"O h the vrttis... It used to be that I couldn't sleep till five in the morning".
Amused and shaking his head, Geoffrey Wiebe was rolling his pale eyes upwards as if he couldn't possibly describe the nature of the outgrown predicament. The winter light was brighter than usual, like a flash flood through the wide perimeter of the cafe window, and Geoff was all smiles as he unfurled his lithe arms along the rough hewn wood counter. O those vrttis: the rapid-fire neural activity, that vortex of gapless thought that leaves us exhausted and wide-eyed in the dead of night. He was answering my question: "So how has yoga changed you?"
Sitting with Geoff it's not hard to imagine that the scope of his intelligence and energy could invoke a burden. Ask Geoff a question and you'll get a hundred intricate and vastly different answers; each thought digressing gently, the path dotted with Vedic tales, Zen koans, dialogue from screenplays and quotable one-liners from indie bands. Creativity and agility are no issue. And if you've ever been in one of Geoff's yoga classes the same is true. Exacting and detailed as a teacher, his one-on-one approach with students is as gentle and reassuring as he is in a face-to-face conversation.
The only child of a professor (of the philosophy of science and religion) and a registered nurse, growing up on campus in England was rich with opportunity, and Geoffrey Wiebe was introduced to yoga at 5 by an upstairs neighbor- though interest soon faded in favour of sport. The next invitation came over 20 years later with the ashtanga practice, taught by Diane Bruni and Ron Reid, with whom he completed teacher training in 2001. Other teachers include Mathew Sweeney, Richard Freeman, Chuck Miller & Maty Ezraty, and Geoffrey continues his study at the Downward Dog, Toronto. A graduate of U of T, Geoffrey has studied and worked in theatre (Canada, the UK, Germany, and Italy), made a film, and competed as a cyclist and rock climber.
|(Geoffrey Wiebe, Teaching at One Love Toronto 2011)|
In our chat Geoff is outspoken about his experience studying with beloved teachers, the yoga of surfing, his views on "grace" in a practice and how a yoga practice can make you free, life-affirming and "dangerous". And you'll notice he asks as many questions as he answers. It really is amazing that he can sleep at night.
"The unique skewed programming in each body must be discovered before balance can be found. Neutral is not a magical state, simply the constant we can compare from. When straight feels crooked, the pattern is revealed, and can be affected". (Geoffrey Wiebe, excerpt from "Our Rishis Have fMRIs")
Priya Thomas Interview with Geoffrey Wiebe, December 2010:
Priya: So Geoff you turn to concepts such as neural plasticity as evidence to support yoga's practice of undoing patterns through direct effort. As a teacher how do you find patterns?
Geoffrey: Well do you surf?
Priya: Uh no... but try me anyway...
It's like how do i find that place where I now can look for where my patterns, where my habits are? I would go in and I would adjust people in samasthithih. Samasthitih is the place to start. And I would notice them get uncomfortable, start to fidget or move around. And they'd start to drop back into what their pattern was immediately. So you go and adjust them again. And eventually I just asked someone, "You feel crooked don't you?" And the person just said "Yes!" And then it started to make sense that we train through habitual action for crooked to feel straight. So now you don't know what straight is. And then you think about the fact that you could do the same thing with what your ethics are....or what your values are...
Priya: You're saying that uncovering the pattern reveals the patterned distortions of our bodies/minds...the whole human complex...
Geoffrey: Yeah if crooked feels straight, where's the clarity there? I think that's what the point is - the point is to transform.
Priya: So I know you were introduced to yoga in England in the 70's by an upstairs neighbour. When did you begin studying yoga seriously?
Geoffrey: My friend Cristina Gonzalez who owns Movement Centre said, "you should take yoga at Downward Dog". When Cristina first suggested it, I said "Yoga? Really???" But then, when I did those first classes, I would walk out buzzing. So I thought there's something about this. But I came purely for the physical. I didn't come with an idea of any religious purpose. I came for the hors-d'oeuvres with no intention of staying for the show. But when the show started I thought well I'm not going to take off right away...
