From Athens to Pune: Prashant on Pranayama
In 399bce, the Athenians put Socrates on trial for teaching new things about the gods and for corrupting the youth. Socrates, being Socrates, senses these charges are not quite the real ones. He himself thinks that he is on trial for other reasons. One comes from an older set of accusations, namely that he is a natural philosopher, someone who teaches about the heavens and the earth. He quite explicitly states, “ if you have heard from anyone that I undertake to teach people (these things) and that I make money by it, that is not true either” (Apology 19e). That is not the only place in the Platonic corpus where Socrates claims not to be a teacher. He mentions it again later in the Apology and he regularly claims not be to a teacher of virtue, because he does not think virtue is the sort of thing that can be taught like other crafts.
Socrates’ claims go even beyond a disavowal of teaching. He even claims to have no knowledge, other than knowledge of love and the knowledge of his own ignorance (There are other things he knows here and there, and everywhere, but Socrates, at least, as Plato paints him, has a flair for the dramatic.
So does Prashant. Today, we had what one might call a pranayama class except that I’m not sure Prashant regarded it as pranayama so much as preparatory work for what pranayama might be in some yet to be realized context.
Twice today, Prashant uttered his own disavowal of teaching (not of knowledge mind you, but of teaching).
I have never said that I am a teacher of yoga.
I have never claimed to teach the subject of yoga.
Curious claims particularly give the ongoing refrain that most if not all who claim to teach yoga are quacks who make a mockery of the subject.
Prior to this moment, I thought, “well okay, at least he sees himself as teaching real yoga.” Not so, apparently.
He did today offer a definition of what he meant by quackery; to practice (or to teach) without education. Ostensibly, without education in the subject of yog. However, if there are no teachers of yog, one might rightly wonder how is such a subject ever learned? Perhaps it is like what Plato says about philosophy. It can’t be taught or written about like other subjects. It must be written in the soul of the hearer.
Interesting, Prashant also used the imagery of graphic construction today.
Also, to the extent that the practice of philosophy and the practice of yoga are activities of self-inquiry, there is an important sense in which no one can teach you but yourself. Not that there aren’t teachers, but teachers can’t make you a philosopher or a yogini. And, even if you can’t teach yourself, why not enact being one? That’s part of the process of becoming one.
He was pretty clear that what we think of as pranayama, Ujjayi, Viloma, Anuloma, etc is not pranayama or at least it is not what he referred to as classic pranayama. Again, quackery.
I think his use of the term is meant to be pedagogically shocking to us more than insulting to any particular group of people he might be describing, though it is difficult not to read it as at least somewhat insulting. (Sort of like Socrates claiming to learn everything he knows about love from a woman, to a group of male lover/beloveds who have just defined love in rather homoerotic terms-they too were overly masculine in their approach to philosophy and had banished the feminine).
But along with collective dynamics and integration and uddyana Kriya, quackery and mockery come up in every class, so its another thread working its way through my overall experience of being here (I don’t have a fully formed opinion on the mockery/quackery stuff yet or any of it. I feel very in the middle of things).
By and large, I would say that we practiced breathe awareness in a variety of poses (rope sirsasana, Supta BK, Supta SK, Setu Band, Sukasana, savasana).
He uses a number of lovely metaphors to talk about the practice of breathing.
On one level, pranaya is like housekeeping. You are just keeping the various rooms of your house clean. However, after an hour or so, he switched metaphors and started talking about using the breath as a mode of offering hospitality. We can use breath to sooth rather than to clean. We can’t start with the soothing, however.
We ended with what he called Spine awareness pranayama and we worked with the silent utterance of different vowel sounds. My spine really did feel super straight.
Another metaphor I liked was the breath as a knife. Knives have many purposes. But think even of a swiss army knife so many purposes, like even a magnifying glass, what purpose does that have with respect to the purpose of a knife?
It did relate to one of his other main themes today: the importance of observation. There’s so much to observe. Before we can begin to know, we must cultivate great capacity to observe what is. Our ability to observe changes with the tools and resources that we are able to bring to that process.
He had a little mini discourse on the history of science from Aristotle to Galileo as a caution about placing our eggs in the basket of scientific knowledge about the body.
He told us to try to understand the beginning of class and the structure of what we did That makes you less dependent on what the teacher said. He also said that he can’t speak about these matters directly, the speaking really happens through the metaphor and through the awareness we have in the various experiences he puts us through in class.
He was also pretty clear that not everyone is ready to hear. Imagine an English teacher teaching to students, to graduates, to a spouse to a young child. Sometimes the subject does not even come up and most are not qualified to hear it.
He remarked at one point, “I say the same thing to 125 people, but not all 125 equally prepared to hear it or implement it.” Then he said something like, “So, you do what you can. No doubt speaking to himself as much as to us.
Well, I’m actually going to go up to the library now and see what there is to see.
Seek the subject.