November 13, 2013

The Unspoken Part of Teaching Yoga. ~ Madelaine Standing

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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New to Teaching 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!

ambroyogini 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!

Karen P. 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.

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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.