"There is no growth without assistance. Throughout its history, until modern times, yoga has been an oral tradition. or, better, a tradition of proximity: it cannot be learned from books or dvds. And this may again have root in human evolution- specifically, specialized brain cells called mirror neurons. These are elemental mimetic-learning deep structures of our brains which act subconsciously, in the fashion that their name implies. Mirror neurons allow us to re-experience another’s moment, and seem only to work in proximity, not via written or imaging technologies. Some researchers hypothesize that mirror neurons may be the foundation of empathy, which could bear connection to the hatha yogis’ emphasis on asana (postures) as starting point of yogic practice... Could honing the understanding of another’s physical moment improve the sympathetic faculty? There is the practice and the student: the teacher bridges the two, and must ensure neither is compromised in the connection". (Geoffrey Wiebe, excerpt from "Our Rishis Have fMRIs")
Priya: This may be a good point to start talking about mirror neurons. If our mirror neurons are always "on" and taking in information and we learn by proximity, having a good teacher is critical in your view. How do you know a good teacher?
Geoffrey: I had an English teacher in university who said that if you're breaking the rules of grammar without knowing them, then you're ignorant, and if you're breaking the rules while knowing them, then you might be William Faulkner. There's a difference in what you can bring to something and where you can move it if you know what the rules are. That's what I think a good teacher can do. This came up the other day in a conversation with someone else who studied with Ron Reid at the beginning. When we came to this, we had started reading things already, we had started looking at the texts...you're kind of looking for something...And then you meet someone like Ron and there's just something about him.
Priya: Do you think that both students teachers are inclined to skip over subtleties because of the "hustle" that is yoga today?
Geoffrey: Well yeah! For thousands of years to learn yoga you had to climb a mountainside and hope to meet a guy. You had to struggle to kind of get to it. You had to search to find your teacher. They didn't make it accessible. They didn't make it easily understandable. Now it's become the coquette on the corner flashing away its high heels. And that makes people approach it in a different way.
There's this third wave of yoga in the West that is kind of missing the point. Because students want results fast and they're not approaching it with that certain degree of respect for the teacher. And then the flip side is that if the teacher is old and Indian or they met him on a mountainside, then they become full of respect and have zero critical thinking....And I'm thinking that guy smoking chilliums with you half way up the mountainside may just be some guy that knows a couple of poses and read the sutras once and is doing this because he's got four kids and a wife he's left and he doesn't want to have to deal with life on the farm!
For instance, there are a number of people who would go to Indian teachers and have inappropriate adjustments or inappropriate touching and not say anything. And that means either sexually or physically...They wouldn't say anything because they checked their critical faculties at the door. But at the same time, they'll also not approach a teacher here who might have something to genuinely offer with that same reverence.
Priya: Sounds like no matter how you cut it it's still the same orientalism that's informing perceptions. Regardless of the outcome of the perception, it's based in a perception of what it means to be "other" etc...
Geoffrey: Well it is, it is... Definitely yeah. You know I'm proud that I'm the teacher that's never been to India. I'm totally of the North American context. Not that I haven't had Indian teachers.
Geoffrey: But my approach is that I totally learned this in the west. But I've had several people say to me, "Well how can you know if you've never been to India that it's the genuine authentic thing?" So I'm like if I said to you about someone who's working in internet technology in Chennai that they couldn't possibly know if they hadn't been to Silicon Valley, would that be true??
Priya: Fair enough.
|(Ron Reid at Downward Dog, Toronto)|
Geoffrey: Well a friend of mine who does Shaolin Kung-fu once said "ashtanga is like the martial art in which you kick your own ass". And he had said to me "you know a teacher cos they can kick your ass." And there's an element of that when I walk into Ron's classes and he just lifts up out of kurmasana to tittibhasana and then you know, up into a handstand and then floats back down...and my jaw just drops...How did he get my trust? He purely walked it. He just walked it. That's the only way that he engendered that trust in me.
Priya: Wow, you say that with some conviction...
