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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

Our modern society is addicted to stimulus and afraid of silence. Our yoga classes can provide a balance to an overly noisy society, giving our students perhaps the only chance they have for silence and reflection all day—a silence we all internally yearn for. Mozart once said that, "Music is painted on a canvas of silence." Let our instructions be painted on a canvas of silence as well. Our students will learn more, not less.

Not Always Giving Students What They Want

More and more people come to classes wanting to sweat like movie stars and do Power Yoga sequences, so we may be tempted to teach these to our beginning students. However, though it may seem respectful to give our students what they want, in reality it isn't. To do so is to teach running before walking, and our students will fall. Students must first learn how to place their shoulders and knees in the poses and develop basic hip alignment. They must also learn how to work their ankles and keep weight on their hands. In other words, they must master the basics of the poses before they can safely combine them in a flowing sequence. I do not teach beginners the jumping sequences, not because these sequences are unimportant or irrelevant, but because teaching students how to jump without first teaching them the basics of alignment and form is irresponsible. Indeed, the finest teachers of Ashtanga Yoga have told me that they always teach alignment before they teach the sequences.

To give another example: many teachers start with an explanation of Mula Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha. This again is too much, too soon. I always make sure that my students first have developed strength in the nerves and alignment of the spine before they learn these powerful bandhas. I also make sure students are fully aware of the work of their muscles—especially the use of the quadriceps—and the lift of the pit of the abdomen. If students do more powerful bandhas before they have the basic alignment of the physical body, especially the spine, the energy generated by these bandhas is deflected into the wrong energy meridians and can lead to agitation in the nervous system, as well as muscular distortion and an inflated ego. We must therefore develop physical alignment and strength in our students before teaching them the subtler, more powerful aspects of yoga.

For at least the first decade of teaching, focus on solidifying your ability to teach the fundamentals, not on blazing new trails. The more you teach the basics, the more you will refine your ability to teach them. Additionally, teaching the fundamentals repeatedly is like laying the foundation of a building upon which your students can later build the more intermediate and advanced actions. Our students will come to understand the poses so thoroughly that, as they attempt deeper movements and more advanced actions, the fundamental actions will support them and prevent their poses from falling apart. Besides, most students are not ready for the advanced actions. They simply need the fundamentals.

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