Recently, I watched a YouTube video of three teachers (each with several decades of teaching experience) demonstrating a sun salutation together. One of them, a warm, humble, thoughtful person, cued the other two through each part of the sequence, as if the two associates were encountering it for the first time. Of course this is the norm; it’s how most, if not all of us, were taught to teach. But for whatever reason, it struck me as odd and triggered two related memories.
The first took me back to the late 90s when I inadvertently annoyed a group of students who had been regularly attending a Sunday morning Yoga class I taught. I asked them to complete three sun salutations by themselves, without me guiding them, and then I promised to pick up the proceedings from there.
Two students walked out (‘they didn’t come here for this’). Those who remained begrudgingly went through the motions – or some of the motions. Even though many of these students had been led through 100′s of sun salutations in their lifetime, more than half practiced hesitantly: repeating a left or a right side, skipping portions of the sequence and/or mixing up their breaths and their movements.
I hadn’t meant to offend anyone. And I didn’t expect I’d mess up the flow of the class either. I figured everyone would have welcomed a 5-minute respite from me yakking at them and I didn’t think I wasn’t asking them to do something they couldn’t do. Not wanting to hurt my all-important class numbers, I went back to teaching the ‘regular’ way: calling out the posture names and noting a few details about each one, regardless of whether the students in front of me were hearing that information for the first or the five hundredth time.
I also remembered encountering a similar situation a year or so later. I joined two hundred other participants taking a workshop with T.K.V. Desikachar at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY. Some of my fellow retreatants had been students of Yoga for a few months but many were accomplished practitioners and teachers with years of study under their belts.
To kick off the first session, Mr. Desikachar drew a stick figure of dvipada pitham (bridge pose) and asked us to create a short practice using it. Many went to work on the mini-assignment nonplussed but the reaction in the room also included a mix of panic, frustration, confusion, and annoyance (‘we didn’t come here for this.’) The discontented faction tipped the agenda. The assignment was scratched and for the remainder of the weekend Mr. Desikachar led us through group practices.
These days, it’s rare that I talk clients through postures, breathing or meditation techniques. I mostly work with individuals who want encouragement or guidance in crafting a personal practice. Together we create practices that the client will explore for days or weeks at a time. So, naturally, one of our objectives is to make sure they feel confident and safe working on their own. When we meet up again, they share their observations on their practice and sometimes show me sections that they have questions about or want feedback on. Their feedback, our discussion and whatever their current condition is, drives the next iteration of their practice.
But I don’t work exclusively with individuals.
In fact, moments after watching my colleague’s video, I popped into one of the two group classes I still teach. For the next hour I lead and they followed. I took this group (a group I have worked with for fifteen years) through various postures and breathing techniques that each of them already knew. In the process I probably repeated instructions or reminders they had heard hundreds of times.
In many respects, I think it’s a balanced, thoughtful class. I try to be smart about the movement palette we use (we liberally adapt classical postures to make them relevant for this diverse group whose ages range from 45 to 80 and who are tasked with sitting in chairs most of the day). I encourage them to maintain their focus on the quality of their attention and on the feel of their breathing. And I regularly receive feedback from the participants about how supported they feel and how appreciative they are that our class has continued for so many years.
So it’s a balanced, thoughtful class that tries to meet the participants where they are, is appreciated by them AND it all takes place within a context in which I lead and they follow.
Doesn’t that ‘I lead, you follow’ piece strike anyone else as weird? The more I’ve thought about why I was giving instructions to people who already knew what they were doing – and why they’d want me in that role – the more it makes me wonder why most group Yoga classes embrace this teaching structure. It’s a bizarre strategy that seems even stranger when applied to other contexts:
- Imagine playing a round of golf with a teaching pro who talked you through every aspect of your address, backswing, downswing and follow-thru.. And can you imagine if she – or her teaching pro in training – did hands-on corrections to you during every putt? What if ‘playing golf’ really meant ‘being talked through a round of golf’?