Geoffrey: And I can remember the first heavy adjustment he ever gave me. For so long, he gave me almost no heavy adjustment. And I just thought, "I can't be doing this all right". "Is he going to say something to me, is he going to tell me something?" Because I'd see other people getting adjustments and wonder why I wasn't getting them. And that's the thing about a really great teacher....is that even when they're not actively teaching you, they're teaching you.
I slowly started to realize that he was giving them what they needed, just like he gave me what I needed. I was a self-learner. I needed to do things myself. That's the brilliance of Ron. He knows which student learns on their own, which student needs more firm guidance....So by the time he came around to give me a heavy adjustment in baddha konasana, and he gave me the weight on the back with the knees on the thighs...And at that moment it occurred to me that if anyone else had come over and done that I would have grabbed him back and said, "no my knees are fragile you don't stand on them". And that would have been trouble right there. Instead, when he finally did it, he did it after I'd known him for a long time and he'd given me enough information where I was protected in the pose, I knew what to do. It was after a couple of years already with him.
But he'd already established a respect with me because he walked it. You could see him walk into the Mysore room and it seemed as if his feet were almost pulling the floor up from under him. You can see how grounded he is. You can see the root. You can also see that he's coming at you for no other purpose than to help you understand. So when it comes to student and teacher, this is where the line is easy for me. To me, teaching is a straight meritocracy. The final arbiter of a teacher's authority is knowledge.
|(Geoffrey Wiebe, above; Amica Hilton, below)|
Priya: So when did you start teaching and why?
Geoffrey: I was an accidental teacher. I never intended to teach. I did a teacher training because I was cutting my movie and I needed a chance to get back into practice after being in production on my film. And then people asked me to teach. I said that if ten people got together at ten dollars each and had a space, I would agree to go ahead and teach. And that's exactly what they did. It sort of grew from there.
Priya: Did anything change for you as you started to teach?
Geoffrey: When I started to teach I started to realize that I'm doing something finally that's not at all about me. It has absolutely nothing to do with me. There's this giant, ancient practice which you are now entrusted with ushering. And then all of a sudden you're a channel by which that tradition moves through and it has everything to do with the student.
Priya: It's obvious the student can learn from the teacher via mirroring. What does the teacher learn from the student?
Geoffrey: Interesting question...
What I would argue is that let's just say in straight physicality you have a body map. So the student has a body map. And they have a certain awareness of how to use their body more or less based on their experiences of life and how they've responded to those challenges. And then you have the teacher who has their body map. The teacher's mirror neurons are taking in the student's body map. So for instance, while a student is mirroring me, (without having to work on it...that's the nature of mirror neurons) I'm also mirroring them. So now that's an interesting place of exchange...where two body maps overlap, and then adjustments are made. So I think the teacher has to have an exceedingly well developed body map before they decide to go in and adjust someone. This is where I think accuracy is really important. The teacher learns because they start to see patterns in their students.
Priya: In your paper you consider the role of the guru and say: "At the very least we should recast the role of ‘guru’ not as transmitter of some eternal and ineffable knowledge, but as experienced participant in critical discourse with the student". What's happening if we recast the role of guru? Are the student and teacher equals?
Geoffrey: Well there's a triteness in the number of times you'll hear a teacher say that a teacher is always a student. but there's a difference between saying and doing it.
Priya: Well then how does the teacher become a student?
Geoffrey: Ah, precisely by learning from your students.
Priya: Judith Lasater famously said "we teach people not bodies". Is there a danger in adjustments of orienting too much to fixing bodies, as if the body were separate from the rest of the person?
Geoffrey: Well, it's to orient a student towards a relationship with their own sacred geometry. For instance someone with reverse curves....well you can't fix something that was made that way. You can mitigate the pressure that happens because of their reverse curves. But to try and get them to have a curved lumbar is ridiculous. That's like trying to stretch someone arms longer than they are. But they can still have a relationship with this general sort of equilibrium. And they need to find their own unique version of it. But the one thing I say is in all my teacher trainings is "When in doubt, do nothing". "Let them have their practice". You need to give them freedom as people.
