The danger of thinking you know more than your yoga teacher

Via Kara-Leah Grant
on Sep 28, 2011
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Practicing at home can be less challenging - in many ways!

Back in February, I wrote an article called Why I may never take another yoga class ever again.

And true to my word, I hadn’t been to a class in six months, instead practicing daily at home.

One of the reasons I’d been steering clear of classes was that in class I’d struggled with being told what to do by a teacher. Often it felt like what my body needed and what the teacher was sequencing wasn’t right for me.

But about a month or so ago I went to two yoga classes at a yoga studio that’s part of a local gym. I was curious to see what the experience would be like this time.

It was… an opportunity for observation and open-heartedness. And a reminder of the importance of perspective – seeing experience not just in terms of me, me, me but the bigger picture of how something fits into the whole.

The biggest challenge was considering how best to respond to the offered practice in a way that was respectful to the teacher and honoured my body.

Here’s why:

The sun salutations and linking vinyasas were far faster than my natural breath cycle.

I couldn’t allow my breath to lead me through the postures without getting out of sync with the rest of the class – which was moving at more than twice my speed.

What to do?

  • Ignore my breath and just move through the postures like it was aerobics?
  • Speed up my breath, making it short and shallow so I could keep up?
  • Go at my pace and fall further and further behind the class?

Tricky, tricky, tricky… I ended up compromising.

I moved faster than I normally would, breathing faster and shallower, and sometimes just going straight to downward dog so at least I could get two full breaths in the posture without getting out of sync.

This was a valuable lesson for me as a yoga teacher – the importance of providing space within sequences for the natural variances in people’s breath cycles. Especially in sequences with one breath per posture like sun salutations. It’s probably better to teach at a pace that means some people need to take two or three breaths per posture so that those with a long, full breath are able to be with their breath.

It also made me consider the importance of going slowly through a sequence – five breaths or so – setting up each posture, so that when you then repeat the same sequence with one breath per posture, you can allow the class the freedom to move at their own pace, all connecting at downward dog, or mountain pose.

Figuring out how to work with the pace and the breath wasn’t my real challenge in these two classes though.

I also had plenty of opportunity to witness my mind’s capacity for discernment and judgement, and the difference between the two.

Judgement observes a person saying or doing something and says, ‘That’s good,’ or That’s bad’.

Discernment observes a person doing or saying something and says, ‘That’s good for me, or ‘That’s bad for me’.

One is an absolute that determines the way the world is, the other determines what a thing is in relation to me.

For example, listening to a yoga teacher telling me to go hard… judgement says:

That teacher sucks, she shouldn’t telling me to go hard. This ain’t aerobics, it’s yoga!

Discernment is saying:

Going hard isn’t right for my body today.

Throughout the class, I cycled back and forth between the two states – oh, yep, I’m being a judgmental bitch again. No, I’m moving back into discernment. Judgment. Discernment. Judgment. Discernment.

It was a good lesson. It was a hard lesson. Oh how I wanted to judge these teachers for their lack of knowledge, but in doing so, I risked missing out on the beauty of what they were offering, their presence and passion for yoga.

My next challenge was making sense of the sequencing.

As a teacher, especially post-LA classes with Shiva, I feel like there is so much I have to learn. Especially when it comes to creating safe, sound sequences which open the body in a logical, powerful and safe manner.

Sometimes, my knowledge of how little I know and how much I have to learn makes me think I shouldn’t be teaching at all.

I just know that if Shiva was to observe how I practice that she’d be able to pick holes left, right and centre in how I’m sequencing, and what I’m missing out.

So when I’m in class with another teacher… I’m hyper-sensitive to the sequencing.

In the middle of the class when the teacher calls out the next pose, my inner dialogue screams;

That’s not right, I’m not doing that, after that, like that!

I have to wonder… why am I resisting?

  • Is it because the sequencing is new to me and I’ve got fixed ideas of how sequencing ‘should’ be?
  • Is it because the sequencing is silly and has no point to it?
  • Is it because the sequencing isn’t right for the body?
  • Or is it because the sequencing is unsafe?

Case in point – The Unfamiliar Sequence:

The teacher cued us from Warrior II with hands interlaced behind the spine, into a forward bend on the inside of the front leg, retaining the Warrior II legs as your foundation.

My inner dialogue says;

‘That forward-bend variation should be used in Warrior I, not II.’

Am I stuck on a fixed idea? Or is the sequencing not right for the body?

I do it anyway, letting go of my fixed idea.

It doesn’t feel right.

There’s too much weight over the front leg and it feels like I’m unable to ground down enough through the back leg to offset it.

Is this because of my own incompetence in the posture or is this because this variation doesn’t allow prana to flow naturally?

Second case in point – The Potentially Risky Sequence:

We were asked to move from a hip-width forward bend into half-moon posture, which requires externally rotating over the standing leg hip joint while it’s bearing weight.

Feels unsafe to me – too much risk of people sinking into their joints while rotating.

Much safer to find the external rotation of the weight-bearing leg first, with no weight on it –  like in Warrior II – and then come into the posture.

So what to do?

  • Ignore the sequencing in the middle of a class?
  • Or suck it up and keep my body as safe as I can?

I choose the second option, mostly.

I keep my mind open, obey the sequencing which feels odd to me, and stay in sync with the class.

