This is (the first of perhaps a few) blog post(s) where I will be thinking about aspects of teaching and practicing Ashtanga Yoga and Mysore. Since relocating to Denmark in autumn 2017 I have been lucky to be offered to teach a number of new yoga classes. Recently this has included Mysore classes and teaching this particular practice (and having conversations with students there) has prompted me to come back to writing blog posts about yoga.
As I sat down to write I realised there were several points I want to think about:
There are too many questions to think about for this post so I will begin by considering this question as a tangible starting point:
What are (verbal and physical) adjustments for and what do they mean for the student/teacher relationship?
… and see which direction it will take me.
I want to try to articulate what I feel is an essential aspect of the teacher role: to acknowledge that in the teaching space my position is as part of an ecology of people practicing yoga. Being a teacher of yoga and giving adjustments in not simply a question of ‘being better at yoga’ or ‘knowing it all’ and then passing it on. The practice of adjusting is a feedback system between students and myself where I am not an authority with all the ‘right’ answers. In this next section I want to think about what it means to ‘figure out what is right in the moment’ of teaching yoga when I give physical or verbal feedback to a student.
The ‘figuring out what is right’ is a dynamic process of listening and responding where the touch which occurs in a hands-on adjustment brings awareness to the area of contact. The touch is delivered in a way (although resolute and clear) where it listens and responds to the student’s reaction. Rather than being an instruction that has a goal orientated one-directional push/pull the direction is negotiated in the interaction between the practitioner and the facilitator. Similarly, verbal instruction are an invitation for the student to feel, see or experience the body in a new way by directing her attention to an area of the body by using a language that opens the experience. This might be using words suggestively by saying ‘imagine your fingertips lengthening towards the sky’ rather than commanding ‘stretch your arm’, the latter prompting a fixed outcome and not a dynamic movement. Both types of feedback (physical and verbal) are means to assist the student in figuring out how to understand the body in the posture, how to deepen/relieve it and perhaps even resolve injury/pain. The new experience of the body or embodied understanding that the student achieves happens in the relationship between student and teacher as a result of the way the touch and/or instruction is delivered and received. In this way the student/teacher relationship moves away from ‘the teacher always knows what’s right/good for me’ to become a more organic process. What is interesting in this for me as a teacher, is that this process allows the student to experience agency in her own body/practice and it gives her an opportunity to reflect on the instruction/adjustment and accept or disregard it. As a teacher, I can step down from the pedestal of ‘knowing everything’. The dynamic relationship where knowledge and experience bounces between student and teacher opens up for the practice itself to come into focus, as the teacher.
What becomes clearer to me as I practice and teach yoga (and other somatic practices in dance) is that this ‘ecology’ or ‘feedback system’ – where the emphasises is on teacher/student relations and interdependence and less on individual achievements – frees me as a teacher from an expectation to (re)solve the postural challenge and to do/say ‘the right thing’. One particular moment that this is palpable for me is when during a Mysore session I find myself with nothing to do. Nobody needs me to help them cross their legs in Supta Kurmasana or support them in Utthita Hasta Padanghustasana! Everyone is getting on with the postures and I feel like I have become spare. In that moment my teaching practice is not to make myself indispensable by rushing around to assist unnecessarily but instead acknowledge the importance of being a physical presence that holds the space. A presence that provides a boundary for the student’s practice even if all it means, is that she feels seen.
As the content and title of this post implies I'm not interested in having all the answers but I hope that the post will generate discussions. Please feel invited to comment and give feedback to further illuminate the subject(s).
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