When I started practicing yoga in the mid-90’s, I was so irked with my clench-toothed efforts to get through balancing postures—usually T-pose, dancer and tree—that I pretended to need to go to the restroom when my instructor got to them.
Mandy noticed me scooting to the door mid-class one morning and said jokingly, “We’ll wait until Elaine comes back and then we’ll keep going with the balancing postures.”
That was the beginning of my struggle to face my frustrations doing balancing postures which, after a dozen years practicing and a decade teaching, are now among my favorites. Knowing I couldn’t escape Mandy’s balancing postures sequence anymore, I paid closer attention to her encouragement to go at them with patience.
And I started giving myself room to fail, while trying to get comfortable on one leg.
Now, when I teach, to discourage students from feeling frustrated in balancing poses the way Mandy discouraged me, I’ve been testing new approaches to instructing them. Some ideas I borrowed from her and from other teachers; some I came up with myself. They all reinforce the basic idea that finding and holding balancing poses is a gradual, unpredictable process.
I can attest to all of this from experience. I began practicing yoga when stressed from my job as a reporter and in need of a way to unwind. But even after going regularly for a few months, I couldn’t hold any balancing poses for more than a few seconds. Once I clanged from dancer’s pose to a pile of angles on the floor. During tree pose I decided Mandy was a smug show-off for being able to do a flawless demo. I was alternately embarrassed for people to see me struggle to extend my arms in T-pose, and worried they pitied me because my attempts were so unimpressive.
I kept practicing once or twice a week for almost two years, and by then I could hold the balancing postures with much less difficulty. I decided to train to become a yoga instructor in a 28-day program at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, the same one Mandy went to. Once I finished, I started teaching several times a week in gyms, studios and clients’ homes. But I burned out after five years and shifted my focus from practicing and teaching a gentler Hatha yoga, to a temporary lapse in teaching altogether in order to focus on studying a more vigorous Vinyasa flow. It’s a style that requires more strength, while developing balance and flexibility and creating a dazzling sense of clarity, calm, and accomplishment post-class.
After three years of thrice-weekly practice, I took Shiva Rea’s Vinyasa yoga teacher training specifically for teaching vigorous Vinyasa flow classes, and then I started teaching it at a neighborhood gym and a downtown Power Yoga studio—both places where I used to take classes. In front of the group, up there by the mirror I was once again, but I didn’t realize how adjusted I’d become to challenging balancing poses like airplane, bird of paradise, standing splits and Triangle III. These were all poses I’d been practicing the last few years, which some people in my classes now struggled with. And I didn’t know I could be provoking potential bathroom sneak-outs when I presented poses they didn’t feel ready for. All of this was because developing ease with challenging yoga poses is so gradual that there’s no particular moment of recognition. Also, because I have much more to learn, I didn’t see myself as a potentially intimidating instructor, but instead as someone just a few steps ahead of my students—not by much—on my own learning path.
As my classes were building, I sometimes lost students—either they didn’t come back the next week or they checked out emotionally during the balancing poses. So I decided to try a few new techniques to encourage them to explore each pose unselfconsciously, to welcome them to give their bodies a chance to practice judgment–free—however clumsily or awkwardly—and to trust that the poses would feel more natural in time. I borrowed from other teachers some words that stressed the uncompetitive nature of the practice to let everyone know that difficult variations were merely options.
One night I was offering tree pose and I added the optional variation of holding one toe and extending it to the side. I heard Mandy’s words come out of my mouth: “You’re just looking to find your edge—where going any further would be too much, where doing less wouldn’t be enough.” A few newcomers to class that week came back the next.
During another class I borrowed words from Jennifer, whose friendly neighborhood yoga studio I’d tried out a few years before. She said during one class: “It really doesn’t matter whether you fully express the pose or not… It’s really not very interesting.” I tried her statement one evening when I asked students to turn a backbend into a balancing pose by extending a leg in the air. As some people came out of it before reaching ten breaths, I repeated Jennifer’s words so that those more challenged by that pose would not feel defeated.
Another time I borrowed from Shiva Rea, whose training reinvigorated my teaching and whose DVD, Yoga Shakti, I’ve used. She encouraged students to consider each variation of an arm balance as a stop on a train. As such, anyone could choose to get off at any stop based on their destination. Her way was so nonhierarchical it sounded impossible not to at least consider. I usurped her words and started talking train stops while teaching a series that included dancer and T-pose, two of my nemeses in the late 90’s. “It’s up to you to decide where and when your stop is.” Her borrowed language was perfectly applicable—I saw a few women nodding their heads in agreement. No one was checking what their neighbors were doing or looking deflated if they released from a pose to chill on their mats. I saw students’ willingness to have patience and to recognize yoga as a practice they could tailor to their bodies and sensations.
Another time, I was teaching a challenging combination of four or five balancing poses on the right side, then the left—standing splits, airplane, and a few balancing triangles. During that sequence I burst into my own analogy about sushi, one I came up with at a moment prior to the start of class and dared myself to use untested and unrehearsed. I connected choosing how far to take a pose to picking from a sushi menu – the sort of personal decision that can’t be explained but depends on readiness, preference, tolerance, daring and flexibility: “You could order the hardcore raw mackerel or the tamer California roll – according to what you like,” I said as we worked our way though the first half of the balancing series. “You can go for the pieces that you already know, or you can step out and try something else.” At first I didn’t get confirmation it was helping, but that didn’t matter: when I took classes, I wouldn’t generally interrupt to announce how the teachers’ instruction resonated with me. Instead I’d internalize tips in my head – and I hoped that was what people in class were doing.
I went on: “Some people like a little dot of wasabi; other people want a big amount. Ditto the ginger and soy sauce.” Still no real response. “The cooked egg or shrimp pieces are ones you can depend on not to rock your boat, but the raw egg and tuna cuts are for the adventurous sushi-eater.” I heard a chuckle in the front of the room, a few amused twitters of understanding. A few faces looked freed enough to slow down and allow the practice to finds its pace.
So talking about what’s interesting and what’s not, finding an edge, identifying stops on a train and how hardcore to go with sushi selections seemed like a fun and effective ways to scale down the challenge of balancing postures. How do I know it worked? I don’t, but I didn’t catch anyone sneaking out of the room the way I used to, to hide in the bathroom until the balancing series is over.
Elaine Tassy, a yoga instructor at Grass Roots Yoga in Albuquerque, is also a journalist, journalism professor, cranio-sacral therapist and surface design artist.
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