There is a fine line between teaching someone and insulting them.
It is no surprise that being a teacher involves telling people things that they don't know. This can range from a simple addition of new knowledge - by far the easiest for the student to integrate - to the shifting of concept or understanding, which is much harder for any student to do.
Anytime we have to reorganize our belief system or reconfigure how we look at a problem, it requires significant effort and faith from us. This is largely due to our "confirmation bias," a mental phenomenon which causes all of us to adopt beliefs that confirm what we already think and ignore anything that conflicts.
As teachers, we always have to tread lightly when correcting people, since they are doing the best they can, using every ounce of their intelligence to be all they can be. When we step in and tell them that they are doing something wrong, we can unknowingly tread on deep-held beliefs and long-held habits. Every time we correct a student, we are basically telling them they are wrong, which no one likes to hear. We can put our students on the defensive through the simple act of trying to help them.
For the student, it is rarely as simple as just changing what they do and how they think, which is why students often adjust to our instruction in the moment and then go right back to doing what they were doing. In these instances, we have not made any progress in instructing the student, since they have not made any progress in their understanding.
The way around this is not to avoid correcting our students, but to approach them like we are on their team instead of a superior who is "fixing" them. We must keep in mind that they are doing what they think is right. If they knew they were doing something wrong, they would change it immediately. We are not "correcting" them, but giving them an opportunity to improve. And who doesn't readily accept an opportunity to improve?
It may seem like a simple and obvious question: what are we really teaching? But if we look a little deeper, we may find that our intentions can conflict with what we are teaching our students.
The simplest answer to this question for modern Western yogis is: asana, postures. We teach physical practices for the health benefits of mobility and flexibility, strength, balance and inversion. We also teach breathing, which can slow the heart rate, lower the blood pressure and reduce stress. The physical, mental and nervous system benefits of yoga practice are real, and they are increasingly central to the yoga culture.
This only creates an ideological conflict when we claim to be teaching anything like traditional yoga. The systems of yoga are many, but prior to a few hundred years ago most were dedicated to the subordination of the body and senses in favor of the realization of the true nature of the self.
Do you see the conflict between these two ideas? When we practice modern physical yoga, it is often alongside confidence-building rhetoric that values personal experience. "Have faith in yourself," "You are your own best teacher," we may tell our students. These things build our identification with our bodies and the physical practices, working against the progress of dis-identifying with the body. So, in a traditional sense, a physically-focused practice centered on accomplishing postures, and even health, can work against the ideals of yoga.
Admittedly, this is complicated. We are not suggesting that you change the way you teach or the way you approach your practice. But it is worth noting some of the little conflicts and paradoxes that arise in our yoga. These conflicts shed light on our assumptions and allow us to refine our view of ourselves and the world.
Yoga classes are filled with students of different skill levels. The majority of students are somewhere in the middle: familiar with the practices, having attended dozens or hundreds of classes, neither beginning nor advanced. Some are new, never having done yoga before, and a few are more advanced, having practiced for long enough to move past beginning techniques. As teachers, how do we navigate this diversity?
BEGINNING AND ALL-LEVELS CLASSES
One of the solutions that the yoga community has developed is "Beginning Class" or "All-Levels Class." These classes are attractive to newcomers since the practices aren't too difficult, and tentative new students won't be distracted or discouraged by confident, flexible yogis on the mat next door. A beginning class is targeted toward beginners. "All-levels" is a descriptor that basically means "beginning," but it tries to avoid alienating more experienced yogis the way that a term like "beginning" might.
The obvious complements to "Beginning" class are "Intermediate" and "Advanced" classes. But there aren't nearly as many intermediate or advanced students, so these classes are unsustainable to a yoga studio. Non-beginning classes generally get limited to once or twice per week or dropped altogether, while beginning classes fill the rest of the schedule. So it is difficult for intermediate and advanced yogis to find classes or spaces to practice at their level.
What we end up with is more advanced students in "beginning" classes.