Namarupa (download the article here) many years ago that featured Desikachar, Iyengar and Pattabi Jois all being asked the same questions about their teacher Krishnamacarya?
Geoffrey: Well, you get three different answers to the question: "Did Krishnamacarya ever change the way he'd teach"? Pattabhi said "No, absolutely not, always the same. End of story". Iyengar said something like "Well you know when he was teaching at the palace he was quite a disciplinarian. But when his students were paying his way, and the raj wasn't - after partition-, he became much softer". And Desikachar had another version...But there's something that Pattabhi Jois says two or three times in that interview when he describes Krishnamacarya... he calls him a "dangerous man".
Geoffrey: And you're like, dangerous? Ok, now people have made a lot about Pattabhi's English not being that good.. but then I've heard from people who've talked to him a whole lot who'd say his English was really quite good. But I think he was choosing the term dangerous for a reason. So what's he thinking about? And it made me realize that if you're free and life-affirming, then you're dangerous.
I mean think about it. We have experience with this in the West in terms of our relationships with Afghanistan or Iraq. We know that the person who is so committed to a cause that they're willing to cause damage and lose their own life at the same time is dangerous. How do you stop that? That makes me think that if someone is committed to life, and yet at the same time is able to let go of it, (which would be the yogic ideal), how dangerous are they? And so it kind of makes sense that he would describe him as a dangerous man because if you are truly free then you are kind of dangerous.
Priya: So are you saying that yogis are at risk of becoming free, life-affirming and dangerous??!!
Geoffrey: Well here's the thing. This is what I know about people coming to yoga classes. I know that until the suffering becomes unbearable they won't come. When it becomes unbearable and they've exhausted all other avenues, then they will come. That was me....And that was every other teacher that I know. I didn't get there out of some great ideal, but because I was getting healing from it. So why would I expect anybody else to do any different? Because that's a scary route. It is scary to be free. It's risky.
|(Krishnamacarya, "a dangerous man")|
Priya: I know you brought this up earlier, that yoga is not meant to be an accessible practice. What then do you think of the fact that it's a multi-billion dollar industry?
Geoffrey: I know a lot of teachers that talk about the poor degenerating state of what yoga is right now. But I think the traditional teachers never made it accessible. Why are we all of a sudden feeling that we should be making it accessible? Because by making it accessible are we actually making the real thing accessible? It's a hard question.
"With certainty, yoga has arrived in the west, and it would be wise to look honestly at how the seed is sprouting. We are in the onset of a creeping phoniness, fuelled not just by the ‘industry’ side of yoga, which will not be cured by lineal authority. Often the maintenance of exclusive lineage has come to look like the protection of a lucrative brand, though it may be preferable to the teacher trainings that authorize all participants without examination." (Geoffrey Wiebe, excerpt from "Our Rishis Have fMRIs")
Priya: The paper you presented at Yoga Festival Toronto last year, Our Rishis Have fMRIs, generated a wealth of feedback and went on to spark an ongoing debate about teacher training standards. Something you said must have hit a nerve.
Geoffrey: For my talk after I'd finished the paper I expected crickets. I didn't think there would be anybody there, let alone all that has come of it such as the Town Hall Meetings to discuss teacher training standards.
Priya: Why did you think there would be no response?
Geoffrey: Vested interests. If you run a teacher training program you probably don't want to hear the questions. I said it before and I'll say it again now, I don't think we should establish training standards. I don't think that would work with a group of very independent yogis. And that independence is the tradition of yoga. So I don't think we should establish standards. If you're building a railroad system, it's really good to have standardized track widths but you're talking about something that's not easily standardized.
But at the same time what I'm calling for is let's just remember the two things we say first as we come to this practice. Ahimsa, non-violence and satya, or truth. Why don't we just say the truth about the teacher training situation? Why don't schools just say that 60% of their income comes from teacher trainings and that's why they do it? And if they hide that, then what's going on with that first limb there of non-violence? And remember too that Patanjali says at the end, the higher you climb, the harder you fall. You can get almost all the way up to samadhi and the whole thing can fall apart.
