“Lift your chest just a teeny bit higher,” I said, encouraging my yoga student to find a deeper version of her Cobra Pose. I love helping my students see that they’re capable of more than they realize. But she didn’t move. I thought maybe my instruction wasn’t clear. I tried again. “Pull your chest forward toward the front of the room and curl up.” Still, nothing.
I was just about to move on to my next instruction when she made eye contact. “I can’t backbend more than this,” she said. “I have a rod in my back.” She had mentioned this to me before, but I hadn't seen this student in several months. It was my mistake. And I was grateful that she felt comfortable enough to remind me that what I asking her to do wasn’t appropriate for her.
There are times to trust that your yoga teacher has all the knowledge and wisdom she needs to guide you safely to a deeper understanding of the practice. And then there are times to ignore what your teacher has to say and trust that you know your body better than anyone else. This, in fact, is one of the most valuable (and practical) lessons I’ve ever learned as a yoga student. Realizing that it’s OK to question whether an instruction is right for me in any given moment has helped my asana practice, and it’s also taught me to trust myself and my abilities both on and off the yoga mat.
Teachers are human. They do their best to share the practice as they know it, and as they have experienced in their bodies. But even the best, most experienced teachers make mistakes. Your teacher might forget you are working with an injury that you told them about a few weeks ago—heck, they might even forget an injury you told them about a few minutes ago! They might get carried away and suggest a version of a pose that your body isn’t quite ready for yet. There’s even a chance your beloved yoga teacher is having a bad day and isn’t as present as he should be in class; maybe he’s just going through the motions. (Not great, but it happens.)
There are some amazingly talented and knowledgeable teachers out there, and to be sure, all teachers must be open and forthcoming about their strengths and weaknesses. But I believe it’s ultimately our responsibility as students to take care of our bodies, speak up when something doesn’t feel right, and be discerning about how much guidance we accept. Maybe it’s just me, but when I was pregnant, I had no interest in hearing male teachers regurgitate to me what they’d read in a book about yoga modifications for pregnancy. I know it’s difficult to fully understand any yoga pose modifications without feeling them in your own body, so I’m skeptical of any advice teachers give me about medical conditions or injuries unless they’ve experienced them for themselves. That’s not to say they don’t have something useful to offer, I just don’t take it as gospel. I also think it’s important to understand as much as possible about a teacher’s training before we buy into everything they have to say. I wouldn’t go to a teacher whose training is mostly in meditation to ask questions about my tweaky SI joint.
Bottom line: I love and trust my teachers. They offer me SO much in terms of guidance and support. But their advice is secondary to my own intuition, my body’s cues, and my gut. I try to have faith that every time I show up to class, I’ll hear the exact nuggets of wisdom I need to hear in that moment. And I think it’s OK to ignore everything else.