It is the teacher's responsibility to direct the students in his or her class, whoever those students may be. A teacher needs to be able to guide a beginning student in appropriate beginning practices, and also guide an advanced student in appropriate advanced practices. This requires some knowledge and skill from the teacher, who needs familiarity with beginning postures, modifications and injuries as well as intermediate and advanced postures and variations.
Too often, teachers hold back their advanced students, demanding that they do beginning postures that will not benefit them, or worse, encouraging them to do beginning postures but work harder. This is the most common way to injury.
THEIR OWN PRACTICE
We often hear yogis make the case that beginning students should embrace "their own practice," meaning that they shouldn't be ashamed if they struggle or look silly. This helps the student trust the process. But the same is true for the advanced student who needs to embrace "their own practice." Too many advanced yogis hold back their practice for the sake of someone else in the room.
Ideally, a yoga teacher can direct students of all levels at once. The beginner gets simple instruction while the experienced practitioner gets more detail and depth. All parties should respect their own place and the place of their peers.
As a teacher, there are few skills more useful than the ability to modify postures to fit the needs of an individual student. In sheer value it rivals the ability to lead a class, but modification requires significantly more knowledge and patience. After all, each classroom is filled with individuals who have different strengths, weaknesses and injuries.
THE PURPOSE OF THE POSTURE
Modifying any yoga posture or practice requires two things. The first is knowledge of the posture: What is its purpose? What are we trying to accomplish through its practice? Second is understanding how to adjust a posture to bypass a student's injuries and limitations while maintaining its primary function.
Each posture is nothing more than the sum total of its benefits. Does it build strength, flexibility, massage the intestines, affect the blood pressure, etc? Each posture has a unique combination of benefits that defines its purpose. To know these benefits is to understand the posture.
Of course, some benefits are more important than others. In general, benefits to the spine, torso, abdomen and circulatory system are more important than the extremities like the arms and legs. Coincidentally, many of the limitations that yoga students have are in their extremities: knee replacements, tight shoulders, painful feet, shaky balance.
This means that we can often improve a student's ability to execute (and therefore obtain the benefits of) a posture by removing the extremities and focusing on the center.
As a teacher, it is easy for time spent teaching to cut into time that used to be for personal practice, as if both endeavors draw from the same “yoga time.” With this system, as teaching time increases, practice time necessarily decreases. This leads to trouble, because the two are not the same.
Teaching, even though it is rewarding, is a service that draws from our well of energy and strength. Most of us begin as teachers with an overflowing well, so we can continue for some time without noticing, but eventually our work will suffer, we will become repetitive, uninspired and uninspiring. We will be drawing from an empty well.
Personal practice fills the well. It inspires and fulfills our curiosity, propelling us forward and directing our progress.
The more powerful we want our teaching to be, the more powerful our personal practice needs to be. Otherwise teaching is unsustainable and can even be detrimental to us personally, sapping our energy and will. Not to mention we are not serving our students, which is our most important job.
We all have a dilemma each time we open our mouths to speak. Do I say what I know or do I ask about what I don't?
We may say what we know to express our opinion in a conversation, to convince, to teach or simply to reinforce our own reality by saying it out loud. As yogis, we should be careful of this. Every time words come out of our mouths, their reality is solidified in our minds, and we become more rutted in our version of things.
When we ask what we don't know, two important things happen in our minds. We acknowledge that we don't know everything, a humility that is absolutely essential for growth and human connection. And we open ourselves up to new information and knowledge.
How will we get smarter and better, how will we make progress if we think we are at the pinnacle of knowledge and understanding?
This is why I love to be wrong and to admit that my knowledge is incomplete. Only during these moments can I learn new things and make progress in understanding. This benefits me by making me smarter and more complete, and more so by maintaining humility and flexibility in the "reality" that is my mind.
How many times have you heard a yoga teacher tell you that deep breathing "oxygenates the blood?"
It isn't true. At the very least it is misleading.
Our nervous system forces us to breathe at the necessary rate to fully oxygenate our blood at all times. This is true when we're resting as well as when we're running a marathon. The body's oxygen requirements are different depending on our activity, and the nervous system automatically adjusts to oxygenate the blood fully. Normal blood oxygenation is 95-100%.
