Jonathan Foust

September 7, 2008

Off the Hammock and Into the Saddle

Filed under: Dharma, Meditation — jonathanfoust @ 3:24 pm

This is my last week in the hammock before I hop back into the teaching saddle.

  • The 15th I rejoin John McIlwain and Collie Angle at St. Mark’s on Capitol Hill for our Monday Night Meditation class.  
  • The 16th I start up the Tuesday Night Mindful Movement and Meditation group in Bethesda.
  • On the 18th it’s Thursday Night meditation at Unitarian Universalist Church in Arlington with Stig Regli.
  • Wednesday I give an introductory talk at the World Bank with Klia Bassing as we begin our fall Mindfulness Training series.
  • This Saturday I lead a half-day retreat at Inspired Yoga and the following Saturday, a daylong retreat for the Year of Living Mindfully group.

I’ve been wondering … “What I am doing here exactly?”

Am I teaching?  Lecturing?  Facilitating?  Sharing?

How do I approach ‘teaching?’


I lived for a couple decades in an ashram with a guru.  The community was designed around him and his teachings.  He was The Man. 

We, as disciples, were part of a lineage.  In this tradition, one opens to the ‘transmission’ that comes through the teacher – which came through the teacher’s teacher, etc, back to, well, who knows.

When he spoke we were encouraged to listen to ‘not just the words, but to that which is beyond words.’

I spent years listening to him, sensing his energy, reflecting on him and his work, doing my best to translate his teachings into experiences for the thousands of guests who came to our community.

I taught in that tradition too.

The Guru (Yogi Amrit Desai) was renown for his ‘posture flow’ which he would demonstrate in front of large groups.  Oftentimes there would be a few hundred people in a large circle with him in the center.

There was no music, no special lighting.  He was spectacular.   He’d glide from one posture to the next in a seamless flow.  His body would move seemingly by itself.

This was Kripalu Yoga, or what he referred to as ‘meditation in motion.’

Kripalu Yoga has three basic stages.  The first stage is willful practice, paying attention to proper breathing and alignment.  

The second stage is noting the play of sensation, the subtle flow of energy and movement inside.

The third stage is complete surrender to the energy, letting it move and flow without any restraint, yet remaining the witness to the internal experience.

I had many powerful experiences watching him.  Kripalu Yoga and meditation was my main practice – learning to relax into subtle energy and feel it moving through my body of it’s own natural intelligence – all the time sensing what it meant to remain the witness of what was arising.

Good stuff.


The ‘problem’ was that in the process of teaching, he was always the focal point.  After doing his posture flow, he’d take sharings from the participants about what they observed.  Inevitably it was about him and how moved they were by his movement and grace, how awestruck they were by his energy and depth.

Those of us who were teachers did the same thing.  We’d demonstrate our posture flow with a circle gathered around us, then ask people what they noticed.

Inevitably there was a you / me comparison. “You’re so flexible.” “I could never do that.”  

I’d smile, beatific, humble and engaging.  “Certainly you can,” I’d respond.  It doesn’t matter what it looks like.  It’s what it feels like on the inside.”  I meant it when I said it, but I did not realize the paradigm I was teaching in.  “Watch and behold me, then try it for yourself.”

(If you’d like to read an article by my friend Jeff Wagenheim referencing his experience watching my posture flow, click on this link to check out his article in Yoga Journal called Gods and Monsters:  By Putting Your Teachers on a Pedestal Are Your Setting Them Up for a Fall?)

I didn’t really know any other way to teach. I was a disciple of Yogi Desai and modelled myself on his life as best I could.

Eventually the guru model started to fall apart for me.  (It’s a long story.)  I realized that I was perpetuating the tradition by being just like him – as best I could.

In the Theravaden tradition, the teacher is considered a ‘spiritual friend.’   There is no ‘lineage’ transmission. Adulation of the teacher is not encouraged.


I like this.  A lot.


However, two summers ago I spent a few weeks with Tsoknyi Rimpoche out in Crestone Colorado.  The Tibetan tradition is very lineage / guru oriented.  If you look at the Tibetan teachers’ bios, it’s all about what transmission they received from who.

I found myself, with Tsoknyi, charmed by his presence, his wit and his wisdom. 

I also found myself getting entrained into familiar patterns of sitting with my guru – sensing his energy as well as his words.

When Tsoknyi would describe Rigpa (unconditioned awareness), he’d close his eyes and kind of roll his eyes upward. I could sense he was describing it from inside and at the same time, I’d feel a rush and an inner expansion.

I was getting juice from this guy!

I had the opportunity to talk with Tsoknyi.  I asked him about how one should listen to him and of my experiences.  His response was sweet.  “I don’t do this transmission.  Others do,” he said.  After a pause, he added, “but when a student is very sensitive, they can pick it up anyway.”

I immediately tried to put the brakes on my ego.  I’d had enough years of wanting to be seen as special to a charismatic teacher.

All of this left me, though, with a deep inquiry into what it is I do as a teacher.  


Here’s where I end up (as of 7:11PM on Sunday, September  7th, 2008):


I believe that any teacher who loves what they love ‘transmits’ a sense of joy and presence.  This includes a math teacher who loves how numbers work, an English teacher who loves poetry.  

Even if you don’t like math, the love and radiance from the teacher come across.

For now, I’ll leave it at that.  

I love touching into presence.  I love the teachings and words that stop the mind and open the heart.  I love when people gather to pause and sense the mystery together.

I hope to communicate that through my words and mostly through the space between the words we share.


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