Friday, October 17, 2008

Bossy Yoga Teachers

I was in a meeting yesterday about some yoga business and one of the women in the meeting joked about how bossy people get attracted to teaching Anusara Yoga. She was kind of joking and good-heartedly teasing but you know, the thing is, that we do not call this "being bossy." We call it "taking the seat of the teacher." I explained to her that our certification standards actually require that the teacher be clearly in charge of the classroom. Not only is the certified teacher supposed to know all the right things to say about getting into and out of the poses, but they are supposed to make sure that their students are actually doing it. If all the right things came out of my mouth but none of my students were translating my instructions into their bodies, I would "fail the test." For instance, it is not enough for us as certified teachers to say, "Now everyone take your arm bones back." We are expected to look around, make sure people are doing it, help those who are not and we do not move forward until the first instruction is implemented well because all subsequent instructions are dependent on the groundwork being laid properly. I guess this is being bossy but I do not really look at it this way.

I got to thinking about who my first yoga teachers were. They were brilliant, long-time practitioners who, by the time I met them, had practiced yoga longer than I had been alive. They were so knowledgeable and so experienced that they really did know way more about my yoga than I did. I wanted nothing more from them but to be "bossed around" because their bossing me around yielded such fantastic results. Even to this day, I go to teachers who will tell me what to do based on the fact that they do know more than me. Never once, have I known more about my shoulder injury than John Friend. Never once has my own insight exceeded his about any pose. I am happy to be bossed around because he is, in that context, The Boss.

Douglas Brooks talks about this aspect of the teacher student relationship as deference. He suggests we make a conscious distinction between deference and submission. We can defer to someone, by choice, who knows more than us. This whole thing of "you know what is right for you" in terms of asana is a slippery slope, in my opinion. In the ultimate sense, that is true. We are our own teachers. But our ability to access the deepest wisdom within is contingent on many factors such as seeing ourselves clearly, understanding the vision of said task, having a true understanding of the pitfalls challenges and delusions that arise along the journey, etc.

So in terms of the average asana class we do need to be clear about whether we are not deferring because that person does not know more than us or if we are not deferring because we are unwilling for someone "to be the boss of us" for an hour. Allowing good teachers to be the boss of us can take years of our learning curve. It is just an expedient way to go. For instance, if I want to learn how to do a deep back bend, I am going to ask someone who can do it. I am going to rely on their testimony because they have travelled the path before me. Too often I hear people teach things in yoga that they cannot do and their information is only half the story because they have only made half of the journey.

And the funny thing is that most of the people I work with mentoring in Anusara Yoga are not bossy enough. A huge part of honing one's self as an Anusara Yoga teacher is eliminating words and phrases from our language like "if you want to", "if you can", see if you can", "if it feels right to you," "maybe add some tailbone" and so forth. In fact when I taught in front of John he suggested that I could be even more direct and he said I do not need to say "please". (And I am a pretty direct teacher, so give that some thought.)

One thing that I heard that BKS Iyengar said was that "When a student is in my class I want to control their mind for the whole time they are under my supervision." He didn't mean this as a control-freak thing or some "I have to boss people around because I am so insecure that I cannot deal with not being in charge". He meant it that if he was in charge of their minds, then he could direct their attention to the highest state of yoga and away from their smaller personality concerns. He could, for the time people were in his care, give them a break from themselves. That is all.

Now, I am not interested here in the argument about how "yoga is a time to come and do your own thing and just have your own time for yourself" and all that. I am not disagreeing with that approach to yoga. All I am saying is that is not an Anusara Yoga class. People come to our classes sometimes and wish we said less or which we just left people alone and that is just not our way. So the people who enjoy Anusara Yoga the most are the people who really want to come to learn how to improve and who can, for an hour or so, defer to some one's expertise. And the beauty of it all is that there are a lot of classes out there where the teacher will let you do your own thing and not get in your world at all so if you want that they are easy to find. But it is not really our way. I made the kind of progress I did in my practice because someone helped me and corrected me and showed me how I could break through my preconceived limits and false barriers. And it took more than a little bossing around!


Leanne said...

Good. That just confirms my chasing the stance in a lunge is valid. I have to stand in front of my beginning students and say "Longer, more, yes- getting there- now more..."
I have really tall students that think their legs should look like everyone else's on the mat. They seem to be afraid to accept they are long of limb and in a proper lunge their front foot is at the very front of the mat and their back foot is at the very very back of their mat. I seem to correct the same students every class- is this a common observation??

