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Uncommon Respect, Part Two

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In part one of Uncommon Respect, I explored the idea that the respect we show our students can take unconventional forms. Here, in part two, I continue this idea in the realm of language and instruction.

Use Command Language

As yoga practitioners, we cultivate awareness and sensitivity. As we develop these qualities, we realize that trying to control situations and command others is not only unnecessary, but counter-productive. Commanding others seems, on the surface, unyogic. Yet, paradoxically, when it comes to giving clear instructions, we find that we are most effective when we give direct commands.

I advise all the teachers who study with me to use command language in their teaching: “Lift the quadriceps.” “Pull the kneecaps up.” “Stretch your arms from your spine into your fingertips.” “Move the head back, open the eyes, lift the pit of the abdomen.” With directions like these, the student’s brain knows what to do and the body can then respond immediately, without confusion.

When giving instructions, tell students what to do rather than what should be done. “The spine rises in this pose,” for example, is not an instruction to do a certain action; it is simply a description of an effect. When it hears this, the brain does not automatically turn to the body and say, “Do it.” However, if the instruction were “Lift the spine,” the brain would immediately comprehend that its job is to create that action.

Avoid instructions such as these: “You need to lift the spine.” “You want to lift the spine in this pose.” “I want you to lift the spine.” “The spine is lifted in this pose.” “Try to lift the spine.” “I’d like you to lift the spine.” These are all fluffy and non-directional. Though these instructions seem polite and kind while command language seems imposing, they do not effectively communicate a direction to the student. In order to avoid sounding arrogant, we can simply modulate the tone of our voices. Then our command language can be far more effective, and speak directly to the student.

Give Pause

We may feel we are doing our students a favor by packing as much instruction as we can into each class. We feel an urge to teach everything we know about every pose, particularly after taking an inspiring workshop with a master teacher. I have observed many beginning teachers talk non-stop throughout a class, a result of tense nerves and the desire to impress their students. Yet, the mind needs time to absorb instructions. Indeed, it gets frustrated and agitated when instruction follows instructionfollowsinstructionfollowsinstruction without pause. It cannot stay focused and switches off. Therefore, I encourage pauses between thoughts, between instructions, even between sentences. This gives our students a moment to absorb and integrate what they have heard, a chance to go inside themselves and work quietly and reflectively. Besides, as every actor knows, pausing makes the audience eagerly anticipate the next word.

It is only when we experience something that we truly learn it. It is therefore valuable to have our students reflect on what they have just done, noticing the effect in their bodies, minds, and emotions. The idea is to allow students to experience what we have just taught so that they feel it, so that they realize they are on the path of self-exploration, self-growth, and self-union rather than a path of accomplishing postures. For example, after Sarvangasasna, I always have my students sit quietly in Virasana or Vajrasana or in a simple crossed-leg position. I have them lift their heads, keep their spines erect and eyes shut, and then observe the effects of the pose. I say, “Just sit quietly and feel.” Then I ask them to tune in the sounds they are hearing, and experience for themselves the fact that Sarvangasana enhances their hearing. In this process, they have moved from a place of accepting somebody else’s words to going inside themselves and experiencing through an inner awareness what the teacher has simply stated as a fact. And this of course is the true purpose of yoga, which is to go inside one’s self and discover the yoga from inside out. Pausing allows this self-discovery.

Our modern society is addicted to stimulus and afraid of silence. Our yoga classes can provide a balance to an overly noisy society, giving our students perhaps the only chance they have for silence and reflection all day—a silence we all internally yearn for. Mozart once said that, “Music is painted on a canvas of silence.” Let our instructions be painted on a canvas of silence as well. Our students will learn more, not less.

Not Always Giving Students What They Want

More and more people come to classes wanting to sweat like movie stars and do Power Yoga sequences, so we may be tempted to teach these to our beginning students. However, though it may seem respectful to give our students what they want, in reality it isn’t. To do so is to teach running before walking, and our students will fall. Students must first learn how to place their shoulders and knees in the poses and develop basic hip alignment. They must also learn how to work their ankles and keep weight on their hands. In other words, they must master the basics of the poses before they can safely combine them in a flowing sequence. I do not teach beginners the jumping sequences, not because these sequences are unimportant or irrelevant, but because teaching students how to jump without first teaching them the basics of alignment and form is irresponsible. Indeed, the finest teachers of Ashtanga Yoga have told me that they always teach alignment before they teach the sequences.

To give another example: many teachers start with an explanation of Mula Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha. This again is too much, too soon. I always make sure that my students first have developed strength in the nerves and alignment of the spine before they learn these powerful bandhas. I also make sure students are fully aware of the work of their muscles—especially the use of the quadriceps—and the lift of the pit of the abdomen. If students do more powerful bandhas before they have the basic alignment of the physical body, especially the spine, the energy generated by these bandhas is deflected into the wrong energy meridians and can lead to agitation in the nervous system, as well as muscular distortion and an inflated ego. We must therefore develop physical alignment and strength in our students before teaching them the subtler, more powerful aspects of yoga.

For at least the first decade of teaching, focus on solidifying your ability to teach the fundamentals, not on blazing new trails. The more you teach the basics, the more you will refine your ability to teach them. Additionally, teaching the fundamentals repeatedly is like laying the foundation of a building upon which your students can later build the more intermediate and advanced actions. Our students will come to understand the poses so thoroughly that, as they attempt deeper movements and more advanced actions, the fundamental actions will support them and prevent their poses from falling apart. Besides, most students are not ready for the advanced actions. They simply need the fundamentals.

In standing poses, for example, solidifying the feet and legs allows the spine to be free—we cannot make the spine light without the foundation in the legs. Therefore, if a student hasn’t mastered the legs, the spine will always have to take the weight of the body. Similarly, if we have not established the foundation by teaching fundamentals properly, our more “creative” teachings will be ineffective, weakened by an unstable foundation.

Nothing Can Be Taught

Sri Aurobindo has a whole book on teaching that every teacher can benefit from reading. He states, “The first rule of teaching is that nothing can be taught.” This idea is so beautiful! Perhaps the most respectful thing we can do for our students is to keep in mind that we cannot teach a student anything. We can show something to them, explain it to them in a hundred different ways, go over and over it with them, but only the student can learn it. Obviously that’s true—otherwise, all my students would have learned everything I’ve taught so far! Since learning really depends on the student, not on the teacher, our job is to elicit the learning response from our students, to teach them so that they want to learn what we are teaching. This means being an embodiment of the teaching so that our students are inspired to learn and they yearn to follow the example we are setting. This does not excuse us from the responsibility of being the best teachers we can possibly be, but only reminds us that our responsibility is to teach, and the student’s responsibility is to learn. Only then is a mutual respect being shown between the teacher and student.

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.