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Uncommon Respect

Teaching can be a paradox. Sometimes restricting our students' choices, offering repetition over variety, and limiting our verbal instructions can be the ideal way to help our students grow.

By Aadil Palkhivala

We are effective teachers to the degree we respect our students and their individual needs. Yet, respecting our students may involve behaving in ways that are at odds with normal, everyday notions of what it means to be respectful. In this article, I discuss the most significant ways my teaching has changed over the past thirty years, as I continue to learn how to put my student's individual needs above the desires of my ego and the conventions of communication.

No Choice

We want to empower our students. We want to help them express their potential, awaken them to possibilities, and give them choices in life. Oddly, on the way to this destination, it is often best to give our students no choice at all.

Imagine you are learning to sail and, in the very first lesson, the teacher says to you, "You can use the small sail, or the mid-size sail, or the big sail to move forward. You choose." You would have no idea which sail to use. Even though it might be correct to use any one of them, having so many choices would be confusing. You would want your teacher to tell you what to do, at least at first. Only later, once you knew more about sailing, could you make the choice without confusion.

In yoga class, we do not give beginners a choice as to how to do the pose. When teaching Trikonasana, for example, if you tell a beginner to choose between putting a brick or a pad under her hand, placing her hand on her leg, or setting her fingertips on the floor, she will find the decision extremely confusing. Most beginners have neither the awareness in their bodies nor the knowledge of yoga to be able to make such a choice. The answer is to instruct everyone in the group to get a brick and put their hands on the brick. Beginners must be told exactly what to do and should not have to make a choice.

What if you see someone in your class who cannot reach the brick? Give that person another direction individually. What if a number of people cannot reach the brick? To such a mixed-level class I might say, "Everyone, please put your hand on the floor." Then, after they attempt this, I say, "Now, those of you who cannot reach the floor, go the back of the room and get a brick. Those of you who cannot reach the brick, go to the wall and put your hand on the wall." Here again, though there may appear to be a choice, it is not left to the student to make the decision as to whether she should do one action or the other. We are merely clarifying the situation so that students then knows exactly what to do. It all depends on her ability.


We want our students to progress, and we naturally want to share all our helpful ideas, and so we may feel we are doing our students a favor by giving them something new every class. As I look back on thirty years of teaching, I see that this has been my attitude and, though it has made my classes interesting to me, it has not served my students. Often, the best way to respect our student's desire to grow is to repeat the old once again in a new way, to establish it in their bodies and provide the stable foundation for the knowledge to come. As the proverb says, "Repetition is the mother of all skills."

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