You Have A PhD




I teach private yoga to a lovely husband-wife couple in their home.


They have different personalities: The husband is more relaxed and easy-going. When an asana (yoga posture) is uncomfortable or painful, he will release it of his own accord and rest comfortably till I go on to the next one.

The wife is alert, sharp and likes to be clear about doing things exactly right. She often asks questions on her alignment and is more analytical in her practice.


Neither approach is better than the other, they are simply different ways of being human and practising yoga.


Sometimes in class, the wife will immediately "correct" and instruct her husband as soon as he enters an asana. Her intentions are pure - she wants to make sure he is practising correctly and getting the full benefits of the asana.


She jumps in to correct him because he looks different from either my demonstration or an ideal image of the asana that she has seen and performed numerous times. In her mind, she is likely wondering, why isn't Sheela correcting him?


My approach to teaching yoga has always been to respect the student's bodily autonomy and authority.


This was borne of my own experience. As a student, I attended countless classes and received numerous adjustments (both verbal and physical) from teachers.


The most painful injuries happened when I did the asana "my way" and was "corrected" by the teacher. There were several instances when teachers came up to me personally and demanded that I do the asana as taught. Out of fear, pressure and humiliation, I obeyed - and suffered for it.


Example: Once, in paschimottansana (a seated forward fold), I held my feet, lengthened my spine and kept my gaze on my toes. My neck was in line with the rest of my spine. My body was alert and at ease, I wasn't being lazy. The teacher however, insisted that I look up, and didn't leave my side until I craned my neck up to his satisfaction.


What are the key efforts of paschimottanasana?


  • Pelvis tilting forward OR upright (depending on individual anatomy)

  • Lengthen spine (there are different versions of this: with the spine in a gentle rounded shape OR in a straight line from tailbone to crown.)

  • Lengthen legs without compromising spinal alignment (i.e. the hinging comes from the hips NOT the lumbar spine.)


In my asana I had the hip mobility and leg flexibility to bend forward such that my chest was close to my knees. Keeping my gaze on my shins was sthira sukham asanam, which means "steady and comfortable in the posture". Once I was told to crank my neck up, my cervical spine was painfully compressed. My neck hurt then and for days after.


The reason this "correction" was wrong is NOT because the action of looking up in that asana is wrong. It was wrong because it was wrong for my body in that asana, in that class, at that time. On another day, I could very well be doing the same asana in a different way, such that his adjustment would have been helpful, or at least harmless.


As a teacher, a better approach he could have taken was to ask me why I did not want to look up. This opens up a space for dialogue and understanding instead of fear and rigid obedience to "alignment rules".


This is precisely why the bulk of my value as a teacher is not just how I instruct, but OBSERVING how my students practise asana and teaching at your level of ability and awareness.



HOW DO I DECIDE WHEN TO INSTRUCT?


  • If I know or gauge you are physically able to access the key efforts (this is why it is wise to practise with a teacher who has seen/been with you over time)

  • If you can access the key efforts but need help with how to use props effectively to get there

  • If you physically cannot access the key efforts in that asana, I will teach those same efforts in a different asana

  • If I believe you are or could be (potentially) hurting yourself

  • If you are doing something that I don't understand, I will ask


WHEN DO I KEEP SILENT?


  • I am watching you work the asana out for yourself

  • I understand what your body is doing and it is sthira (steady) & sukha (comfortable) for you

  • I see you doing the asana in your own way and understand why you are doing it that way


Do you see that all 3 things above are GOOD things?


Understand that your teacher is not short-changing you when they aren't constantly correcting or adjusting you, even if you look different from the student next to you.


________


From therapist and teacher Bonnie Badendoch:



I smiled broadly. " ...This is your body's wisdom speaking to us, sensing when it is safe to go forward, pulling back a bit when it might be too much. You and I are just getting to know one another, so I really respect the caution and protection in your inner world." ...


With visible relaxation in her body and strong eye contact, she said, "All my life people have criticized me for being cautious. It means a lot that you like that I'm that way."


The Heart of Trauma: Healing the Embodied Brain in the Context of Relationships