In a yoga class I attended a few years ago, I recall the teacher inquiring after a challenging posture: “Were you burning a hole in the floor with your gaze?” I paused, feeling, for a moment, ashamed. Was I? I may have been. My gaze had felt focused, and there may have been blue blazes emanating from my eyeballs. I am vata-pitta (the air and fire elements) constitution, according to the ancient science of Ayurveda, and was feeling my pitta (fire) that day. So perhaps I was guilty as charged. It’s true that pitta dominant people can benefit from softening their gaze, and I believe it’s a good and honest question in terms of softening around the places we tend to harden (I often encourage my students to feel for the places in their bodies that would benefit from softening). I also believe that how teachers phrase cues and questions is important in terms of enabling students to find that place of balance we so often talk about.
One of the most well-known Yoga Sutras (or threads of wisdom) by Patanjali is about creating balance in the yoga poses (and in life) and translates to “Asana is a steady comfortable posture.” In each posture we can aim to feel steady or grounded, putting effort into it, and at the same time it’s important to feel a sense of ease, a sense of letting go so we don’t become too rigid. I talk about this concept often in my yoga classes since, in my mind, it is the heart of the practice and of life.
In the same class I mentioned above, the teacher interrogated after a balancing posture: “Do you feel you just nailed that pose?” The question was meant to point out the fact that nailing a pose might not be very “yogic.” I wanted to say, “Yes!” The truth is I was glad that I had since there are plenty of times that I don’t. In fact, I have spent most of my adult life trying to find solid ground, so when I occasionally “nail” a balancing pose it can feel grounding and also like an accomplishment. Consider this: Nailing the pose is also part of the dance. It is not always “better” to do less. It is not as we say in Ayurveda Counseling, a one-size fits all practice. Each person comes into the class with their own history, constitution, set of desires and needs, etc; sometimes those match up with teacher’s and sometimes they don’t, and this is an important point to remember when we teach yoga to a large group of students.
I come from a place of floundering, and I fall enough, on and off the mat, to learn and grow.
I have spent many years holding myself back due to fear and uncertainty, due to faulty early lessons that it is not proper or “lady like” to go for the things you want in life, that to be good at something is showing off and, essentially, that it is not safe or appropriate to be powerful and strong. For many years, due to these ingrained lessons, I have been out of touch with my fire, my power center and, subsequently, my ability to manifest the things I want and need in my life. My teacher, on the other hand, admitted to coming from a place of being a “Type A” personality, an “over-achiever” and someone who consistently “over-did.”
If you are someone who always “nails” poses and doesn’t allow yourself room to wobble then, yes, you would probably benefit from experiencing what it feels like wobble or fall, and you can risk being thrown off balance by trying something different like closing your eyes. In my own classes, I acknowledge students’ work whether they land the pose or fall out of it. In either case, whether students lean toward the “effort” or “ease” side of the road, questions can be phrased in a way that encourages students to create more balance for themselves. You can guide students to explore what a pose feels like, for example, “Notice a place in your body that feels tense and imagine breathing into that space” or “As you connect to your inner and outer strength in this posture can you feel the soothing Ujjayi breath?” These types of cues can be an effective way of diving into the body.
When teachers ask exploratory questions–such as “What does it feel like if you lengthen your stance?”–while recognizing that it may not be right for everyone, we are giving students space to feel the practice and make decisions based on their intuition. I remember practicing next to a woman once who was consistently losing her balance and she was visibly and extremely irritated by this, swearing under her breath. We don’t know what she came to her practice with that day; maybe she was taking care of someone who was ill or was ill herself, or going through a break-up; maybe she needed to swear under her breath in that moment; who is to say what is and isn’t “yogic?”
By giving permission to be inside the extremes (e.g., feeling your fire), we can, ironically, more easily move into that place of balance. Because it is by accepting where we are, not criticizing or beating ourselves up for doing something “wrong,” that we bring in the space needed for change. When we focus on what we perceive as the wrong thing, we tend to stay stuck in that very place we don’t want to be in.
I believe that it is essential for teachers to keep in mind that we are not here to control our students. As I’ve noted, each student is coming from a different place and that is a very personal thing. For me, excessive nit-picking during my formative years had the effect of stunting my creativity, my spontaneity and my “flow” (probably why I’m drawn to Vinyasa style of yoga), so when I am practicing yoga a ‘nit-picky’ type of banter is the last thing I need. When I make my way into a posture, an invitation to explore is what will enable me to blossom and more naturally find my center. Of course, as we cultivate inner strength and balance what someone else says or does will have less, if any, effect on us and that is also part of the practice.
Each teacher’s particular teaching style will inevitably stem from his or her own experiences, and that teacher will draw in the students who resonate with that style. That said, it’s important to remember and consider when teaching that your experiences are not necessarily your students’ experiences. A yoga teacher, I believe, is there to energetically hold the space for students, not to correct or control them. Consider this: when people receive input in an open, non-judgmental way they are more likely to listen and perhaps make changes they would benefit from. In The Wisdom of No Escape, Pema Chodron relays that “when you find yourself slumping that’s the motivation to sit up, not out of self-denigration but actually out of pride in everything that occurs to you, pride in the goodness or the fairness or the worstness of yourself–however you find yourself–some sort of sense of taking pride and using it to spur you on” (p. 11).
Nicole Alexander is a graduate of the 500 HR Yogaworks Teacher Training in NYC, and an Ayurveda Wellness Counselor. Nicole teaches a mindful/breath-based class, sharing her love for yoga in all its forms (physical, mental, spiritual), and the many ways this practice heals us.