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Uncommon Respect, Part Two

If we believe that nothing can be taught, how should we approach our students? If we want to reduce our authority in the studio, how can we communicate clearly? These questions form the paradox of uncommon respect.

By Aadil Palkhivala

In part one of Uncommon Respect, I explored the idea that the respect we show our students can take unconventional forms. Here, in part two, I continue this idea in the realm of language and instruction.

Use Command Language

As yoga practitioners, we cultivate awareness and sensitivity. As we develop these qualities, we realize that trying to control situations and command others is not only unnecessary, but counter-productive. Commanding others seems, on the surface, unyogic. Yet, paradoxically, when it comes to giving clear instructions, we find that we are most effective when we give direct commands.

I advise all the teachers who study with me to use command language in their teaching: "Lift the quadriceps." "Pull the kneecaps up." "Stretch your arms from your spine into your fingertips." "Move the head back, open the eyes, lift the pit of the abdomen." With directions like these, the student's brain knows what to do and the body can then respond immediately, without confusion.

When giving instructions, tell students what to do rather than what should be done. "The spine rises in this pose," for example, is not an instruction to do a certain action; it is simply a description of an effect. When it hears this, the brain does not automatically turn to the body and say, "Do it." However, if the instruction were "Lift the spine," the brain would immediately comprehend that its job is to create that action.

Avoid instructions such as these: "You need to lift the spine." "You want to lift the spine in this pose." "I want you to lift the spine." "The spine is lifted in this pose." "Try to lift the spine." "I'd like you to lift the spine." These are all fluffy and non-directional. Though these instructions seem polite and kind while command language seems imposing, they do not effectively communicate a direction to the student. In order to avoid sounding arrogant, we can simply modulate the tone of our voices. Then our command language can be far more effective, and speak directly to the student.

Give Pause

We may feel we are doing our students a favor by packing as much instruction as we can into each class. We feel an urge to teach everything we know about every pose, particularly after taking an inspiring workshop with a master teacher. I have observed many beginning teachers talk non-stop throughout a class, a result of tense nerves and the desire to impress their students. Yet, the mind needs time to absorb instructions. Indeed, it gets frustrated and agitated when instruction follows instructionfollowsinstructionfollowsinstruction without pause. It cannot stay focused and switches off. Therefore, I encourage pauses between thoughts, between instructions, even between sentences. This gives our students a moment to absorb and integrate what they have heard, a chance to go inside themselves and work quietly and reflectively. Besides, as every actor knows, pausing makes the audience eagerly anticipate the next word.

It is only when we experience something that we truly learn it. It is therefore valuable to have our students reflect on what they have just done, noticing the effect in their bodies, minds, and emotions. The idea is to allow students to experience what we have just taught so that they feel it, so that they realize they are on the path of self-exploration, self-growth, and self-union rather than a path of accomplishing postures. For example, after Sarvangasasna, I always have my students sit quietly in Virasana or Vajrasana or in a simple crossed-leg position. I have them lift their heads, keep their spines erect and eyes shut, and then observe the effects of the pose. I say, "Just sit quietly and feel." Then I ask them to tune in the sounds they are hearing, and experience for themselves the fact that Sarvangasana enhances their hearing. In this process, they have moved from a place of accepting somebody else’s words to going inside themselves and experiencing through an inner awareness what the teacher has simply stated as a fact. And this of course is the true purpose of yoga, which is to go inside one's self and discover the yoga from inside out. Pausing allows this self-discovery.

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