And again that's not always a bad thing. Like in the case of Matsyendra and Goraksha. Goraksha, the student, has to go in search of his master who has gotten lost in debauchery in the city of women. And his student has to go and poke him and say, "hey did you forget what yoga is?" And that's also where - to go back to your question - where the teacher becomes the student. Well, the student may eventually have to slap the teacher back in line and say "hey, you're off the path man". And that's really what the student owes the teacher almost. You can see that it's a relationship - it's not one-way....
Priya: In your paper you talk about vinyasa and the fluidity between transitions; and how those transitions have the potential to reveal hidden moments. You seem to be saying that the negative space is the area to examine....the subtle moments we don't clock...
Geoffrey: Yes, life is moving. There are two sides to a coin. There are people who can do a seated practice or just a sitting practice. But it's also very interesting to find stillness in a moving practice because that is the nature of what the universe is...And even when you are sitting, you are still moving. It's the subtlety with which you make those movements, with which you balance one action against another that is revealing- all ashtanga does is write it large. I think one of the reasons ashtanga is so useful, popular, is it's an opportunity to learn how to balance between postural muscles and movement muscles. And that's quite interesting.. to have to use something and let go of it, use it and let go of it, use it and let go of it....
For instance going into Warrior 3: You step the foot forward so you're having to use those big muscles that you would to run or jump, and then plant the foot and then you have to go to postural to be able to lift your frontal hip bones up and come up at the pelvis. And if you keep holding on with the movement muscles, gripping with the hip or the buttock, then your warrior is strained. But if you can find that letting go, and move into the muscles that are closer to the bone, then all of a sudden you come up and you're there. And then you move again. So there's this continual exchange between postural/movement muscles going on. There's a therapeutic function in that.
Priya: Can I just quote from your paper? At one point you say: "How the curved and irregular elements of the physical body can create straight energetic lines sits at the root of (particularly advanced) asana: the understanding of this is the root of grace- what some call sacred geometry." What is the importance of grace in the practice of yoga?
Geoffrey: Yoga can teach you physics. And give you a real relationship with the physical world. At one point a guy watching Ron Reid in our class said to me "he's defying gravity". And I thought, no that's not quite right, he's struck a bargain with it. Gravity is a law that will govern life no matter what, but if you understand the principle, you can negotiate with it, it doesn't need to weigh you down quite so much. There's a grace in that kind of movement.
Priya: Is there a reason for the use of that word "grace"?
Geoffrey: Doesn't that seem like what it is though? An exercise in grace? Isn't that the whole point?
Priya: What does it mean to you?
Geoffrey: Let's say we just take it down to just the physical practice. You watch the teacher that is just so accomplished just float into this pose without their face making any change in expression and they speak to you as if nothing is unusual. They've found an equanimity in that pose by finding the efficiencies of the body and by marshalling everything that one has by finding the consciousness through the body. That equanimity looks graceful. We would say that teacher is so graceful because their movements are deliberate and yet they don't seem planned. There seems to be spontenaeity but yet there's intelligence in the actions. That grace becomes a giant metaphor for what you can do in your life.
Priya: How do you see that grace can change your life?
Geoffrey: If I can balance on my head without my hands, then can I maybe take it when my landlord yells at me? And I wonder, is there something about learning how to do this physical practice that then starts to change our attitudes? And I've seen it happen in my students....I've seen it over and over. They don't seem to yell at people as much. They don't seem to suffer as much anymore.
Priya: How did it change you?
Geoffrey: Oh...it gave me discipline. It disciplined my mind. I was the least disciplined person in the whole world. My mind was just all over the place. Oh the vrttis... It used to be that I couldn't sleep till five in the morning. I won't get into the details of the wildness etc. when I was younger, but that wasn't a healthy way to live. And it wasn't like I was trying to find something to change that and so I found yoga. The decision was based on the fact that my knees were trashed and I needed to find something that fit. And I started doing this practice because it was recommended by a friend and then all of a sudden all these other changes started happening too.
