Shall we gather at the river?

I have been thinking a lot lately about the transmission of knowledge, about teaching and learning. Sharath Rangaswamy is in town. He is the grandson of Pattabhi Jois, who was in turn a student of Krishnamacharya, whose influence on yoga as practiced around the world today goes way beyond the scope of this blog.

While part of me was interested in attending Sharath’s New York workshop, the idea of practicing with over a hundred people, and a teacher who didn’t know me, seemed not very fruitful. But then, “out of respect for Sharath and the lineage he represents,” my teacher closed school and encouraged us to go. And at a lecture halfway through the week, he spoke a bit about this idea of lineage: spending a few days with Sharath is not so much about learning something special or new as it is about immersing ourselves in a river of knowledge, a tradition that he was born into, to which he has given himself entirely.

Looked at from that perspective, each of us that crowded into the Chinatown Y had something in common with the young singer who presents herself for a master class with the Distinguished Artist. Technique and artistry need time to develop, as does the student/teacher relationship, but that doesn’t mean a half-hour in dialogue with greatness can’t also offer something of value. Occasionally there may be an “a-ha moment”—what happens if you do it this way? But even if the student doesn’t come away with anything particularly special or new, there is a potential for some subtle transformation of her relationship with her art and the artists who have come before her.

People ask me—especially when I’m serving some Louisiana specialty—if my mother taught me to cook. While I remember her teaching me a couple of specific techniques, like how to make a properly dark roux, there wasn’t much in the way of formal tutelage. And in fact, my gumbo is very different from my mother’s, which is very different from her mother’s, despite the similarity of ingredients and basic techniques. I do remember asking my granny to show me how she made one particular dish, but I was never able to reproduce it in the same way. Still, every time I sit down at her table, at my mother’s table, I am immersing myself in that heritage, that river of knowledge, and it finds its way into my own kitchen practices, into my own attempts to nourish myself and those I love.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said we never step into the same river twice.  He was speaking of the fact that the waters are constantly moving forward, but of course we are different, too; not only are our physical bodies undergoing constant change, we are always accumulating new experiences and ideas.

Good cooks know that slavish allegiance to a recipe can spell trouble: the best results come only when we are attentive to the humidity of the day, the size of the lemon, the thickness of the filet, the age of the dried beans, the tastes of our guests. And while there is nothing wrong with a carefully planned menu, any cook worth his salt will find a way to accommodate the unexpected at-its-peak vegetable that catches his eye in the market. 

My yoga practice might seem to be the part of my day that demands/admits the least variation. The sequence of poses never changes. But I do. I am changed by how far I walked the day before, by what I ate, by how much I slept. And I am changed by my teachers—those who know me well, and those whom I’ve simply swum beside for a few days.

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