Leanne said...

and don't get me started on down dog...

Dale said...

And that is why Anusara is the core of my practice :-). I have the highest trust, and the highest expectations, of Anusara teachers.

And I hope that yall in teacher training will listen up.

As a student, I have various levels of trust&expectation for my teachers. With most teachers, I just tune out their alignment instructions, because they have not demonstrated that they:
1) understand alignment
2) understand my body/mind/spirit,&
3) would rather injure themselves than me.

And they don't really care, since alignment isn't on top of their minds either - as long as someone isn't doing the pose in a really dangerous manner, they're cool.

And then there are some folks who I listen to. interestingly, one Ashtanga teacher is unlocking the secrets of flight for me, & this is an interesting journey for someone who used to think of Udiyanna bandha in terms of pelvic loop & kedney loop :-).

And there are folks who don't talk much to me, but occasionally show me with their hands where I am collapsing or where I could straighten up & open up more - juicy :-).

But I respond to these teachers through 3 sets of filters:
1) how do I translate this into the UPoA? And if it doesn't then I generally ignore it. For example, some systems & teachers advise you to come into a pose using a process that prevents the UPoA from being applied in the correct sequence (at least in my understanding). Bad.

2) Does this feel right, or consistent with how I expect the practice to affect me? If not, then that goes in the rubbish bin, too. For example, if the advice gets me further into the pose, but I cannot maintain muscular energy, so that I'm stretching ligaments instead of good stuff, then I'm outa there :-).

3) Does this feel too intense, or stretch me in a way that I am not sure about? For example, that discomfort in my medial meniscus is not something that I am willing to tolerate.

What I love about these teachers is that their classes are a blast (otherwise there would be no point). One studio owner asked me today "so you are saying that this class is yoga playtime for you?" And I replied that yes, it was, and that was a very high compliment from me to her.

But what is different between me and these other teachers, vs. what exists between me and an Anusara teacher, is the covenant. A covenant is a very serious agreement. I do not give these other teachers my trust and my discipleship, and they do not dedicate themselves to my benefit through this practice.

But when I go to John's workshops or Christina's classes or Desiree or another Anusara teacher, I demand and submit to a covenant. I drop my first two filters - if it doesn't sound like the UPoA, then I will talk to the teacher later & gain better understanding. If it doesn't feel typical, I suspend judgment & taste it with the expectation that my body is learning something new.

I do not drop the third filter - pain or something that feels dangerous - because studentship demands that I care for myself & that I clearly communicate my state to the teacher.

In return, I expect that the teacher will use all of their attention and skills to keep me safe & teach me the yoga.

And if they decide to bless me with something that is strange to me, I will trust them & follow them, to the extent discussed above. In fact, I expect and demand to be led, taught, & molded in what ever ways the teacher thinks best.

So, the point is ... I trust the Anusara teacher to know the right ways to do things and the wrong ways to do things, and in return for my discipleship, I demand that she take control of my practice for that class.

And I have yet to be disappointed. I used to go to North Carolina on business every fall, & practice with Sommer Sobin & her wonderful husband Paul. The firs time I was there, we were doing side angle, & Sommer came over & stared at my pelvis for awhile, & then called Paul over (they team teach alot) & they talked about it for a moment. Then there was the traditional "demonstrate the alignment with the person who can show the most improvement." during which most of us collapsed at one point or another in laughter. Anyway, the point is that there I was, in another state, with an Anusara teacher I didn't know, & she saw something in me that she needed to love on, & she did. And for the next 5 year, as I returned yearly, she would check on my progress. How she & Paul remembered my alignment challenge can only be attributed to their dedication as Anusara teachers.

That is a high standard of skill, dedication, caring, and action. But that's an Anusara teacher.

And please, don't anybody freak out the next time I walk into your class. I'm not judging anyone, and I'm not keeping score. We're all on this journey together :-). I just wanted to express my agreement with Christina, from a student's point of view. I not only do not object to an Anusara teacher being the boss of the class - I demand it :-).

Christina Sell said...


Pamela said...

Well, I agree with all! But let me just say a special thank you to Dale. What YOU wrote is what I feel as a practitioner of Anusara Yoga and it's what inspires (and sometimes overwhelms) me in my studies to teach this method.

Sometimes, it's kind of a drag. Like I use to just be OKAY with being a yoga exercise leader. THAT was a heck of a lot easier. But now that I KNOW better, I have to BE better. It kinda sucks ... in a good way! :-)