Why Beginning Teachers are More Confident than Experienced Yoga Teachers
Yesterday morning one of my students asked me how my teaching has changed over the last 28 years. A few things came to mind: I no longer feel an ego need to demonstrate show-off poses. I no longer interpret “beginning,” “intermediate,” or “advanced” through the lens of what a person’s body can or can’t do. But most important, I’m a whole lot less confident that I know the answers than I was 28 years ago.
I was not born with a lot of hubris. I’ve always erred on the side of humility. But when I started teaching yoga, while I knew there was lots more to learn, I felt that the alignment instructions I’d learned from some very competent and knowledgeable Iyengar-based teachers were gospel. Armed with instructions such as “lift your kneecap,” “align your pelvis between two plates of glass,” and “ground the four corners [inner and outer balls of the feet and inner and outer heels] of the feet” I felt as if I had a strong foundation.
And actually, I kind of did. I have tremendous gratitude and respect for B.K.S. Iyengar and what he has brought to the interpretation of Yoga. As Donna Farhi once said to me, he “cleaned up” the practice of asana. He was the first to emphasize the importance of alignment in facilitating the flow of prana, and the first to devise strategies that allow anyone, regardless of their flexibility, to be able to practice asana with structural integrity.
But years of practice—especially years of Insight Meditation—have taught me that there are no black-and-white answers to anything. “Lift your kneecap” has given way to a more integrated way to address lazy knees: adjusting the tilt of the pelvis to neutral so that the quads naturally engage and the knees can’t hyperextend. “Align your pelvis between two plates of glass” was an instruction I dropped long ago, much to the relief of my hypermobile sacroiliac (SI) joint. Letting your back hip rotate inward in standing poses not only keeps your SI joint safe, but it also balances the work between your front and back legs because it is a more efficient use of your skeletal structure. I still like being aware of how the corners my feet are aligned.
There are countless instructions and countless poses I’ve stopped offering. Some of these are poses I once thought were important—Eka Pada Rajakapotasana, Purvottanasana and Matsyasana, to name a few. I’ve found these to be difficult for the vast majority to practice safely. The potential for injury outweighs the potential benefits even in—or maybe especially in—flexible people, but that’s another blog post.
If Only You’d Try a Little Harder …
In my early years of teaching, I thought that if people just practiced enough, eventually they would be able to do the above poses, along with Urdva Dhanurasana with straight arms—often the benchmark for being able to join an “advanced” class. One longtime colleague studied with teachers all over the world in the hope of loosening her shoulders enough to do a Yoga Journal cover-ready Urdva Dhanurasana. I admired her perseverance and felt confident that someday she’d get her wish. That was before I understood that no amount of flexibility was going to allow her to do it, because the limitation was not in her soft tissue; it was in her joints. Now I understand that everyone’s bony structure is different. The configuration of some shoulder joints will allow straight arms; others will not.
The more I’ve learned over the years, the more I respond to my students as an open question rather than with a pat answer. Decades of observing the countless differences in people’s structures, genetics, lifestyles, temperaments and intentions has taught me that there’s no single instruction or set of instructions that applies to everyone. The more I observe, the less I trust proclamations that any “master” teacher’s way is the only way. That goes for what I believe to be true in this moment. It could change on a dime. I know that absolute truth is actually quite slippery if you’re paying attention.
Knowing What You Don’t Know
Yesterday, Chris Courtney, a yoga teacher living in Stuttgart, Germany, posted his concerns about relatively inexperienced yoga teachers offering “master classes.” I share his concern. But I wonder if this phenomenon is simply a stage we all traverse as teachers—that of not knowing enough to realize that we really don’t know that much. (Yes, I meant to say that.) Until you’ve taught for a while, it’s hard to see that the instructions you repeat, that work for you in this moment, may or may not be appropriate for everyone. They may not even be appropriate for you in a year or 10.
When we’re starting out, the best information we have is what we’ve learned from teachers who are more experienced than we are. That information is important. But questioning it, testing it, and watching and listening to our students when they tell us our instructions are not working for them is just as important. This inquiry takes time—years, if not decades—and it never ends. Consider that even in his 90s, Mr. Iyengar is still constantly exploring, and quite willing to change longstanding instructions when he makes new discoveries. Being comfortable with not knowing inspires deeper inquiry, which is sort of the point of this difficult practice we love.
So if you come to a point in your teaching practice when you feel overwhelmed by what you don’t know, consider that you just might be on a track that leads to greater wisdom.