Some have said that a yoga practice (especially one in a group setting) is like a living, breathing thing.
Everyone moving and breathing together is a beautiful thing and sometimes the practice seems to take on a life of its own.
I have noticed in my own yoga practice that there are four distinct “phases” of development, very similar to the stages of the human life cycle. I call them the infant, child, adolescent, and adult stages.
My conversations with other yoga practitioners have shown that others have also made similar observations about the development of their practice. Recognizing what stage you (or your students, if you teach) are in can be a valuable tool. Just like in life, however, the yoga practitioner may notice that being in a certain stage of yoga development does not mean they do not experience regression into previous stages for varying periods of time.
Like a newborn infant, this stage is marked by remarkable growth and capacity for learning. They are sponges soaking up everything their teacher says and learning all they can.
Practitioners in this stage tend to be the ones who listen to what the teacher says and when what is said contradicts what more experienced practitioners would “expect,” they generally do what the teacher says, not what is “expected” because they have not developed expectations. They are naturally curious and they are usually the students that ask questions after class.
Practitioners in the child stage tend to retain the curiosity of the infant stage while experiencing a lot of physical growth. They begin experimenting more deeply with the physicality of the practice and gently begin testing the boundaries of what their bodies can do and learning where they can develop and grow.
This is the stage in which a lot of practitioners find for the first time that they can do a pose that was previously unavailable to them.
In this stage students still ask plenty of questions and may even ask more questions now that they are developing some background knowledge. These students more or less obey the teacher, but may begin testing the boundaries of what is “allowed” as far as digressing from instruction.
“Adolescent” practitioners tend to be rebellious. These are the practitioners that we have all seen in class doing their own thing and completely ignoring the teacher’s instructions, or doing a variation of a pose that was not presented. They think they know better than the teacher, just like teenagers think they know better than the adults in their life.
I am a firm believer that a practitioner knows their own body better than anyone else, but there is usually a method to the teacher’s madness when they present (or choose not to present) a pose or certain variations, and this should generally be honored.
Adolescents may still be curious, but when asking questions, they may also begin to challenge answers given to them by their teacher.
The competitive mentality comes from the adolescent stage. Adolescent practitioners push the physical boundaries to the maximum and are prone to injury. They probably prefer studios with mirrors and tend to be fixated on them when available because they have not matured in their practice to the point where they know how the pose is supposed to feel. They only know how it is supposed to look and will make sure they get their posture to look as close as possible, no matter the physical ramifications. They will go deeper because the person next to them did and their ego feels the need to keep up.
It is common for practitioners in this stage to jam themselves into poses because they went that deep last week or on the other side.
“Adult” practitioners have the maturity to understand that just because they can do a pose a certain way one week, or on one side, it does not mean their body can do it that way right now or on both sides. The body tends to develop asymmetrically (evidenced by the fact that most people have a “dominant” or “writing” hand). They know how the pose is supposed to feel, so they tend to prefer studios without mirrors or simply ignore available mirrors, relying on their body’s wisdom rather than a reflection.
They refuse to let their ego get in the way and take no part in adolescent competitiveness.
How to use it
This can be a particularly great tool for teachers, but even for practitioners that have no interest in teaching, recognizing one’s own developmental stage can be important in preventing physical injury and maturing one’s practice. If you can recognize these tendencies in yourself, it can make a huge difference! For teachers, becoming aware of dangerous adolescent tendencies in themselves or their students can be helpful.
A teacher can demonstrate their own adolescent tendencies in their teaching by using their class as a platform to show off. A class should be challenging, but the beginner’s class does not need the teacher to demonstrate peacock or side crow. These poses are so far beyond the current skill set of the students in the class that the teacher will not be accomplishing much by demonstrating them other than massaging their own ego and intimidating beginners.
It seems intuitive that children cannot be taught exactly the same way adults should be taught, and this is just as true for yoga practitioners in varying stages. As teachers, we can tailor instruction to all the stages, like family-oriented Disney movies which are safe and appropriate for children but also try to keep adults engaged.
A teacher who notices adolescent tendencies in a student or group of students can be proactive, remind the class to be mindful of what their bodies are telling them and encourage them to stay on their own mats rather than letting their eyes wander to what the person next to them is doing.
A rebellious “adolescent” may not act on these cues, but making students mindful of their tendencies can help them deepen their practice by helping them to recognize and overcome adolescent tendencies and may prevent injuries.
Even adults who “know better” will appreciate the reminder.
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Asst Ed: Terri Tremblett/Ed: Bryonie Wise