"We judge of a man's wisdom by his hope, knowing that the perception of the inexhaustibleness of nature is an immortal youth." Emerson
In the throes of our soaring infatuation with our new president, it might be helpful to consider what it is that many of us are attracted to in Barack Obama. Listening and watching him at his inauguration, as a yoga teacher and writer, I noticed first his body, how he stood, how he smiled, how he projected confidence, intelligence and joy, and even fear. He understood his role in the ritual like an actor in a Greek Play. He is comfortable in his body, but not as celebrities are, but with a kind of generosity of spirit, inviting you, too, to feel comfort in your own body. He is someone who loves words and realizes they are bigger than he is. I noticed, too, that his voice sounded much more rooted than in the past, none of that Black preacher voice he has fallen in to before, he’s not a Black preacher, Reverend Lowry is a Black preacher (and what a moving poet he is, too). But that’s okay, because our president, for me, embodies another skill that is perhaps much more important for us, that of how to be a student.
For anyone who has read or heard about his past, you know that this is someone who has learned how to observe, study, and listen. This is not a talent, but a skill learned from his life, from his mother and grandmother and grandfather, from teachers, friends, from his peers, books, colleagues, and from Michele and his daughters. Learning to be a student doesn’t end when we leave formal school, it becomes a philosophy, a way to live, work and act in the world.
In my roles as a writer, teacher, yoga practitioner, and yoga instructor—being a student is perhaps the most important skill I try to practice and teach my students. In Hatha yoga as well as in my work as nonfiction essayist, the foundation of these two arts is the ability to unify as much as humanly possible the observing self with the object being observed.
In Hatha Yoga, one begins by studying one’s physical body: how it works, how it moves, how it breathes, how it releases waste, how energy and chemistry animate it, how it evolves and changes and most of all, how it is a microcosm of nature. A student refines her awareness by focusing on the subtle aspects of our body, specifically our emotions, our organs of perception, our memory, our dreams, our patterns of thinking and feeling, the stories we tell ourselves, and most intriguing of all--our imagination. Step by step, a practitioner becomes a student of their own body and from that knowledge everything follows.
Both yogi and writer are fascinated with not just the subject itself but with the art of how to explore and understand that subject. The yogi like the artist is a pragmatic scientist who wants to learn the best techniques to examine a phenomenon, a process, or a situation. Every perspective, every means of knowing is of value--empirical facts, intuition, perception, and the imagination. The student, like our president, loves the very act of learning, of discovering new ideas and perspectives, and of learning from his errors of perception and judgment. Ironically, for our time of hyping genius, perfection, athletic prowess, wealth, and stardom, a true student relishes failure and difficult challenges, as these become the greatest teachers. We know he has great challenges before him, but I hope we know that we have to let him fail, too, as this will only be to his and our benefit.