When I started on the yoga teaching path, I had high ideals about opening up the wonderful, calming, incredible experiences of yoga to your garden-variety humans wandering around out there yogaless in the big, wide world. Teaching in the real world though, has raised some dilemmas that might just thwart my lofty vision.
I’ve been trained in a highly systematic form of yoga that focusses on a careful, if not GENTLE, but certainly GRADUAL progression of skills. The student starts at the beginning, mastering the basics before moving on to more advanced practices. This involves some really basic groundwork – firstly relieving tensions and developing the range of motion and flexibility in the joints of the body. Strength work comes in time and evolves naturally from the simpler asanas. It’s important to work the joints. Consider, for example, the student with stiffness in the hip joints. She struggles to sit cross-legged. When it comes to sitting for meditation she experiences great discomfort. This physical discomfort distracts her from the mental (or spiritual) experience of the meditation. It hinders her progress, keeps her stuck in the physical body.
Starting at the beginning with the most basic preparation removes obstacles to a deeper experience. It also prevents injury when stronger practices are introduced. It makes sense.
Dilemma: the garden variety yoga student finds joint work TEDIOUS and BORING. I have no problem with that response, personally. I think it’s a great reaction. It gives students an opportunity to notice their mental and emotional patterns when faced with doing things they don’t like or find ‘fun’. Surely this is one of the most valuable life skills there is – the ability to sit with suffering and be ok with it, rather than to seek relief or gratification. It’s great training for managing greater sufferings.
In life, many sufferings are inescapable. Boredom is a small suffering, but a suffering nonetheless. In our hyper-stimulating world though, many people find sitting still, slowing down and focussing small physical movements akin to some form of water-torture. And I’m not in the game of torturing (not consciously anyway, although I’m sure some dark part of me wouldn’t mind…). 🙂
As one student mentioned to me recently, the students like ‘THIGH BURN’. Ahhh… ok… I’m starting to get it. Perhaps they want BOOT CAMP? Perhaps they want to feel the sweet satisfying slithering of sweat down their bodies. They want to walk out of that room knowing they had a WORK OUT. They want BUNS OF STEEL (oooh I get that one, me too!). In this context, being able to sit cross-legged is hardly a worthy achievement. I understand that.
This is a FITNESS focussed world – no pain, no gain. If you’re not feeling it, then you’re not working hard enough or you’re not benefitting. Yoga promotes fitness but it also seeks balance. Yoga can produce benefits no matter how gently it is practiced. I argue too, that a flexible joint can bring one heavenly relief.
I could deliver thigh burn, yes siree. I’ve got some ball-tearing thigh burners up my sleeve. But when I look around the room, I see stiff backs that struggle to bend safely; I see ankles and knees groaning under the weight of squats; I see head movement constricted by taut neck joints and muscles; I hear of tension headaches and bad backs and knee and shoulder injuries. And there’s my dilemma. Do I give the student what they want or what they need? Moreover, will I be aggravating students’ injuries by teaching them stronger practices? And more than this, do I even have the right to decide what a student NEEDS from yoga? I’ve said here before, yoga is a subjective experience and no one can tell another what they should WANT or what they NEED from it.
And if I don’t give students what they want, will I be teaching to an empty room? Likely. This throws up another dilemma – because my teaching is my bread and butter. I need students.
Essentially, I want to be a good teacher. It goes something like this:
Student to other students: ‘Wow, isn’t Jen a PHENOMENAL teacher? I’ll be going back to that class every week!’ (notice PHENOMENAL, not simply GOOD or even GREAT …my ego knows no bounds).
Real Student: ‘Those classes are ok but they’re a bit BORING and not HARD ENOUGH. Might seek out a stronger class.’
Ego: ‘GULP. I have nothing to offer.’
To burn or not to burn? That is the question.
© The Yoga Experiment, 2012