Until – case in point: The ‘What the F*ck?’ sequence:

After what I thought was the closing sequence of bridge, shoulderstand, plough, and deaf mans pose – the teacher takes us back into downward dog, three limbed dog and pigeon. After shoulderstand!

Here’s when I just go;

What the f**k? You’re making me come out of shoulderstand and do three-limbed dog? Are you crazy?!

I’m behind the class as it is – getting up into shoulderstand safely takes time for me, as does moving into plough. I’ve forgone deafmans pose and am moving down into a moment’s savasana, feeling like I need fish pose when everyone else is in three limbed downward dog going into pigeon.

Serious rebellion in my mind:

I’ve just been in shouldstand!

I don’t want to go back into downward dog!

You can’t make me!

But I can see this is a new sequence and I don’t want to skip out on it all and disrespect the teacher. Who knows, I’m only a beginning teacher myself, maybe this is a perfectly respectable and safe way to sequence?

So I suck it up.

Lets just see how it feels.

I move into downward dog.

It feels wrong.

This is wrong, insists my mind.

Then three legged dog.

Even worse.

What the…

By now, you’re probably wondering why I went to these classes anyway, and why after the first one, I went back.

Curiousity. Convenience. It’s a beautiful studio. They had a first time $10 for two class special. And it’s nice to go to a class once in awhile.

Plus going to class gave me a chance to practice things I don’t at home:

  • Like how to walk the fine line between respecting the external teacher and the internal teacher.
  • And how to move out of judgment and into discernment.
  • And how to stay open-hearted and accept the gifts on offer rather than moaning and groaning about the way that gift is wrapped.

After all, this particular gym has made the effort to incorporate yoga into it’s offering in a beautiful way.

There’s a designated yoga studio, they’re training teachers, they obviously care about the yoga. The people who attend that gym may be experiencing yoga for the first time. They’re likely there to stretch out a bit, or lose a bit of weight, or feel a bit calmer. They’re loving the experience.

They don’t give a rat’s arse that a forward bend in Warrior II isn’t stellar sequencing (and maybe it is).

They’re mostly not going to do anything nasty to their hip joints by going from a forward bend into half moon (which might be a-ok).

And they’re not going care too much about moving from shoulderstand into a pigeon sequence (who knows what benefits that could have?).

They’re blessed with beginner’s mind. And with beginner’s mind, they’re able to gratefully and easily receive the goodness on offer.

Once natural, now Beginner’s Mind is something I need to practice.

It’s a reminder of how a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and thinking we know something stops us from experiencing what is… it creates a separation between us and the thing.

So thank you, to the teachers who showed up and whole-heartedly taught, you gave me an opportunity to practice far more than asana in my 90 minute class.

And for that, I am grateful.


About Kara-Leah Grant

Kara-Leah Grant is an internationally renowned retreat leader, yoga teacher and writer. Along with fellow Elephant Journal writer, Ben Ralston, she runs Heart of Tribe, pouring her love into growing a world-wide tribe of courageous, committed, and empowered individuals through leading retreats in New Zealand, Mexico and Sri Lanka. Kara-Leah is also the founder of New Zealand’s own awesome yoga website, The Yoga Lunchbox, and author of Forty Days of Yoga—Breaking down the barriers to a home yoga practice and The No-More-Excuses Guide to Yoga. A born & bred Kiwi who spent her twenties wandering the world and living large, Kara-Leah has spent time in Canada, the USA, France, England, Mexico, and a handful of other luscious locations. She now lives and travels internationally with her son, a ninja-in-training. You can find Kara-Leah on her website, or on Facebook.


9 Responses to “The danger of thinking you know more than your yoga teacher”

  1. Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

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  2. ntathu allen says:

    What an open and honest post. yes yoga brings us safely out of our comfort zone to explore the hidden and unknown parts of our being

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  4. Hey Ntathu,

    Well said! Great comment!

    Which made me consider what was beneath all that mind chatter… lack of trust? Fear of surrendering? Is this something a teacher earns? Or something a student gives?

  5. chiara_ghiron says:

    Hi Beth,

    exactly! but see? you also say that, in your role as high school teacher, you recognise different needs and support them by giving different assignments. So a good yoga teacher, which you will come to trust, and as Tara-Leah commented trust is a fundamental point, will recognise your needs, wheher they are different today, always, or tomorrow. This is why I mentioned speaking to the teacher to explain things!
    I guess my reaction was also prompted by yogie tobie who said ”I’ll do fish posture and I don’t care what anyone says’… well… maybe for one day he can try downdog or even bujanghasana and see if he feels worse/better.

    So a good teacher WILL recognise your needs, and think about some alternatives that fit their overall view of how the sequence should progress, to maintain the harmony in it. It is not a matter of ego, but of giving sequences harmony within one’s tradition. Let’s remember that there are different traditions, and with the exception of a few ones originally taylored to young, fit, male bodies, most of them recognise the differences in age, bodies, time of the day and the year!

    I guess a lot of the issues may also come from the fact, that there is a dangerous habit, completely different from what the original one-to-one yoga tradition was, as yogie tobie also commented in a different post, of dropping into a class without any personal relationship to the teacher, without taking the time to communicate to them who we are and what we need, changing teachers just because it fits our schedule and not trying to find the time to schedule in the class which best reflects our needs..


  6. chiara_ghiron says:

    I suspect it is something a student should give, but in our culture of ‘the customer is always right’ it has become more like it is something the teacher has to earn…

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