The Unspoken Part of Teaching Yoga. ~ Madelaine Standing

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I sometimes think back to the time that a yoga teacher approached me during a Restorative yoga class in the summer of 2009.

The instruction had been to go into supported balasana (child’s pose). After I had done so the teacher walked around the room and announced, “Now, remember, your buttocks are meant to touch your heels.”

She slowly walked towards me and after noticing that my buttocks were in fact one to two inches from my heels she approached, asking “Are you okay?”

I wasn’t sure what she meant so I simply nodded my head in reply as my forehead pressed to the mat, “Mm-hmm…” I responded. All the while I was really spooked by the over-attention and just wanted to enjoy the soothing music and soft candlelight in full surrender and bliss.

“Here, she said in a sympathetic voice as she pressed the heels of her hands on my sacrum so that my buttocks connected to my heels.

Of course, the second she walked away my butt had returned to the place it had been before she had visited my mat!

It was right about at that time that I dropped the previous cue she had given to the room, “Relax your facial muscles.” I was confused as to why it had mattered so much that my legs and hips were ‘speaking their truth’. They had been in the perfect place for them on that particular day on the mat.

While I had been in a Zen mental space up until I had had the weight of her perfectionist expectations placed upon my sacrum, I quickly shifted into a place of embarrassment and resentment.

As a teacher myself for several years, I had wondered up until that day why my students would come up to me at the end of class and ask, “I like the kind of yoga you teach! What is it?!” Their faces glowing, they’d exclaim“It feels wonderful!”

I realized between that day and many others why it feels so wonderful—both inside and out—to have the only expectation placed upon you be that you listen to your body.

In my classes, if that means taking a pose into a new direction for the duration of the breaths that the group dedicates to it as guided by the teacher, then by all means, enjoy!

As a practitioner and teacher, the only reason that I can find to interrupt is if the practitioner’s angle of exploration is potentially leading to a place of harm. As the yoga philosophy says: Ahimsa! (No Harm).

My question to teachers is just this: If it’s not hurting anyone, then what’s the problem?

I can recall teachers who have trained me over the years who have strolled between the aisles of bodies scrupulously looking for someone—anyone—who may be slightly different from what they have ordered, often to discover (through inquiring from the student directly) that the arrangement of the body was due in part to limitations, or past injury. The chosen modification by the practitioner was therefore a necessity to them.

I wonder then, what is the hang up with some teachers being so over the top with their perfectionism? Is it a fragment of the ego? A misalignment of intention on the teacher’s part? An over-zealous desire for everything to always be “just right”?

On the other end, how can students benefit from experiencing the moment by being granted the freedom to surrender to their body’s natural impulses so long as it’s not hurting anyone else? Is subjecting class attendees to the so-called norms of body positions potentially limiting and having negative internal and energetic impacts?

Is it possible that in order to encourage the body’s most natural and optimal energy flow to balance and maximize in strength we as teachers need to encourage the random arm or leg movement outside of what we perhaps instructed?

I will finish up with another example: two years ago I was practicing in a studio on Broadway in The Mecca of Yoga Studios (aka Vancouver, Canada) and a well-meaning teacher whom I had never met (and who had not approached me at the classes’ start to inquire if I had any injuries or sore places) stood from the other side of the room and said enthusiastically, “Madelaine, now make sure to really straighten that back leg!”

In the span of a few seconds I had searched my mind as to what I could say in response: should I shout out across the room to let him know I have it as straight as I can get it? Or, Should I just do it , even though it feels like it is as straight as it goes?

The answer of course was neither one: I might have simply smiled and continued on, serving as a signal to him that if he really wanted to get the message across to me he could come across the room and request it again. Perhaps, he could even demo it so I could see how straight his knee goes.

Then, when in closer proximity, I could break the bad news to his perfectionistic zeal that, “My knee feels like it’s already as straight as it goes!”

But, that is not what I did four years ago. Instead, I fell into my late father’s militant ways as I carried out the order that had been called to me from across the room. I straightened that knee there in crescent lunge until he commended across the room, “Good.”

My body certainly didn’t think so: that knee hurt for a week!

Thankfully, I have since turned “the wise number 30,” and accumulated more teaching and practicing hours. I have designated myself master of my own body and continue to return to my own inner guru.

As a reader, you may be able to see why I am so passionate about the desire to teach ‘a different kind of a yoga class,’ one that entrusts the nuances of the pose to the practitioners themselves—so long as it is not to their detriment. A class that invites and suggests of the practitioner, rather than telling, demanding, or bottom lining.

After all, over the days, months, and years, we will constantly be arriving at varying degrees of openness, strength, and flexibility within our practices. And the individual body always knows—and feels—at it’s best when there is room to move and be as it intuits is most natural in each moment.

May we always keep in mind that a key function of yoga is to open the channels of energy internally, so that we may possess greater stores of energy within to then pour into our practices and everywhere else off the mat.


