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The Art of Guiding

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To guide others is an art of infinite subtlety, although it is rarely appreciated as such. As our understanding and command of the art of teaching develops, so will the well-being of our students. Deepening that understanding means recognizing that all of our instruction and guidance must rest on a particular foundation: to help our students become “internally referential.”


We understand who we are based on our perceptions of the world around us. We learn to compare ourselves with others and value ourselves in accordance with how we stack up with them. Through this process, we become “externally referential”—we make sense of ourselves by referring to outer standards. By the time we become adults, our self-conceptions are largely borrowed from what we have been told by our parents, family members, friends, teachers, and the commercial media. We do things to look good or be popular, not necessarily because they are our soul’s desire or our life’s true purpose. Compounding the problem, advertisers incessantly bombard us with messages saying, at root, “You are falling short when compared to others. You had better buy your way out of this embarrassing situation.”

Defining ourselves in terms of external references is a dead end because it means ignoring the desires of the soul. As yoga teachers, we must work to help our students understand this. In fact, one of our main jobs is to shift the paradigm of external reference to one of internal reference. Our work is to help our students—particularly beginners—become aware of who they are as distinct from what they have been told they are. One way to do this is by defying common practice and not telling our students what they are. Instead of placing them in categories and destroying their uniqueness with labels, we can tell our students what they can do to change, grow, and find themselves.

Here is an example of this philosophy in action: commonly, teachers tell students, “You are very stiff, so don’t do this pose or you could hurt yourself.” Instead say to the student, “I would rather you do this variation of the pose for now.” In this case, the student does not have a label pinned on him by the teacher and is not bound by the teacher’s perception of who he is. The role of the teacher is to know the difference between someone who is stiff and someone who is supple and how to help both students become more balanced. We must find ways to do this without creating or reinforcing a negative, diminishing belief.

As another example, I regularly see students who cannot do certain poses because of illness or stiffness. I say, “I want you to prepare to do the pose that the others are doing by using the wall, or by using a belt. And after you practice it for a short time, your body will blossom and you will not need the prop anymore.” I give them a method by which they can remove the stiffness without reinforcing the fact that they are stiff and unable. Most students already feel unable, so confirming it aloud only makes it more of an obstacle. In some cases, they will be condemned to fight the stiffness in both their bodies and minds for the rest of their lives.

The mind will strive to create in the body exactly what it believes to be true. As self-help author Earl Nightingale puts it, “You become what you think about.” At age ten, my daughter came back from school one day and said, “My teacher told me again that I am not good at math. If she keeps telling me that, how will I ever become good at math?” My daughter apparently feels the power of the mind more clearly than her teacher does. In Milton’s immortal words, “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

Years ago, a student of mine was plagued with chronic pain in her spine that would not go away no matter what I did. She even studied with Iyengar for ten years and could not get any relief. After 25 years of pain, she finally decided to go to a doctor. After a slew of tests, the doctor told her, “You have lung cancer. It has metastasized to your bones and spread throughout your spine. You have two months to live.” I tried very hard to convince my student not to submit to the doctor’s death sentence. After all, she had had the same pain for more than two decades. Unfortunately, it was too late. She had lost hope by surrendering all her power to the doctor. Two months to the day of her diagnosis, she was dead. This example highlights the way that, as teachers, we must use our profound influence wisely and choose every word carefully. Careless words may destroy a life, whereas thoughtful words create the power to blossom.

This approach is not about hiding the truth. We must tell our students the truth that we see. However, we should avoid an inflexible attitude that says, “This is the truth and I must tell it no matter what the cost!” We must tell the truth in a way that serves the student by always reminding them of their power to cause positive change. We must balance ahimsa with satya: nonharming with truthfulness.

The language of transformation is the language of compassion. What transforms our students is not a barrage of fiery words intended to burn down their egos, but the flame of love, warmth, and care. If we have a student who is stubborn and self-important, we can’t help her by beating on her ego, for the ego, in defense, builds a hard shell around itself and becomes inaccessible. The way to transform the ego is with compassion and warmth, so the ego removes its outer coat and allows itself to be available for change.

We probably all know teachers who diminish their students because it makes them feel more masterful and aggrandizes their egos. These teachers can be our models of how not to teach. As teachers, we can ask ourselves, “Do I want to appear to be great, or do I want to help my students grow? Do I want to be the star, or do I want to create stars? Do I want to impose my pose on the student, or do I want to help my students go inside and discover their own postures? Am I serving my student or my ego?” We can’t serve both.

The art of guiding others is about knowing how to help them harness the power of their own minds and enabling them to overcome their resistance to transformation. In time, they will become attuned to inner guidance rather than being scattered and misled by external references and comparisons. We can help our students use the power of their minds to destroy or build, stagnate or transform, bury or rise, imprison or set free. Evolution is only possible with freedom.

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.