Teaching Yoga: Trust Your Students’ Experience

This entry was posted on Nov 16, 2018 by Charlotte Bell.

About 25 years ago I attended a workshop with a well-known yoga teacher. We were working up to Urdva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow), stretching our quads and preparing our shoulders for at least 30 minutes before we started practicing the most rudimentary backbends. By the time we finished Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) I was feeling warmed up and ready.

The teacher then showed us how to practice Urdva Dhanurasana with our feet on a chair and our hands on the floor. This is an especially helpful way for people with less bendy lumbars and tighter shoulders to feel the exhilaration of Upward Bow without the strain.

There is one caveat to practicing this way, however: It takes a lot more arm and shoulder strength to push up into this variation than it does to push up from the floor. Some people need assistance on the way up. With only one teacher and no assistants, we all went up on our own that day. When I pushed up into the pose, I felt a sickening sensation of strain in my left deltoid. I collapsed onto the floor, fortunately not landing on my head in the process.

I don’t know from a physiological standpoint what happened in my shoulder, but it was quite painful. When I told the teacher what had happened, she responded with irritation rather than concern. She quickly said, “You’ll be okay,” and then pointedly ignored me for the rest of the class.

How Not to Respond

As it turned out, she was right; my shoulder felt okay the next day. Still, her response bothered me. I doubt she really knew if I was going to be okay. Instead, I felt her response was meant to deflect the situation as quickly and quietly as possible. Her irritation and dismissive response made me feel as if I’d done something wrong, even though I was simply following the teacher’s instructions. But for me, on that day, those instructions didn’t work.

Rather than concern for a possible injury, the teacher responded defensively. For the rest of the class, I felt she was angry at me for being in pain and for bringing it up. For me, it became a lesson in how not to respond to possible mishaps that happen in a class.

When we’re teaching yoga, no matter how experienced and knowledgeable we are, we can never know exactly what a student is feeling at a given time. When we say, “trust your body” or “listen to your body,” we are encouraging students to give primacy to whatever feedback they are receiving from their bodies, regardless of what we are telling them. If we then become defensive or dismissive when they tell us something hurts—or worse, if we order them to push through discomfort—we create confusion. We also discourage the very personal inquiry that leads to intelligent practice.

A Different Approach

If I had teaching yoga in that long-ago class, how would I have handled it differently? First, I would have validated the student’s experience. While I would not have been happy that someone was experiencing pain because of an instruction I’d given, I would not have dismissed it or blamed the student. I would have asked what the student was feeling, where she was feeling it, and asked her to move her shoulder around gently and let me know if any actions made it better or worse.

Based on that information, I would determine whether to encourage her to continue with the rest of the class or practice something else on her own. I would check back with her frequently to see how things were progressing, and make sure she was clear that if anything I suggested aggravated the problem, she should stop immediately.

Joining the Investigation

When we’re teaching yoga, we must walk our “listen to your body” talk. This means that when a student feels something uncomfortable that we don’t understand, we need to join them in an investigation of what is causing it and how to alleviate it. When we dismiss our students’ concerns, because we feel threatened or unhappy about a possible injury, neither we nor they learn anything.

Teaching yoga is a two-way relationship. No two people’s experience of a pose will ever be exactly the same. When students ask me, “What should I feel?,” I answer with the question, “What do you feel?” This empowers the student and encourages them to look deeply and learn how to listen to her own unique body.

About Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. Her third book is titled Hip-Healthy Asana: The Yoga Practitioner’s Guide to Protecting the Hips and Avoiding SI Joint Pain (Shambhala Publications). She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.