I get questions sometime when I’m outside of a yoga studio or yoga setting. I love it; I love that people ask. It shows inquisitiveness about yoga and a desire to understand it. It also shows a certain level of passion and commitment; why would you ask a question about something that you didn’t care about? Sometimes I get questions about how to do certain poses. Things like, “ should my heels be touching the floor in downward dog?” or “ where should my front knee be placed in half pigeon?” There’s usually some kind of guideline or information I can provide and often, if it’s something that affirms their initial instinct (“yes, your knee should be over your heel in Warrior 1”) there’s sometimes a nod of agreement and maybe even a sigh of relief that they were on the right track.
I read an article a few months back that was a student’s commentary on her experience in a yoga class. She referenced the teacher’s choice of words during class and references to phrases like “make the pose your own” and “do what your heart is encouraging you to do” or something to that affect. She talked about how frustrating it was for her as she felt like there was less instruction happening and more encouraging of the students to do whatever they wanted. Unlike the above conversation that provides someone with more of a “do it this way” approach, the class description and teacher style in the class she referenced seemed to be more of a class based on letting students figure it out by themselves.
I’m kind of fascinated by this distinction. In large part, yoga is exercise focused on helping you tune into yourself: your breath, your feelings, what you see of your own body as it moves from pose to pose. While there is focus on technique, it’s a practice that can be (in certain styles) focused on moving and breathing and feeling the rhythm of connecting breath and movement. In a way, yoga in this style is meant to provide a structure within which the student finds the freedom to be him or herself. That certainly becomes challenging if the student is constantly doing exactly what the teacher says, in the exact way the teacher suggests.
There is something to be said though for building a foundation based on some kind of knowledge about yoga from an alignment perspective. Many students never go beyond open yoga classes to learn how to do the poses. Most of their learning is largely based on what they see other students do, how they interpret what they hear and maybe some post-class questions they ask of the teacher. I’ve had a few private sessions where just a few suggestions about alignment opens up a whole new way of doing the pose and feeling its primary action. The “ah-ha” moment when that occurs is exciting to see, just as the feeling that “I’m just not getting it” can be frustrating.
The one thing that can sometimes get lost in translation is the enjoyment of the practice. Sometimes the questions may come from a place of wanting to do the pose “right” and while that’s a noble cause, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for individuality and meeting the pose from where you’re at. I recently wrote a post about employing a little compassion when you’re practicing yoga and while that might sound like a cop-out, it’s the best way to grow a strong practice. There’s not much sense to binding, twisting and contorting the body all in the name of “doing it right” if all you’re going to do is strain your body and mind. Your breath is a great sign of where you’re at on the mat and if you can barely breath, that’s a true sign that you’re over-doing it.
Even for newer students, while I love the idea of showing them how to do the pose by practicing along with them, I just as much love the idea of holding back from that visual aid and trying to use essential language to give them the general idea of the pose and leave the rest to them to figure out. If downward dog is “feet at hip width, hands at shoulder width, knees a bit bent to accommodate any tightness in your hamstrings,” than perhaps that’s enough and the rest is up to you to customize to your own body.
We each come to yoga bringing with us all our whole being; how we learn, how we convert what we hear into action, our fears, our perceptions, our wisdom. It’s what makes us unique. While we often practice in a group setting, yoga doesn’t ask us to blend in with the group. It gives us the framework to experience breath and movement in a way that can not only honor our individuality but make us stronger individuals. Be you!