Falling From a False Summit: Or, The Less I Think I Know, The Better

The longer I teach and practice yoga and meditation, the less I am sure I know. That being said, I do have some critical questions we can ask ourselves as students, and teachers, to be sure we’re on the right path. 

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This is, perhaps, the largest reason for the remarkable decline in my once-prolific blog posts. At the onset of my teaching career, I felt quite confident in many “truths-” alignment truths, meditation truths, insights I’d reached, etc.

I’m sure I’ve shared this with you before, but one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received came from my valued meditation instructor Tim Olmsted: “Every insight is a false summit.”

I cringe to think at how many times I’ve confidently asserted some yoga “truth” as a teacher- whether in this blog, or in class- only to discover later that this truth doesn’t work equally well for all bodies.

…which leads me to another one of my favorite pieces of advice from Tim (although he didn’t intend it as such): “The older I get, the less inclined I am to give any advice at all.”

We all have different bodies. Different lifestyles. Different needs for our yoga practice. Why, then, did I ever assume that one instruction would work equally well for an entire class of students?

When we begin our yoga practice, or our practice as a teacher, we have to start somewhere. So we emulate our teachers. As students, many times, we take their suggestions as ultimate truths. As new teachers, we repeat the instructions we heard from our teachers. At this point, we’re like toddlers finding our feet- just beginning to occupy our bodies, or our roles as teachers- and we’re still just learning about these bodies.

Along the way, we start to find “truths,” “insights.” Sometimes an injury leads us to discover that a pattern we’ve been following doesn’t work well; or we attend a workshop where a respected teacher gives an instruction that resonates with us. We have a revelatory experience and feel that suddenly, everything has changed. In my case, I tend to become evangelical about this new, better way of doing things. I can remember many times where I suddenly changed how I was teaching a pose because I was sure THIS NEW WAY was the definitive best way to do it.

Then: the false summit. Looking around class one day, I realized that the instruction I was giving for Virabhadrasana I was great for some newbies, but wasn’t allowing more experienced students to explore a greater range of motion or sensation. On another occasion, having taught Janu Sirsasana with square hips for about a year, I felt a lightbulb coming on over my head as I realized that there might be a benefit to doing it differently for some bodies. In these moments, I recognized that being caught up in a concept I’d taken for an absolute truth was causing me to offer advice that wasn’t helping my students. I felt ashamed of my prior confidence and assertiveness.

There have been times, I’m sure, that I was even aggressive in this way: offering this “truth” as an absolute, telling students that they needed to do a pose in a particular way. I deeply regret these moments. I believe now that forcing students to do a practice in a particular way (even by means of suggested alignment) can squelch their ability to experience the sensations of embodiment that can make the practice transformational. Instead of teaching us to feel and explore our bodies, rote alignment instructions turn it into an intellectual exercise: “Am I doing it right? How am I supposed to do this?” Worse, instructions couched in preventative terms (“engage the core to protect the back,” “align the knee this way to prevent injury”) set up a mentality of fear and divisiveness between the mind and body. For me, this is exactly what I don’t want to do. I want my students to learn to trust, accept, appreciate and eventually love the body they’re using.

So, with regard to group instruction, my verbiage has changed greatly. I’m conscious that what works for one person will not work for another. When addressing the group (unless it’s one that’s quite experienced), I am much more general, and emphasize the quality of exploration and feeling. I’ve found that specific directions offered to a class at large tend to work for very few people.  Ajahn Chah, in his book “A Tree In The Forest,” puts it beautifully:

At times it may seem to some of you that I contradict myself when I teach, but the way I teach is very simple. It is as if I see someone coming down a road he isn’t familiar with but which I have traveled on many times before. I look up and see him about to fall into a hole on the right-hand side of the road, so I call out to him to go left. Likewise, if I see someone else about to fall into a hole on the left, I call out to him to go right. The instructions are different, but I teach them to travel in the same direction on the same road. I teach them to let go of both extremes and come back to the center where they will arrive at the true Dhamma.

When giving individual instruction, when offering specific suggestions, I try to ascertain what the student really wants and needs. Then, I can encourage experimentation and remind them that what works at one point in the practice will change over time. I have some experience and I can offer ways build strength, gain range of motion, and work one’s way into more intricate postures, if that’s what’s appropriate. What’s more important to me, though, is that I am helping the student to have an embodied experience and to feel good about it. That may not include things that once felt important to me- like those particular nitpicking alignment details.

Keeping in mind that this way of teaching may just be one more false summit, I will add that I know that this way of teaching is not what everyone wants or needs. There were times in my own practice as a student that I would have resented an instruction to explore for myself, and that I craved specific, explicit, detailed alignment direction. But- and this is maybe the crux of the matter- I know now that I wouldn’t feel I were offering a real service to my students with this sort of teaching style. I’m less inclined, as Tim said, to offer advice.

As students, I would suggest that it is important to ask ourselves the following:

  • What do I want from my yoga practice? Is my teacher’s style supporting me in my goal?
  • Do I feel that I “need” or “should” do something particular in my practice? If so, why?
  • Is there one right way for me to do this pose every time?
  • How does my body feel after I practice?
  • How do I feel about myself mentally, emotionally, after I practice?
  • Does my yoga mat feel like a place where I am embodied, alive and aware?

As a teacher, I am continuing to explore and ask myself the following:

  • Is my ego invested in this instruction that I’m giving? (I’ve found that if I’m feeling protective or defensive of a particular instruction, there’s something behind it that has little to do with my students’ experience and more to do with my own)
  • How can I help students to feel good mentally, emtionally  and physically?
  • After I teach, how do I feel? Did I learn anything, and how would I handle it differently next time?
  • When I do have an “insight,” am I allowing myself space to believe that it may be contraindicated for some people?
  • Is what I’m offering as a teacher authentic to my own belief system?
  • Is what I’m offering a service to the students?
  • Am I remembering as often as possible that I may be completely and totally wrong?

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Falling From a False Summit: Or, The Less I Think I Know, The Better

  1. Keith

    You have been missed. My wife and I were newbies in a class over about thirteen sessions. While we got better, we always felt we were holding back the class. The instructors were marvelous as were many students, but I am sure a few were being hamstrung.

    Please know, the patience and support of the instructors is greatly appreciated. So, please accept my thank you on your students’ behalf. Are there universal truths to be shared with yoga? Probably not, but we did not expect any. Will people learn how to breathe, stretch and be in tune with their bodies in a cleansing type experience – absolutely.

    I don’t know if I helped or hurt, but know your opinion matters to more than you think. Namaste. Keith

    Reply
    1. laurasana Post author

      Keith- Thank you so much for your thoughtful (and kind!) comments. I always appreciate your feedback! It means a good deal to me to know people are engaging critically. And in terms of universal truths in yoga- I think breathing, stretching, and being in tune with their bodies might be a universal truth in itself. Namaste, my friend! -Laura

      Reply

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