Effective yoga teachers teach people, not poses. How can we become better able to respond to our students’ individual needs and capabilities?
As I travel around the country giving workshops for teachers, I repeatedly see many inexperienced teachers gravitate toward the comforting idea that there is only one way to teach a pose—the "right way," the "best way," the "way Aadil did it last time." The idea that "one pose fits all" not only stunts our growth as yoga teachers but often harms our students.
Instead of fixing our minds on a single solution, the art is to develop flexibility of mind and accept that there may be as many ways of teaching a pose as there are students. Whenever we give an instruction, we must approach it from the perspective that our words are only appropriate for that particular person at that particular time, not that they are absolute rules unto themselves. Many ways of teaching a pose can be true or "right"—it all depends on the student we are teaching and the effect we desire. Flexibility of mind allows us to develop a repertoire of ways to teach a pose, making us able to respond to any student or situation. As William Blake wrote, "One law for the ox and for the ass is oppression."
Levels of Truth
As our students evolve, as their understanding develops and refines, our instructions must evolve as well. For example, in the beginning, we tell our students, "Straighten your leg." Although this is a very coarse truth, new students need to hear it, and it is about all they need to hear at first. Once they have grasped it, we can tell them a bit more about how to straighten their leg: "Lift the quadriceps and press your heels into the floor" refines the same truth and reflects the development of the students’ understanding. The next level of refinement might be, "Resist with the calf muscle so that the knee does not hyperextend while lifting your quadriceps and pressing your heels into the floor." The next level might be, "As you press the floor with your heels, also press down with the big toe mound and the outer edge of the foot. Press the bones into the earth while lifting the flesh away from the earth." Then, "As you press the bones down and lift the flesh, watch the way you are pressing down and lifting. Make the lift a recoiling action by firmly pressing the big toe mound and inner heel into the floor while recoiling the arch up the inner leg." The next level may be, "Now watch the actions. Are the actions in the skin, in the flesh, or in the bones? Work the descent of the bones separately from the recoil of the flesh and separately from the unmoved calmness of the skin."
All these levels, some of which might be quite advanced for the student, are refinements of the same instruction to "straighten the leg." The subtlety of our instruction must change with the student’s growing understanding. The more refined the level of truth, the more awareness the student must have to attain it. As students reach higher and higher levels of truth, they become more sensitive to the connection between their minds and their bodies, evolving from crudeness to refinement.
Still, while a more refined truth is a more accurate truth, it is completely useless and possibly detrimental to state the more accurate truth to a beginner. As teachers, we must decide what truth level will allow a student to grow and be safe at the same time. Therefore, we might teach one student one action while teaching another student a different action in the same pose, because they are at different levels of understanding and development. In Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog), for example, a student who has the lift in the pelvis should be working to bring the head down, while a student who sinks into the head should be learning to expand or extend the spine. It is not a question of what is right and wrong, but of what is appropriate for the student. This concept of truth levels allows each student to grow at her own pace.
Truths Often Contradict Each Other
What is a true instruction for a student today may no longer be true tomorrow. Often, one truth will contradict another, and flexibility of mind is required to allow both truths to be true. For example, the instruction "Straighten the leg completely, locking the knees" seems to contradict the next level of truth, "Don’t straighten the leg completely, but resist with the calf muscle and microbend the knee to protect it." A student who cannot straighten her leg (the first truth) will not be able to feel the resistance of the calf muscle which will allow her to microbend her knee (the second truth). Thus, while the first level is necessary for the second to happen, an evolved truth may contradict a prior one, making it obsolete.
When we teach beginners to do backbends, we ask them to keep the lumbar long and extended so that it doesn’t get jammed. In other words, we ask the beginning student to remove the curve from the lumbar spine while doing backbends. This is a lower level of truth that must be contradicted for advanced backbends, in which we ask students to cultivate a curve in the lumbar spine to prevent injury in the thoracic spine.
While teaching Salamba Sirsasana (Supported Headstand),we instruct beginning students to press their arms, wrists, little fingers, and elbows strongly into the floor, taking less weight on the head. However, as students learn to place the arms more accurately and retain the curvature of the neck, we ask them to take more weight on the head. Later, we ask them to take equal weight between the head and the arms. Eventually, when the students have become stable and strong, with well-aligned necks and lifted thoracic spines and shoulder blades, we ask them to take full weight on the head, using the arms only for balance. With regard to this weight-bearing action, a later truth contradicts an earlier truth as we move the student from the physical body to the energetic body.
Variations for Different Effects
Not only does each pose have many levels of refinement, but we can vary each pose to create different effects. For example, if a woman is nine months pregnant, then flat Savasana (Corpse Pose) is dangerous for the unborn child, even if she’s supple and able to do it. The woman must lie on her left side to prevent blocking the blood supply to the fetus. This is not a different truth level but a different posture. Similarly, if a person has stiff hamstrings and a stiff upper back, we might put a roll under his knees and a pad under his head. This is not the perfect pose for a person who is supple but an ideal pose for someone who is stiff. The stiff person would not get the full benefit of the pose if he were to do it flat, while a supple person would be less able to relax deeply into the pose using pads. We must have the flexibility of mind to allow these variations in order to keep our students safe.
The Effect Is What Is Important
Flexibility of mind allows us to understand that the same instruction may have opposite effects in two students. An instruction to relax in Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) might cause pain in the back of a student with stiff hamstrings, while it may bring pleasure to the spine of a student with open hamstrings. Conversely, opposite instructions may achieve the same result. To obtain a calm, wide diaphragm in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), we may ask a student who puffs his chest to relax the it, while we may ask another who has collapsed his chest to lift it.
We must learn to focus our minds on the effects and benefits we wish for our students, and vary our instructions to fit those intentions. If we focus instead on the form that the student must attain because it is the "perfect form"—the ideal pose, the highest truth—then we may harm rather than help our students.
Developing Flexibility of Mind
How do we develop this flexibility of mind? In a word, by apprenticing. Work with an experienced teacher. All arts and crafts, including medicine and yoga, were once taught in this manner. Changing social and financial circumstances have altered this custom, yet apprenticeship will always remain the most effective way to transmit an art and its lineage. To develop flexibility of mind and a repertoire of ways of teaching poses, find an experienced teacher and work with her. This will help you help all your students—and isn’t that what teaching is all about?
This article is excerpted from a forthcoming book called Teaching the Yamas and Niyamas by Aadil Palkhivala.