The most dreaded question in class from a student: “Am I doing this right?”
I used to dread this question because I wasn’t so sure if I knew the answer myself. Maybe her foot should be in a different place and if only I knew where that place was, if only I asked enough teachers, took enough workshops, consulted enough books, I would know for sure or at least know who to believe (after all, there are so many differing opinions).
My teacher was big on alignment but gave no absolutes. I had no patience for frustrating responses like, “That depends; how do you feel?” So, even after teacher training, I was still plagued by the question: what is the right way to practice a pose?
Obviously, there were some things I knew for sure— always keep your hips level when you twist. But then I took Judith Hanson Lasater’s sacroiliac joint workshop and down (thankfully) went that theory. And don’t even get me started on something as seemingly straightforward as the breath. “Belly breathing” is often touted as the optimal way to breathe, but what about incorporating the bandhas like in an ashtanga or vinyasa class? And is there really a wrong way to breathe? People seem to think so— they often ask me about it.
It all comes back to the fundamental desires we as humans can’t seem to escape:
One—we want to be perfect or act perfectly (whatever that means), and usually, it relates to a bogus set of criteria determined by society and culture.
Two—we want answers; we want black and white. We want absolutes.
I see it all the time in students and teachers, new and experienced. The striving to get it right; and believe me, I’ve been there. But then I was lucky enough to find my teacher, Leslie Kaminoff, and I remembered why I came to yoga in the first place: to be free.
Oh, right. After all, I didn’t become a yoga teacher to make sure someone’s foot was in the right place. What a relief to be reminded!
Now, I’m not knocking alignment. Practicing physical alignment (whatever that means for you) can be a powerful tool to connect with your body, go deeper into yourself and discover tendencies that may no longer be serving you. Furthermore, I still think it’s dangerous to practice sarvangasana (shoulder stand) without blankets and believe turning your back foot out in Warrior One will twist your knee.
But even so, is that really true for everyone? My students constantly remind me no two bodies are alike. So, do I, who is not you, really know the answer to that question?
That’s the beauty of practicing yoga. It’s not about anyone else. It’s always been and will always be about you, about unchaining yourself from whatever enslaves you.
Unfortunately, we become so obsessed with getting it “right” that we use yoga to further enslave us instead of moving towards self-discovery and freedom. Trying to be right or perfect is just another shackle. And if we continue to fall into the same trap of “fixing ourselves,” then we miss the entire point; we blind ourselves even more to what we already are— whole and intimately connected to each other and the universe.
There is nothing wrong with us; we are not broken and don’t need to be fixed.
This is what I’m forced to remember whenever a student asks me if s/he’s doing it right, and why I’m usually propelled to answer with the infuriating: how does it feel? Teaching becomes a constant reminder that I’m not trying to “fix” someone or change them to be better, but to guide them further into themselves.
Svadhyaya (self-study) is a discovery into what it means to be human, to move our bodies, to move our minds, to breathe, to feel on every level. That is beyond right and wrong. This is what advancing in our practice means, when we move past what we think people and society expect from us and look for the answers within ourselves. And no one wants to hear that. Even I don’t a lot of the time. But wanting to be perfect and right is based on the fundamental misunderstanding of what yoga is.
We don’t do yoga, we are yoga, and as human beings, that means forever imperfectly perfect.
Barbara Joy Beatus is a yoga teacher and writer with a fondness for cupcakes, cheesy jokes, the Brontes, and beautiful heart-wrenching prose. When she’s not editing her two novels, she can be found teaching breath-centered yoga, trying to think deep thoughts and then trying not to think at all. She blogs about writing and yoga at The Writing Yogini– www.barbarajoybeatus.com.
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Editor: Cassandra Smith