When we are at rest, we breathe slower since the body's oxygen demands are less. Breathing more or deeper while the body is at rest does not "oxygenate" the blood. It hyper-ventilates, which is just a way of saying breathing (ventilating) more than necessary.
Anytime we breathe more than the body requires, the big change we are causing is the removal of carbon dioxide, one of the body's metabolic wastes. Hyperventilation removes more carbon dioxide than the body produces, and this leads to a whole host of physiological effects. Most significantly, the blood vessels in the brain constrict, limiting blood flow to the brain. This makes us light-headed.
So that light-headed feeling you get when breathing deeply isn't energization or "oxygenation," but constricted blood vessels in the brain. Your brain is actually getting less oxygen than if you were to breathe normally!
Most of the meditative, inward-looking spiritual traditions of the world agree that we overlook our true nature.
Our misunderstanding comes from the active (sometimes hyperactive) nature of the mind, which is constantly on the lookout for danger and opportunity. When these things are missing, the mind finds other activities: daydreaming, pondering, obsessing, discussing, watching TV, etc. There is an endless number of things we do to keep our minds busy. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that our busy minds give us things to do.
Our identity problem comes when we mistake these mental activities for the true nature of the self. We don't realize that our emotions and mental activities are separate from us, and we identify ourselves with each emotion and thought: "I am angry," "I am happy," "I am hungry," "I am thinking."
It can seem like splitting hairs, like an unnecessary distinction to make. But, are you your emotions? Are you your thoughts? Are you the breaths that you take or the beats of you heart? Are you the pain in your body? The more we explore these questions, we find that the "self" is not to be found in any of these elements.
Nowhere is this concept stated more clearly than in the Yogasutras, "the Self appears to assume the form of thought's vacillations and the True Self is lost." (1:4) (1)
The practices of yoga are many, but they all point to this issue. Every single practice of the body, breath and mind is designed to point us toward the true nature of the Self.
1. Stiles, Mukunda, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 2002, p2-3.
We become teachers for many different reasons: to improve our understanding, a sense of duty, the need for income, to be a leader, to have power...
Once you are teaching, the story can change quickly. You have to work around schedules, maintain time for your own practice and deal with frustrating students. It is easy for the grand vision of teaching to turn into a slog that is fraught with resentment.
It doesn't take much to resent your students. They don't work as hard as you ask them to, they don't take your advice. How many times have you told them to keep their hip down?! Why don't they do it?! Sometimes it seems like it's not even worth the effort you put in.
At times like this, when you feel frustrated by your students, try to approach them and their practice with kindness and patience, not resentment, impatience or anger. Especially when you correct them or adjust their posture.
It is tough, because anytime we correct a student, it comes from dissatisfaction with their performance. They are doing something wrong enough that we notice and feel compelled to intervene. This means that every "correction" we give a student begins with our own irritation and has the potential to bloom into frustration or even anger.
Is it possible to turn our dissatisfaction with a student's performance into something more generous? How can we serve them and make them understand better? (Because let's face it, nearly every mistake comes from misunderstanding.)
Above all, we (the teachers) are here to serve the students. They are not here to serve us. Sure, it is important to honor the purpose of the practice and be sure to do things right, but this is actually in service of the student, not the teacher.
When you teach, and when you correct your students, do it out of service, generosity and kindness.
Don't do it to get something from them. Do it to give something to them.
Don't do it out of frustration or anger. Do it out of love, to help.
A teacher's patience is infinite, because the goal is to teach the student. And the goal hasn't been achieved until the student understands.
Scott & Ida are Yoga Acharyas (Masters of Yoga). They are the head teachers of Ghosh Yoga. This blog is about their experience with yoga practice, study and teaching.
- Understanding Chair Posture
- 5 Reasons To Backbend
- Lock the Knee History
- Why Teaching Is Not a Personal Practice
- The 113 Postures of Ghosh Yoga
- Should We Be Teaching Advanced Postures in a Beginning Class?
- Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
- The Oxygenation Myth