the Heart. Beyond the poses, the work with subtle energetic patterns increases the student’s ability to be present. The emphasis on pranayama opens a space of vibrating presence within the student’s essence and also within the room.
The scope of Father Joe’s expectations for the weekend will remain a mystery to me. However, what I found particularly appealing was that within the rigor of his teaching, Father Joe allowed for the possibility that not all students were the same and would benefit in the same manner. The maturity of that approach made a point-by-point instruction obsolete in favour of a more spacious technique that demanded of the student commitment, openness and the willingness to face fear. He asked the student to come to the teacher rather than the teacher to search out the student – a classical characteristic of the teacher-student relationship.
On the concrete level, Father Joe taught from a very basic syllabus of poses. Introduced on Friday, these were then repeated on Saturday and Sunday. The objective was not physical ability; it was nuance. Nuance in sensation, nuance in effort, nuance in mental state. I would venture to say that through the long holds, it was not the body that rebelled against the strain; it was the mind. When the mind was screaming for distraction or for an end to the pose, Father Joe dared us to identify ourselves with Iyengar and forced us to differentiate between pain as an escape and pain as transformation.
Father Joe’s mastery is steeped with his vary potent humanity and lyrical approach to life. His lyricism shone in his delight at sharing selections from the Upanishads as well as Christian and Hindu mystical verses. His renditions, chanted or spoken, were shared without inhibition and clearly made one feel his studentship and the developed connection to the transcendent. In Father Joe, teacher and student come together as one. And possibly the ultimate mark of the master teacher is the ability to remain an eternal student.
Sequence from Friday evening:
- Opening + chant
- Supta Virasana or Supta Baddha Konasana
- Adho Mukha Virasana – over a bolster
- Adho Mukha Svanasana – head supported by bolster
- Trikonasana – block for the bottom hand, top arm thumb on sacrum to turn the chest up and then arm straight
- Parshvakonasana – same as above
- Virabhadrasana I – back heel raised on block, lift ball of front foot up
- Parshvottanasana – hands in Paschima Namaskar, hands to floor, walk around to the second side, come up
- Prasarita Padottanasana – head supported, hold ankles and then place hands between feet
- Viparita Dandasana – on the chair
- Bharadvajasana I – on the chair
- Navasana – belt at shoulder blades and around heels, calves on the chair edge
- Janu Sirsasana
- Triangmukhaikapada Paschimottanasana
- Chatush Padasana on block – hold ankles / Setu Bandha Sarvangasana on block – walk legs straight and interlace fingers
- Pranayama – torso on bolster – Ujayii
- Pranayama – bolster at knees so calves touch – interrupted exhale
- Savasana – head supported