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Om Alone

Yoga provides an opportunity to practice being free even while imprisoned in the mind of another.

By Mark Epstein

But Julie's voice had astonished me. She sang quietly and beautifully as if to herself, very briefly at the start of class. If my mind were a candle her chanting would not have caused a flutter. Julie was pregnant, so perhaps she was not singing to herself after all. Whoever she was singing to, it did not cause waves in the class. This teacher was a different story. Were my mind a candle, it would have been blown out. His agenda filled the room, and we were all suddenly pulled inside of it, as if a big vacuum had sucked us all up.

The class improved markedly as we started to move around, but I was struck by how that brief beginning had set an uncomfortable tone. Perhaps I should not have been so surprised. As a psychotherapist, I was trained to pay particular attention to the beginnings of sessions. Whole seminars are constructed around the topic. How to position the chairs, open the conversation, maintain an expectant but noninterfering silence. Let the patient begin. They called it the "analytic attitude."

A controversial British psychoanalyst, W.R. Bion, famously declared that the psychoanalyst must be free from memory and desire if he is to be of any use to his patients. To think about the end of a session, to wonder what time it is, even to hope for a cure is to add an agenda that becomes an interference because it is sensed as a demand. People are sensitive to each other, especially in a stripped-down relationship like a therapeutic one. The yoga student-teacher relationship seems to be similar. "If the psychoanalyst has not deliberately divested himself of memory and desire," said Bion in his 1970 classic Attention and Interpretation, "the patient can 'feel' this and is dominated by the 'feeling' that he is possessed by and contained in the analyst's state of mind, namely, the state represented by 'desire.'" This is what I was experiencing in the yoga class. Like a stowaway in a packing crate in the hold of an ocean freighter, I was trapped in the bubble of another's desire.

I thought right away of a patient of mine, a psychologist-in-training who was doing his internship while seeing me in therapy. Jim was a brilliant therapist, but all too eager to share his insights with his patients. A student of meditation, he was aware of how his eagerness interfered with his effectiveness. His patients tended to experience him as telling them what to think instead of helping them come to their senses. "I feel like I'm always trying too hard to be effective, like I'm doing some sort of a job," he would say, well aware of the irony of his words. He was doing a job, of course, but it was not a job that required action. (A Taoist might say it was a job that required nonaction.) With his therapeutic acumen, he was able to see where his zeal came from. "I'm trying to overcome a core sense of inadequacy," he told me recently. His enthusiasm had a compensatory quality that turned his patients off, even when what he had to say was technically correct. There was something of this in my yoga teacher. We all knew that he wanted a rousing introduction to his class, that he wanted to take us higher. But in reaching for it, he was too present, and his personality became all figure and no ground.

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Reader Comments


I usually, if not always, have found this Yoga Wisdom email as interesting, helpful, and positive.
I found this particular piece filled with arrogance, and projection.
In relating to psycology, maybe its time to go back to the basics, you think?


What an interesting comment about presence. I wonder how the writer perceives his own presence, or lack of, in relation to his teachers?
I also found the contradiction in the first line, with what follows, some what disturbing, or maybe off balance.


It's interesting that this author attributes the "expectant" tone of the class entirely to the teacher and nothing at all to his own expectations/perceptions.

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