"It's OK": finding santosha with David Swenson
I was lucky enough to spend last week in a 40-hour intensive teacher training course with David Swenson. The course was designed to train us to teach Ashtanga Primary Series, with a special focus on learning the adjustments for the asanas in the sequence. I don't teach primary series, but I teach many of the poses from primary series, so learning these adjustments seemed like a perfect match.
David Swenson's reputation precedes him. He is one of the most experienced teachers of any style of yoga, and was one of the first American Ashtangis to study with Pattabhi Jois in Mysore in the 1970s. He is a truly gifted teacher of asana, but more than that, this week reminded me that one of the most important skills in a yoga teacher is their humility and their humanity.
The phrase I heard David repeat more often than anything else, hundreds of times over the 7-day course, was "It's OK."
Can't bind in Marichyasana D? It's OK.
Need to take a child's pose? It's OK.
Want to play pop music in self-practice because it's the only thing that will get you on your mat today? It's OK.
Partway through the week, I realised that this simple phrase seems to be an expression of the heart of everything that David teaches: santosha, or contentment. The Yoga Sutras say that santosha is about not needing to go to outside things for happiness, and about finding satisfaction with things as they are right now. David radiates that genuine inner contentment that comes when somebody is completely comfortable in their own skin. He conveys, with warmth, humour, sincerity, and simplicity, the importance of being aspiration-less in our practice, both on and off the mat. There is no need to strive for 'enlightenment.' We already have what we need. "It's all right here already." Instead of working towards an often intangible state of samadhi that might exist somewhere in the distant future, our main goal as yogis should simply be to "leave a place a little better than when we arrived." David Swenson unquestionably did that last week in London.
Training with David Swenson is a masterclass in how to teach. He loves yoga and he loves teaching yoga. His commitment to this practice is humbling to newer teachers and an inspiration to keep learning, keep exploring, and more than anything, to keep loving what we do. He is one of the few teachers I have ever met who truly seems to teach from a place devoid of ego.
Some yogis and yoginis perceive Ashtanga to be a dogmatic, rigid, rule-bound form of yoga with a goal of progressing through the various 'series' of the system. But training with David reveals how much more there is to Ashtanga yoga. He embodies the elements of this tradition that are open-minded, intelligent, empathetic, and compassionate. The way he talks with so much apparent admiration, love and respect for Pattabhi Jois suggests that his beloved Guruji embodied many of these same qualities.
Above all, David reminded me that "the goal is not to become an asana machine. It's simple. Do what you love. Do it because it makes you feel good and it makes you want to do it again tomorrow."
Thank you, David. I am humbled, inspired, and buoyed up by a week in your presence.