A Matter of Praise

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Many students of hatha yoga wage a recurring struggle with the ego during practice. They worry excessively whether poses look right, or whether they've sunk as deeply into each asana as the Gumby look-alike on the mat next door. Sometimes they spend more mental energy hoping for praise from the teacher than on opening their hips. That's why yoga teachers typically offer regular reminders about feeling poses from the inside, and keeping the mind on oneself rather than focusing on the former dancer in the front row with the killer backbends. For yoga newbies, it can be an important revelation to learn that the mark of an experienced yogi isn't always the outward appearance of a particular asana.

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As a teacher, considering ways in which you offer praise is an important element in setting the tone of your classroom to help students in their own personal struggles with ego and acceptance. In the more classical forms of hatha yoga, such as Integral, Sivananda, or Iyengar, praise is typically offered quietly and sparingly. But in some newer forms, such as Anusara (which was founded in 1997 by John Friend), students are often encouraged to applaud each other and the teacher to show appreciation for a beautifully practiced pose. As with any school of yoga, this more "American" style has its followers and its critics; some students blossom, while others cringe in the atmosphere created by applause, feeling that it engenders increased competitiveness.

But what's behind these different methods of praise? Is the philosophy different—or just the style?

Lakshmi Barcel, program developer and yoga teacher at Integral Yoga's Satchidananda Ashram in Virginia, explains the Integral philosophy, which goes back generations to Integral's roots in India. "Our classes are taught like a meditation," she says. "We remind students that there's no competition, that what your neighbor is doing, you may not be doing; and that even within your own body, things are not consistent. What you maybe could do yesterday might not be what you can do today."

The idea is to encourage a sense of detachment from the ego and a strong connection to one's own embodied experience. "I'm very impressed with what people can do with their hatha yoga, and I might even want to applaud, but the classroom isn't the place for that," adds Barcel. The result is that the Integral notion of what makes an advanced practitioner is internal. "The big difference between a Hatha I and Hatha II student is that Hatha II students learn how not to strain in a pose. True dexterity is learning how to relax between poses, breathe into the poses, and lose that competitive edge we learn during childhood."

For some, that approach makes for a healing and expansive yoga practice. Desiree Rumbaugh, co-owner of Arizona Yoga, in Scottsdale, has a different take, which is perhaps equally effective for other students. Trained in Anusara Yoga, Rumbaugh travels the world offering workshops and educating teachers in the method. Though it's not officially part of the Anusara philosophy, Rumbaugh and other Anusara teachers often foster an atmosphere in which students feel moved to applaud each other's asana demonstrations.

Rumbaugh, who has been teaching yoga since 1989, explains the philosophy. "In some yoga methods, the belief is that giving a student praise during a yoga class will feed his/her ego and give them a feeling of superiority," she says. In those styles, she adds, she believes there is a focus on students' weaknesses and errors. The result: Yoga students feel overly conscious of their mistakes and feel disconnected from the pleasure of yoga.

The impact, she says, goes far beyond the yoga mat: "Looking for mistakes in order to diminish the ego can become an overall view of life that clouds all the relationships in our lives. We become programmed to initially look for what is wrong in others, instead of focusing on the beauty and good." Anusara urges teachers to focus on what's working and what's beautiful, with the idea that this will inspire students to stretch their minds and bodies to new levels of openness.

One way to do this: Offering applause. Still, as Rumbaugh explains, occasionally applause can be too much, or it can become automatic and expected, rather than being a true expression of appreciation. "Sometimes," she says, "the clapping in our classes annoys even us, because it almost gets to be rote."

As you grow in your teaching, and as you observe how students respond to your methods, you'll have to determine for yourself what type of encouragement to give your class. Ultimately, however, you'll likely be working toward the same goals identified by all yoga traditions.

Though they have different classroom approaches, Barcel and Rumbaugh have identical aims. As Rumbaugh puts it, "The bottom line seems to be, 'Give praise when the student is reaching for something new and hitting the target, and when they are off the mark, advise them (without shaming) as to how they can even be brighter.' In this way, we can lift everyone to a higher level of self-love and self-acceptance. And to us in Anusara Yoga, this is the whole point."

Rachel Brahinsky is a writer and yoga teacher in San Francisco, California.