I also think I learned how to control the reflex action. Because it starts to create a little bit of space between stimulus and response. I noticed after a couple of years of my practice if somebody did something that really pissed me off, it's not that I wasn't still pissed off, but now I had this little bit of space to work with it. Now if I was still wanting to express my frustration, then I would do so but it wouldn't be mindless.
|(Geoff Wiebe, left; Amica Hilton, right)|
Priya: Mindful expressions of frustration...that's tricky territory...
Geoffrey: I think people often misunderstand the idea of non-violence. A Shaolin monk will kick your ass, but they will do it non-violently. No anger, no rancour, they're not doing it because they hate you but because it needs to be done. I think people forget, you know, the Bhagavad-Gita that great text about love and everything, it's set on a battlefield! And Arjuna doesn't want to go kill his relatives!
Priya: (laughing) I know, I know..
Geoffrey: And Krishna tells him you have to go do it. But how do you get around that? Well, you do it without attachment. And non-violence is not about not getting angry. It's about what you do with it when you are aware of it. And if you're doing these practices that are looking inwards so deeply, you're going to become aware of it. And then once you're aware, there's freedom to act, to decide....
Priya: It's been many years since you started your practice...would you say that you suffer less now than you did before?
Geoffrey: I probably would have ended up on medications or something if I hadn't have found this practice. And now I can't imagine being how I used to be before all of this....But in some ways I feel exactly the same as I did before. It's like that line in "Lost in Translation". Ever seen that?
|(Bill Murray, Scarlett Johannson: Lost in Translation)|
Priya: It's an interesting confluence of things that brings someone to the point of doing what it takes to get better at dealing with it...
Geoffrey: One of the things I constantly remind myself to live by as an approach is something that Ron Reid had said. One day I was working with a posture and he comes over and he gives me an adjustment and it totally blows away my idea of what it was that I thought I was doing... and I said, "but I thought..." (You know, ready to protest...) And Ron said, "You use what information you have until something better comes along, and then you use it". And then he quietly moved on...
How do you argue with that?
Priya: (laughing) Yeah that's kind of brilliant.
Geoffrey: Yeah! I mean how do you argue with that? You're sitting there with the Yankee drill to drill holes and somebody comes along and goes "here, try the Makita out" and you think "No way man that's gonna be the death of me"....but really that's how your knowledge grows right? You take the new information. Why would you hold onto that old thing?
T rue enough. Why would you hold onto that old thing?
Our Rishis Have fMRIs draws from findings in modern neuroscience in order to explore the complex neural significance of how we learn yoga, and how that mitigates our attachment to that old thing...that habit. In looking at the concept of "mirror neurons", how teachers and students interact to produce a learning environment, Geoffrey Wiebe takes us through the process of understanding the shape of our institutions as well as our own personal practice. In so doing, some important questions are raised about whether we are learning as best we can, and whether we are transmitting the body of yogic knowledge through the most fruitful channels.
But free, life-affirming and "dangerous"? Is that what's at stake? Surely, that's no aspiration for the level-headed. And so you reassure yourself, lest you panic, that things are pretty much the same as they have always been. But, like Geoffrey, maybe you notice you're getting shut-eye, and those vrttis have been relegated to low level static and white noise. Are these adjustments fair warning of things to come?
Not that there's much you can do about it. Yoga does appear to have its own velocity. When you line up your bones to approximate anatomical neutral, everything else re-aligns and shifts along with it. Where you started is not where you will wind up. And so change creeps up on you; habits lose their hold, and you find yourself entertaining the faint possibility that you may be experiencing symptoms...early stages mind-you... of freedom.
• Geoffrey Wiebe teaches classes at Downward Dog, Yoga Plus, Energy Exchange and Clint Roenisch Gallery. Consult the schedule at www.geoffreywiebe.com
• Geoffrey will also be teaching as part of a 6 week yoga workshop this spring at the ROM on South Asian Art, Yoga and Tantra. ROM Workshop Event Page