Listen without prejudice

Navigating The Differences In Our Own Viewpoints With Love And Compassion For Others

By Scott Johnson

Autumn woodland scene

“Yoga begins with listening. When we listen we are giving space to what is.”

These opening sentences to one of my favourite books, The Mirror Of Yoga by Richard Freeman, offer the reader a direct insight into what entering the yoga experience is truly about: listening. But this isn’t just listening through the ears. It’s a deeper listening. It’s listening to the way that our own life is playing out through experience, all the time without stopping. It’s listening to the space that arises as we process our moment to moment awareness of being this human life. It’s listening to how I respond or react to every relationship I wake up to. For me, Freeman captures in 14 words the perfect way to enter and begin to work towards the yoga experience. They are like a personal sutra that I continue to return to and unpack.

To listen is to notice

If I am listening it means that I am noticing something as it arises. Something other than me. It means that I am noticing something in the relationship with myself; and then I am listening to the response to what has arisen. The practice of yoga for me is this understanding, that I am always in relationship with myself. I can never turn away from this, it is the process of my life and it will only end when I take my last breath.

It’s important to remember that the practices of yoga and mindfulness are imbued with developing the qualities of listening with love and compassion. Can we see the thoughts we have and at the same time develop kindness to ourselves while experiencing them? This is the ongoing challenge we face, which ultimately allows us to meet and heal the processes of our awareness and adopt new positive outlooks.

Noticing our narratives

Quite often, though, this deeper listening can be hard for us. We don’t initially like what we hear. The stories/narratives that play out in our lives are ingrained and deeply habitual. But through the practice of being with them we can reveal their feeling in our bodies, their tones and sensations. We can notice how they play out, we can feel them. We can ultimately, in time, let them go and allow how we relate to them to change. This letting go happens through creating new stories, through creating new positive habits. This is deep practice. This is yoga. So the way we habitually respond to things is deeply body oriented. It is learning to feel again. To notice. Our practices want to be waking us up to this experience.

The process of a yoga practice is to be with these narratives. To see the way we see things as narratives in our lives. As stories. Because, as Freeman writes, practice is giving space to what is. Importantly, giving space in this way allows us to notice when we are falling down. When narratives are clouding our view of the world. We all do it. We all have thought processes that catch us. To consistently listen to this is to be with the difficulty of the way we see things. For me, this is one of the most important teachings there is.

Learning our truth

My interpretation of ‘giving space to what is’ is ‘seeing things as they are’. The term in yoga philosophy for this is vidya. We are learning to see things as they are for us. Our truth. Even if our truth at the time is not easy. This process of learning our truth allows us to move in the world with integrity. It is where our ethical values can arise and can be how we meet others and move in the world. In yoga philosophy we want the discovering of our own truth to be how we then practice the ethical limbs of Ashtanga yoga, these being the yamas and niyamas.

But what happens when we listen to ourselves so much that we stop listening to others’ truths? We’ve been cultivating our truth for years, right? A deep yoga practice, cultivated over years with a teacher, will create a positive narrative in our lives. I have created this in myself with my own teacher. This can be the hardest narrative to unpack, especially as this narrative has changed our life. If that narrative is challenged, then we can find ourselves pushing up against the way it is being challenged. We can find ourselves choosing what we listen to and how we listen to it. When we give space to ourselves but don’t give space to listening to others’ views, we stop being open. We stop listening completely.

Challenging our stories

We know that the opposite of vidya is a-vidya. This translates as not clearly seeing, i.e. not clearly seeing our truth. This can be caused by addictions to our own habits and stories and this is one of the major obstacles to the yoga experience. And it’s where we see the most friction when it comes to human relationships with each other. You have your story, I have mine.

Importantly, what this boils down to is our own stories. How are my stories playing out and am I addicted to those stories? The story of my life. Our yoga practice should always challenge this very strand. To see that our stories are always in constant flow. Life is in constant flow. When we consistently challenge our stories, we are open to change around them. Importantly, we need to be able to be flexible in the way we meet the world and its innumerable, ever changing, circumstances.

So, yoga teaches us to not only listen to our own stories, but also consider those of others.