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 Editor: Renee Picard



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anonymous Nov 15, 2013 12:25am

Thank you for this! As a new teacher (of a few months), this is exactly where my heart is leading in the way that I teach. It's amazing how simple verbal cues ("feel an opening come into the chest", "the hips open to the long edge of the mat", etc..) help to guide a student and let them be in touch with their own body…instead of me being in touch with it!

anonymous Nov 14, 2013 5:05pm

As yoga instructors, most of us remind our students to listen to the teacher within… which is the true teacher! So, I too, find it interesting when some instructors impose their interpretation of "right" positioning on any number of students. I will admit that when I first began teaching, I'm pretty sure I practiced adjustments based on pictures seen in anatomy books, Yoga Journal, and many yoga books. Overtime, I recognized that, even though we humans are put together similarly – we're not at all the same! We can guide students away from potentially harmful positioning, but we can't know for sure if this puts them in a stable, comfortable place. (sukha, sthira) I am happy to see and hear that there are a growing number of teachers coming to this conclusion, and are teaching accordingly. Luckily, that's the cornerstone ideal at the studio I now teach in – so I know that there are large numbers of students benefiting greatly from mindful, considerate instructions. Keep up the good work!

anonymous Nov 14, 2013 11:55am

Madelaine, I know without ever having seen you that you are a great yoga teacher. We are there for our students, not the other way around and I wish some yoga teachers understood that better. Thank you for a very insightful piece. I, too, do not adjust and browbeat unless I see something that might lead to harm. Only the person doing the pose can know what is best for himself.

anonymous Nov 14, 2013 10:42am

Well here’s the thing, Iyengar, what if you can have both? To suggest that there is not proper alignment is an assumption (something I’ve also been known to do from time to time so all good). To arrive at alignment for x amount of breaths *and* then explore the pose with fluid, exploratory, movement (to me) integrates the yin and yang of life. It acknowledges order and tradition while opening to being receptive to the body’s intuitive needs. For instance, if the shoulder has stagnant energy lodged into it, it need be addressed at the time and place the body is ready and willing to let it go. The miracle of the mind body connection is still being explored by the sciences. And, until one had a felt idea of the energy in the body they are likely to question this “yin” receptive holistic approach. We need both feminine and masculine qualities in all aspects of life in order to experience the moment fully. That’s my opinion. Not the opinion of the men who created yoga in India x amount of years ago. It’s also an interesting fact that Yoga was inaccessible to Women “they were not allowed” at the start of yoga. Perhaps this practice has needed a little more yin all along …

* I say x amt of years ago because exactly when it was is debatable in the texts that I have thus far 🙂


anonymous Nov 14, 2013 10:15am

Love this. Especially since I've recently been going through what the author described. It seems like many studios have their own "correct" way to do certain poses. Being the yoga nomad that i am, I've become uncomfortable in many poses because of the all the different suggestions i receive, many suggestions contradict other ones. I know alignment is important, but other than the obvious…i would like to be able to do poses that feel natural to my body. But, i tend to hear "you may have to feel uncomfortable to do it the "right" way". I have been practicing asana for 20 years, and for the first time in my life…i feel awkward with my practice. Sticking to the same teacher can bore me, but visiting so many different teachers confuses my practice. I have never had a single asana injury…so listening to my body, instead of some instructors seems to work…but i get called out a lot. Especially in downdog, because my elbows & knees naturally hyper extend…people don't like seeing that.

anonymous Nov 14, 2013 8:24am

Thank-you, KST! People really can be trusted with their own bodies! 🙂

anonymous Nov 14, 2013 7:15am

Your article resonated heavily with me as I teach with the same approach! Thank you for writing this wonderful, worthwhile article.

anonymous Nov 13, 2013 8:12pm

Thank-you, Iyengar Student: My heart tells me that we have similar intents and understandings of yoga, though have different angles of approaching it. Semantics aside, as long as your asana is pleasing and effective for you on and off the mat that is all that really matters. I want everyone to feel entitled to enter (and leave) any yoga class or pose as they need to. May we be helpful teachers in every sense imaginable. Namaste.

anonymous Nov 13, 2013 6:52pm

Thank you for this. Sometimes this crops up in pilates class, too.

Though, in the main the worst pilates teacher I'd ever had still wasn't as bad as some overzealous yoga instructors. I can recover from housemaid's knee a lot quicker than from the psychic trauma of being forced into a scary space in yoga …

anonymous Nov 13, 2013 4:19pm

My heels never touch my butt in child’s pose. I think it’s because the muscles in my legs make it difficult, if not impossible. In order to make them touch, I would have to tense up and contort my body, which is not what child’s pose is about!

Teachers are forever adjusting me in this posture, then as they walk away, my rear end just pops back up slightly to where it was. After 15 years of doing yoga and about 50% of new teachers making this adjustment, I’ve let it go. Now I just sort of laugh to myself each time it happens.

anonymous Nov 13, 2013 2:45pm

I get what you are saying, but I do think there is value in alignment. For example, that child's pose may have been even more relaxing if your buttocks were supported. If they don't reach the heels for support, the teacher could have easily put a blanket on your heels to fill the gap your natural body shape made. So, I agree that what your body was naturally doing is what is healthy for it, but I also think the poses benefit us most when properly alligned. If your body can't do that on it's own, alignment can be achieved through the use of props.

When my teacher comments on my alignment, I think of it as him keeping me safe in the pose. If my legs aren't straightened in standing poses, I may not keep my balance, or I may be putting undue strain on my knee or hip. My teacher understands though that we all have unique bodies that allow us to achieve different variations of a pose and we use props to support us with this goal. When your body is alligned and supported properly, your mind can relax into a meditative state.

anonymous Nov 13, 2013 10:29am

Thank-you, Miri! Akhanda sounds fascinating … I will look more into Akhanda for fun!

anonymous Nov 13, 2013 7:53am

I get what your saying completely having felt the same way. I am actually learning to teach akhanda which allows for nuances and not over mechanizing asanas. But as long as you ask permission to offer assisting sometimes the expression of the pose can be simplified and refined by an assist or adjustment. Sometimes it’s not so much as a correction but an offering, “I care and see that you are here” so yeah during child’s pose a soft touch a rub on your spine sometimes encourages relaxing . No child pose needs to be “fixed”.

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Madelaine Standing

Madelaine Standing specializes in Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Therapy with Steady Stream Wellness. She is also the author of entertaining fiction that investigates the effects of modern day lifestyles on the natural environment. Connect with her on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Pinterest.