For exclusive access to all our stories, including sequences, teacher tips, video classes, and more, join Outside+ today.
Teaching students the difference between force and feeling won’t only make them better yogis—it will also make them better citizens of the world.
The survival of the fittest. Looking out for number one. Achieving a goal. Winning. These are the ways of the world.
The survival of the most sensitive. Looking in for number one. Living the journey. Growing along the way. This is the way of yoga.
Our world teaches us to succeed by force. In schools and workplaces, we are tacitly encouraged to dominate our peers, to compete in “the struggle for existence,” and to climb the corporate ladder by trampling over the heads of others. Our leaders invade and occupy other countries while multi-national corporations do whatever they deem necessary to win market share. The end is said to justify the means. Somehow, this approach to life is supposed to make us feel successful, happy, and even glorious.
As a reaction to this manner of living, some feel that success is not important at all. These people believe that being meek is the way, and that one’s self is not important. So, on the one hand, we are encouraged to indulge in egoistic pursuits of glory, and, on the other hand, an equally one-sided pursuit of self-annihilation. But where does yoga fit into this debate?
Yoga is the middle way. It means neither acquisition nor denial, neither ego-inflation nor meekness, neither domination nor submission. So how do we, as yoga teachers, help our students find the elusive balance of the middle way in their practice and in their lives?
Teach Students to Start Feeling
Our primary job is to guide our students toward their own heart center, where life is lived according to feeling. When we teach our students to feel the poses rather than force their way into them, we are teaching them to become sensitive to the unique human being that they are, to make decisions from inside, and to be in touch with the dictates of the divinity within. Our work as yoga teachers is to free our students so they can become wholly themselves. Whether in asana or pranayama, whether in the building of relationships with self or others, our students must learn to find fulfillment through exploring the path rather than through forcing an end result. Feeling takes them into themselves, forcing takes them away.
When we want results, we push to make them happen. The moment we start to push, we are no longer aware of the effect this action is having on us or on our nervous system. Force is the opposite of feeling. When we force, we cannot feel. When we feel, we cannot force. Teach your students this maxim and let them be constantly attuned to their thoughts, words, and deeds, making them all come from feeling. Forcing is yang—it raises blood pressure, makes a person angry, and creates heart problems. Feeling is yin—it makes a person reflective, calm, and able to understand life.
When teaching poses, ask your students if they have the urge to be the best in class. Ask them to look inside and find the source of that desire. Suggest to them that this common urge is not native to the gentle human heart, but is indoctrinated by an insecure society. The urge to be the best leads to force, and force leads to injury. I constantly remind my students that forcing comes from ego, while feeling comes from the connection with one’s Self. The chronic urge to succeed sacrifices the critical connection with the Self for a mere result, and for the satisfaction of the ego alone. In yoga, the victory is not in the victory but in the ability to feel more than we felt before. The more we feel, the more we can feel. Eventually, feeling becomes a way of life, and force, like a stone dropped into the ocean, sinks into oblivion.
Remind your students that true yoga is not a competition with anyone else, not even with one’s self. We do not get a prize for doing a pose well. Remind them that when they feel and create a small movement, it is far better for their nervous system than when they force and create a big movement.
As teachers, we must ensure that our students work intensely, yet without force. We generally think that working intensely is working forcefully, but this is not the case. Force is the opposite of true intensity. We force when we are not present in the body, not listening, not aware, but just working blindly.
Teach Them Why Force Doesn’t Work in Yoga
When a student is straining to open his hamstrings, you can take the opportunity to teach a deeper lesson. Remind him that his hamstrings resist because they are not familiar with opening. When we forcefully yank them open, how is that different from forcefully imposing our beliefs onto others who have opposing beliefs? Feeling develops sensitivity and acceptance of an opposing viewpoint.
When you see a student pushing as hard as she can, immediately ask her questions that require her to tune in and feel her body. Ask, “What are you feeling just now? Can you feel the weight on your feet? How much weight is there on your fingertips?” Even something as simple as feeling a physical action will move her away from forcing. Tell your students to watch their breath as they do the poses, for this helps reduce forcing and invites the spirit into the body.
When demonstrating a pose for your students, illustrate the difference between a pose done with force and a pose done with feeling. Grit your teeth, clench your jaw, knit your brow, purse your lips, and tighten your body with grim determination, completing the pose by puffing out your chest with false pride. Then demonstrate the pose from the serene quietness of inner awareness. If you exaggerate in this way, the ensuing laughter will release tension and reduce the somber mood of an intensely focused practice. Such a comical display also gives students an indirect way of laughing at their own pretentiousness and egoistic aspirations. The clowning around has a higher purpose—to help others see the divinity they deny.
I remind my students to keep everything in perspective, to remember that the body is only a temporary phenomenon, and that the reason for yoga is to embrace that which is permanent: the spirit. Being violent toward the body repels the spirit. Remind your students to gaze toward their heart centers and make the asana practice an expression of the divinity within, rather than a violent display of ego. Encourage them to always be able to watch what they are doing in a detached way, with an inner smile.
In yoga, we strive to become more aware of ourselves—our bodies, minds, feelings, emotions, our very nature—because the more aware we are, the more we are able to make correct decisions and avert future pain. Yet, our usual way is to get angry when a situation arises that is not to our liking. Anger, which is violence, is the opposite of awareness, which is feeling. In yoga, we move away from violence and anger, moving toward awareness and feeling.
As teachers, everything we do propagates quickly because we influence so many other people. As we help our students to feel, as we influence individuals in a positive way, we start to change communities, countries, and the course of events. Our job, though apparently small, affects all that there is. Our bigger purpose is to cultivate world peace one student at a time. This begins with the development of sensitivity and feeling, and the ending of force. To truly make progress, to overcome the obstacles on the yoga path, our students must transform their habitual mannerisms of force and violence and discover the humanity of sensitivity, awareness, and feeling. Then, their practice will be more serene, their society more harmonious, and the world more at peace.
About Our Expert
Recognized as one of the world’s top yoga teachers, Aadil Palkhivala began studying yoga at the age of seven with B.K.S. Iyengar and was introduced to Sri Aurobindo’s yoga three years later. He received the Advanced Yoga Teacher’s Certificate at the age of 22 and is the founder-director of internationally renowned Yoga Centers in Bellevue, Washington. Aadil is also a federally certified Naturopath, a certified Ayurvedic Health Science Practitioner, a clinical hypnotherapist, a certified Shiatsu and Swedish bodywork therapist, a lawyer, and an internationally sponsored public speaker on the mind-body-energy connection.