Here’s a question: when you see a person you perceive is in need, should you help them? This might seem like a relatively easy question to answer. Does a resounding ‘yes’ burst forth from your reservoir of beliefs around ‘good’ and ‘right’ human behaviour?
‘Yes, you should always help someone when you see they’re in need!’
‘Yes, helping someone is the compassionate thing to do!’
‘Helping is caring!’
I had an interesting conversation with a very experienced yoga teacher today who didn’t seem impressed to hear, in passing, that I make yoga nidra an optional component of my classes (echoing the sentiments of several other traditional yoga teachers I’ve come by). For those who don’t know, yoga nidra is a guided relaxation practice where students lie down on the floor for twenty minutes or so. I’ve always made it an optional practice, from the moment I started teaching a little more than a year ago. So in my classes, students who don’t wish to stay after the main class of asanas (postures) have the option to leave. Most do (yoga nidra fanatics will be shocked to hear this given how blissful we experience it to be!!).
My rationale for this decision has been straight forward. Some people don’t like lying still on the floor for long periods of time. They find it frustrating and agitating. They spend the whole time fidgeting, checking their watches, sighing. It’s not what they want to do. They come to yoga for the physical practices.
If I make yoga nidra a compulsory practice, there’s a strong chance this brand of student won’t return to the class. If the student doesn’t set foot through the door, then they experience no yoga. Some form of yoga = better than no form of yoga. Makes sense to my brain. In my asana class, there are many opportunities to stop, consciously relax, deepen the awareness and experience stillness, so students aren’t deprived of this yogic experience all together.
‘You should make them stay in future,’ the experienced teacher advises me. ‘Yoga nidra is what those restless kinds of people need most.’
Or should this be a decision that rests with the student him or herself?
In welfare circles, we call the capacity to decide for oneself ‘self-determination’ (surprise! hehe) and it’s an idea that we seek to uphold when working to help people. I put to you (you, the jury) that when we don’t allow people to self-determine, a few not-so-healthy things can fester and unfold.
Firstly, when we tell a person what they need (according to our own perception and without their specific request for this advice) we face the very real possibility of alienating them from ever approaching us for help when they come to really need it (that is, when they seek it themselves). We shut a door by having voiced the deeply patronising assumption that we are the ‘expert’ and that they don’t know themselves as we know them (which is actually a proven psychological social bias shown to be untrue).
We, ironcially, become the person people avoid when seeking help. We are too prone to projecting our own ego (our superiority, our self-professed ‘wisdom’) to be of any real use. If anything, we become an obstacle – we’re unable to openly listen and hear what a person really needs, having already decided we know what’s best for them.
Having said that, there is a type of person who will approach us if we operate this way. We attract the person who has little belief in their own capacity to make decisions for themselves. We invite that person into a relationship of co-dependency where we perpetuate the role of ‘wise one’ and ‘helper’, validating that person’s perception of self as inferior and needy. In this role, we actually diminish rather than help a person. We enable their powerlessness. When you don’t treat someone as an independent, competent adult who can draw their own conclusions and make their own decisions, they have no opportunity to learn how to grow past the often debilitating state of dependency and helplessness (for more around this, try Googling ‘Pygmalion and golem effect’). Worse, really, is that we’re not in a state of truthfulness with ourselves when we operate this way. We’re veiled by our own ego – the very thing we attempt to teach our students to transcend.
So will I force students to stay for yoga nidra on the basis that I believe they need it? Well, I can’t, in good faith do that, because beyond the ideas I’ve aforementioned, I can’t presume to know what each of student needs. I can’t take my brain into that space of believing I’m all-knowing or best-knowing (except maybe in this case haha).
Here’s my brain’s logic: just because a student struggles to sit or lie in stillness doesn’t, by default, mean they need to. That’s a closed judgement we yoga teachers make as a result of our indoctrination or even faulty interpretation of yoga teachings. That student might actually feel more relaxed from a run around the block for all we know. A student with past trauma might find lying in an open still position on the floor terrifyingly triggering for all we know. A student might find any number of healthy non-yogic practices more effective to their ability to relax and release.
The nutshell of the point is – who knows what students need from yoga? They know. And if they don’t consciously know, they will come to learn what those needs are if and when they’re ready, simply by turning up to class and being exposed to any of the practices. They will evolve through yoga if and when they need to. This is what yoga is – a personal evolution. It’s up to the student to decide which yoga practices help them evolve, or even if they’re seeking evolution.
So, if you are a yoga student (hell, I’m a yoga student), I’m not going to make you lie on the floor and relax because yoga dictates it. I’m not going to make you do anything. You can come and go as you please. I’m not watching you walk out the door thinking you’re a stress-head or in denial about your needs. I’m not making any assumptions at all.
I’m also not going to ‘fix’ you if you need ‘fixing’. Because, my friend, I wholly and deeply believe that you have the capacity to fix yourself. Moreover, I actually think you are perfectly fine where you are, the way you are right now.
So, for those who choose to stay for yoga nidra, lie on the floor in shavasana, gently close the eyes, settle into stillness… For those who don’t want to… bugger off with my blessing.
© The Yoga Experiment 2013.