The Ashtanga yoga community, March 2018

Importantly, our Ashtanga yoga community finds itself in this exact conundrum at the moment. People are hurting, have been victimised and abused. Many women, such as Karen Rain, are calling out their pain as a response to the behaviour of Pattabhi Jois. They are pointing at the obvious: that their experience doesn’t match that of many others who practised with Jois at the time and we are burying our heads in the sand. We are not truly listening. We are caught up in our own narrative of Ashtanga yoga because it is so close to us. Because it has meaning, depth and connection to us. Because it’s Ashtanga, because he’s ‘Guruji’. “He enlightened me, so how can this not be others’ experience?”

If Ashtanga yoga was this practice that’s there to enlighten us, we would be truly open to the suffering of others, even if the suffering was dealt from those closest to us. We would engage with it. Consider it. Wake up to it. But we are not doing this. In other fields where this is happening, people are starting to come forward more and more, and we are actually starting to listen. This is powerful, encouraging and necessary, but it cannot stop there. Now that we have the light shining on our community, how we move, how we listen, is so important.

We need to listen. We need to listen more than ever. And we need to be uncomfortable. It has to challenge our view so that we can respond in an appropriate way.

We need to listen so that we can acknowledge the hurt of those who have suffered. So that we can then begin to heal the story of our own addiction to a narrative. Do we move along this path of yoga looking out for only ourselves, or listening so that healing can take place for those who’ve been harmed?

If yoga is about listening, how can we listen even though it challenges the very base of our own personal narrative?  Even with evidence that challenges the very fabric of our method?

Father first, teacher second

I have been teaching Ashtanga yoga for over 13 years now. The practice has moved me profoundly, and continues to do so. It is in my DNA. But, I have been a father for longer. I watched our first son being born in 2001, then our next two in 2004 and 2006. Those experiences moved me more. To bear witness to the birth of life, I became witness to this thing we squeeze, we breathe in and that we wrestle with every moment of every day. As they develop, I want no more for our boys than to have clarity of insight, to adopt an ethical outlook and a way to find joy in life. To be able to listen.

I want there to be a clear way that they meet others, so that there is no ambiguity, but most importantly that they meet people on an equal level. That they never place themselves above others’ experiences, but see how they can become part of the growth and integrity of others’ movements in the world.

Looking at the current situation in the yoga world helps me to see what I want my boys to learn. To be honest, open, transparent, with no way of people misunderstanding their meaning. But most importantly, to listen to those who are speaking and hear them with as much clarity as they can, especially when they are hurting. To receive and acknowledge the hurt.

Humble acknowledgement

“Vande Gurunam Charanaravinde”

This is the opening line of the Ashtanga yoga opening invocation that precedes every traditional practitioner’s practice. They are prophetic words. Loosely translated they mean, “I bow to the lotus feet of the supreme gurus.”

Guru in this context does not mean a person, but the yoga practice itself. The yoga practice is, and always will be, the teacher. We wrestle with the practice ourselves so that our stories can fall away and we can open up to experience.

When I chant these words myself, I am acknowledging and thanking the countless and innumerable people who have practised before me so that I am able to find my place on the mat that day, that moment. Every one of them. I feel their place in the world, I hear their breath in mine. Then, I breathe with them. I continue breathing with them, knowing that my breath is continuing this age old pathway forward. This for me is parampara. I include those who have suffered. I imagine that if those who have suffered, such as Karen Rain and others, had called out their abuse and been heard at the time, I may not be practising now. I bow deeper. It humbles me. And I listen harder.

Listening with love and compassion

So, the very words we chant at the beginning of our practice ask us to humbly acknowledge and listen to others. Too many of us are listening to the sound of our own Ujjayi breath and not listening to the wider sounds that are being made. Being voiced. These voices need to be heard.

So for me, I am listening. I am open to the uncomfortable and challenged by the new narrative. I am listening to those who suffered with love and compassion. I am hearing and believing their stories. I need to acknowledge and understand why people didn’t see and listen at the time. So that I can learn to be as open and responsible as I can in the way that I meet people in the many roles I have – as a father, a yoga teacher and, ultimately, a human being.

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