Strength of Mind

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In my previous article, I wrote about why developing mental flexibility is so important for our growth as yoga teachers. Unless we develop flexibility of mind, we cannot grasp what is true for each student in each situation--or, for that matter, for ourselves. However, just as flexibility of the body can go too far, resulting in a loss of control or even injury, the mind can also become so flexible and open that it is unable to discern relevant truth or convey it with conviction. We can find ourselves trapped in a world where everything is relative, all options are valid, and decisions are nearly impossible.

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Just as we strive to balance flexibility and strength in the body, so must we strive to balance a flexible mind with the strength to discern. As we learn different truths, we must be able to discern between them and clearly discriminate whether an alleged truth is appropriate for our own practice or for our students. This is strength of mind.

Judgment vs. Discrimination

Mother Theresa once told a friend of mine, "When we judge people, we don’t have time to love them." While this is true of the judgments we make about people, discriminating between appropriate and inappropriate actions is very different from forming judgments about the person performing the action.

As yoga teachers, we must recognize the distinction between judgment--which is subjective--and discrimination--which is objective. Discrimination is essential for a yoga teacher. We must be able to think, "This pose is being done incorrectly. I must change what the student is doing or she will get injured." Such necessary discrimination comes from knowledge, experience, and the urge to help. Because recognizing misalignment does not depend on the subjectivity of the observer, any teacher with proper training will perceive the same problem.

On the other hand, judgment is based on "me"--my beliefs, my opinions, my prejudices. When I view the student through these narrow filters, I make a determination that is usually biased and invalid. As teachers, we must develop the ability to separate our own bias from an objective assessment of the students, and be able to discern what is appropriate and inappropriate for their progress. As we turn away from judgment and toward discrimination, we can help students understand what is correct and incorrect for their practice.

Correct and Incorrect

Occasionally I say that a particular teacher’s instruction is incorrect or that a particular movement is inappropriate. Very often, this is a matter of different truth levels rather than of objective reality. For example, the teacher might be teaching something that doesn’t fit the level of a particular student. The teacher might be giving advanced postures to students who don’t even know how to contract their quadriceps. Or the teacher might be teaching mudras and bandhas to students who have not yet mastered the basic alignment of the spine. This can be dangerous--if the student cannot feel the energy from doing a mudra or bandha in a posture, such practices can damage the student’s nervous system. In these cases, "correct" or "incorrect" is a matter of the appropriateness of the instruction for the situation.

Sometimes, of course, the instruction is simply inaccurate. Just as there are levels and nuances of truth, there are also levels of falsehood or inaccuracy. Some teachings are absolutely wrong. Incorrect actions are those that injure students, do not create any benefit for them, or lead them down an unyogic path.

Incorrect actions that injure students include relaxing in active poses or becoming active in relaxed poses. Some teachers, for example, instruct students to relax in Sirsasana, letting the spine collapse and just hanging in the pose; this is downright wrong, as it will injure the discs and damage the nerves in the neck and spine. One teacher even taught his students to hold their breath in Sirsasana for as long as they could and to come out when they couldn’t hold their breath any longer--again, downright wrong. This damaged one student’s eyes and caused another student to become nauseous and suffer dramatic increases in blood pressure.

Another absolutely incorrect instruction is to perform Sarvangasana aggressively. When done this way, the posture can damage the student's neck and agitate her nervous system. The pose is a quiet, gentle one, and fighting a gentle pose with an active action damages the nerves. Another common practice is to teach students an imbalanced series, such as one that excludes Sirsasana and Sarvangasana, both of which are critical to the balancing of the nervous system.

Though it is often taught, recommending Bhastrika Pranayama during postures is another example of an absolutely incorrect instruction. Doing poses such as Sirsasana and Sarvangasana with the "breath of fire" can damage the brain and the nerves of the spine and may actually lead to insanity. Another wrong action is closing the eyes while the nervous system is being stimulated or opening them while the nervous system is being released. This causes a conflict in the nervous system and eventually creates a sense of disorientation in the body, in the mind, and in life.

All of the instructions in the examples above are incorrect because they harm the student. A teacher’s instructions are also wrong when the student gains no benefit despite hard work. This often happens when the teacher knows only one or two sequences of poses but does not know how to teach refinements within those sequences. Repeating a sequence without going deeper and fine-tuning its movements leads to stagnation. Doing standing poses with the knees bent and with an inactive spine may not cause injury, but neither does it create benefit, because the standing poses are designed to draw energy into the spine through straight and active legs.

Other instructions are wrong because they lead the student down an unyogic path. Teaching a student to focus only on his third eye and not to balance this with going into the heart center, for example, aggrandizes the ego and restricts the cultivation of love. Some systems of yoga do not teach inversions, yet yoga’s most unique aspect is inversions. Sirsasana and Sarvangasana are called the King and Queen of asana. Not doing them eventually leads practitioners to become possessive and conceited. Therefore, a practice must be tempered with the inversions because they allow us to see things from a different viewpoint, both physically and psychologically.

From Darkness to Light

As teachers of yoga, truth is our refuge. Understanding different levels of truth, being able to discriminate between correct and incorrect actions, and ultimately being able to speak our truth with conviction and compassion leads our students from ignorance to awareness, from darkness to light.

This article is excerpted from a forthcoming book called Teaching the Yamas and Niyamas by Aadil Palkhivala.