- Or what if you and your friends took a baking class with a chef who directed ‘cracking the eggs,’ ‘opening the bottle of milk,’ ‘scooping out the flour’ and ‘sifting it into the bowl.’ Would you expect those kinds of instructions on day one? Would you be surprised to be receiving more or less identical instructions three weeks, three months or three years later? How confident would you feel making a birthday cake on your own? Would you feel as confident using a recipe other than the one you were taught?
When my son learned the alphabet, there came a point when his teacher stopped saying the letters with him, when he and his classmates were left out there, all alone, with the task of identifying the letter that followed ‘K.’ Like all of us, he may have hesitated or fumbled at first, but eventually, he confidently arrived at ‘L’ and thus, was one step further on the path towards a lifetime of reading and writing.
True, some group exercise classes are also ‘led’ but in many other movement forms (dance and martial arts, e.g.) the teachers don’t provide, nor do the students ask for, such an extended period of verbal or visual codling. Instead, those teachings are shared in environments that embrace ‘not-knowing’ as part of the process and that encourage their students’ bumbling along towards mastery.
And of course, I’m sure the language in most group Yoga classes embraces ‘not-knowing’ so what I’m wondering is whether the structure of the learning environment undercut those heartfelt words? With the exception of Mysore-style astangha classes where each student is tasked to work on (by herself) whatever part of the first, second or third series she is up to, every other group class I am familiar with features an instructor leading the students through a series of postures, breathing techniques and/or meditation instructions.
On the one hand, teachers tend to suggest that the students should feel free to tune out what they are saying and only take in whatever’s relevant. But do our preferences lie with ‘do what I say’ or on ‘pay attention to yourself’? When students liberally deviate from the given instructions for an extended period, what comes up in you (as the teacher or as a fellow practitioner)? Is it really okay? Or does it detract from the overall experience? If it was my expectation, as the teacher or as a practitioner, that we’d all be more or less working on the same things (with a little variation here) and then and someone broke into a flow practice in the midst of a restorative class, I’d be totally distracted.
But what if everybody coming together and doing their own thing – even if it was radically different mat to mat – was the expectation. What if that was the new norm of a group class.
In my 1-on-1 sessions with clients who expect to leave with homework, they don’t expect for us to have a ‘Yoga experience’ together. They expect they’ll emerge with things to work on for the days/weeks ahead. If they don’t leave with essential oils or sweat (or both) on their forehead or a post-savasana or post-meditative glow that’s fine with them because they can construct those experiences on their own (if they even want them).
What would happen if, instead of leading our next group class, we turned over more of the direction and flow of the class to the students and focused our energies on creating a supportive, safe and encouraging environment for them to begin developing an individualized practice? What if the 7pm class was still wall-to-wall practitioners, but suppose each practitioner was there working on his or her own thing, in their own way. The collective group could still draw support from one another’s energy and focus but instead of being a class where ‘they’ followed ‘us’ it would be one where individuals practiced together.
As teachers our preparation would need to be quite different from what it is now. We would probably need to prepare jumping off points for class attendees, greeting each participant with a menu of options for them to practice. Or we might, as Mr. Desikachar attempted to do, post on the wall a posture, or a series of postures, and invite the attendees to construct and practice their own sequence for the next twenty minutes. Afterwards, everyone could reconvene and share what worked, what didn’t and what they might do differently the next time. Over time, clarity about what each person needed to include in her practice would emerge.
As practitioners, more would be asked of us, too. Along with the freedom to practice what we wanted, would also come the responsibility to take closer care of our practice and of our attention during it. We wouldn’t be able to rely on someone else’s charisma, energy, shakti, or creativity to get us through. We would, however, get to tap into and cultivate those very same qualities within us. And I believe – and the clients I have worked with concur – that the benefits and the sense of empowerment that flow from crafting one’s own practice would far outpace the initial challenges. I imagine that a room full of personal practitioners would be inspiring.
I’m not naive enough to imagine that it would eliminate Yoga-derived injuries or that it would prevent power imbalances between practitioners/teachers but perhaps a more collaborative model would give practitioners a greater voice in announcing why they are there and what their hopes are.
Of course, in shifting paradigms, I’m sure we’d annoy some people. I’m sure some would announce ‘they didn’t come here for this.’ But I bet many others would happily bumble along with us.