I have been coming across so many words lately, written by others, that I am enjoying immensely. Not to mention, words that are to large degrees pertinent to elements within my own personal teaching and learning journey ... and so, I feel great beauty within the sharing. I have taught yoga now for many years, and it is always an intriguing mystery surrounding the teacher/student relationship and dynamic. Keeping in mind, I believe we are all our own teachers, and every single person carries their own individuated and potent form of Medicine. Healing logistics aside, and speaking simply from the practical "one room, one teacher, multiple students" arrangement, I found this article itself to be great medicine, because it is truth. In nearly every class I have taught in a registered setting, there is a sort of 'archetypal' line up that comes into form, which to this day leaves me somewhat quizzical about it. Not to mention, I am very sensitive. Not in the overly-emotional sense of the word ... but as in, I very easily pick up on what others are feeling and experiencing. It is a big job, this teaching gig. It is a big job, and a huge passion. That is what, despite the 'doubters and comparers', the sometimes judgments, the anxieties and uncertainties that mix up into one breathy room ... that is what keeps we impassioned instructors showing up at the mat. Sometimes I have felt like standing at the front of the room, demonstrating a posture, and then calling out to the class "You do!" as the author describes below! This is not my process however, but admittedly it sounds like a fun one! Yet I will continue with my methods. Because there are also the supporters, the cheerleaders, and the pure lovers of the process. And it is precisely this process, and the trust we know we must hold within it, that will keep us coming back for more.
Ten Tips from a Yoga Student
By Russell Shields I am not a yoga teacher. I am one of those people who bring a mat to class and do the asanas with everyone else. I have been a yoga student for many years. The experience has taught me how to be a better yoga student. I now offer 10 tips on how to get more out of the student/teacher relationship.
1. BE A STUDENT. If you are a student, it is important to be a good student. This means adopting the attitude of a diligent student for the class period, especially with a new teacher. For many of us, especially if one has a regular practice, there is a tendency to compare teachers and think we know of a better way for the class to be taught. The mind likes to think, “My other teacher did not do it that way. This feels weird.” When I first took ashtanga yoga, it seemed that some of the set sequence of poses would make more sense if done in a slightly different order. After years of practice, I have come to realize there is wisdom in the sequence just as taught.
2. BE OPEN. Thoughts that the teacher is teaching incorrectly is a wrong attitude that puts up a barrier to learning what the teacher has to offer. The truth is, we can learn something from every teacher, if we can BE OPEN to what they have to teach. I have had teachers whose asana practice was less developed than mine. However, I learned much from them. The more advanced student must be especially aware of this pitfall, as there is a tendency to use existing knowledge and experience as a sort of bias against new teachings and experiences.
3. OVERLOOK. Yoga teachers, like all of us, are works in progress. It is not unusual to hear them mispronounce the names of asanas, embarrass students, criticize other teachers, arrive late, start the class late, run the class past the scheduled end time, display anger, direct you into a sequence of poses and then forget to do the “other side,” leaving you feeling lopsided. Most yoga teachers are not masters and teach at least some mistakes. It is important to remember that they are people in different stages of development, just like the students. My wife once asked an East Indian lady the secret to a long, happy marriage. She responded, “Overlook.” The fact is, people come mixed. They are not all good or all bad. It is up to us to overlook the flaws so that we can enjoy the real yoga teachings, which are pristine and eternal.
Although yoga teachers may be flawed, it is also true that you would be hard pressed to find a more heart-centered, God-loving group of people. They do not teach for the “big bucks.” Most yoga teachers are not striving to reach early retirement. However, it is fair to say that most are working on piling up sizeable spiritual bank accounts -- a quality that is both admirable and endearing.
4. EXPECT ODD SITUATIONS. Yoga teachers sometimes do things that seem very odd. There is an implicit trust relationship between the teacher and student. It is the teacher's duty to find a way to get the student to learn and the student's duty is to be obedient and open. Since yoga deals with mind, body and spirit, the forms of teaching can be quite odd indeed.
One of my yoga teachers, Dawn S., would often choose one person per class session to receive special help with supta kurmasana, the turtle pose. This is a pretzel pose to end them all. Dawn was not happy until someone was completely scrunched into a tiny ball, feet crossed, head in crotch, arms between and under the legs and bent behind the back. When she “helped” me into it, my breathing became about 1/100th of what it was up to then. Tim M. could somehow put me into twisting poses like marichyasana D, where my hands barely clasped, and then he would help other people for what seemed like FOREVER, or until my sweaty hands got so weak they slipped apart and the pose collapsed. Tim was also fond of saying, urdhva dhanurasana, or backbend/wheel, “is like pancakes--the first two are no good.” To me, that meant we were going to be holding the pose FOREVER, or until the body shook and collapsed down, over and over again. At the end of the wheel poses, he would sometimes say, “OK now, second set!”
The yoga literature is full of stories of teachers doing even more strange things to make a point to the student. For example, the great teacher, Kabir, was chastised by some Muslims for pointing his feet in the direction of Mecca. Kabir responded by asking his critics to kindly point his feet in the direction that did not face God. Mulana Rum, or Rumi, is reported to have said, “If the teacher says soak your prayer mat in wine, soak it in wine.” In so many ways, the teacher and the yoga challenge our parameters and break down limitations to growth. So if the teacher places you in an odd situation, try to use it as an opportunity to learn.
5. HANG IN THERE. I have found that the solution to the odd situations is to hang in there, even if you don't like it. Sooner or later, the wisdom comes out. For example, after a while, I learned from Dawn that the turtle pose can be very peaceful, sort of like your own personal sadhu cave. I learned from Tim that twisting poses can really help me to open UP and expand. I even learned that backbends get easier. The key was always just hanging in there. When one of my teachers, Steve, saw the class straining in a difficult pose, he would encourage us to hang in there by saying, “Don't leave before the miracle. It is just coming.” There is truth to that statement. I am grateful to my teachers, including Dawn, Tim and Steve , for their encouragements and patience.
Avoid comparing yourself to others. Negative thoughts can block all progress. Thoughts like “I will never be that good” will suck away your energy and put you into a mode of struggle in the practice. Expect that some days you will feel better than others. Ultimately , it is what is going on internally, not externally, that counts. If you hang in there, you will get great satisfaction from the yoga. Just keep doing the yoga. Do it during the ordinary turmoil of life. Do it despite days of lesser strength and flexibility. Do it without comparing yourself to what others are doing on the mat next to you.
6. DO IT THEIR WAY. Teachers have different styles. Some are young, very flexible, strong, and vigorous. Their classes are often a faster paced, more intense workout. Older or more experienced teachers often place less emphasis on external form and more emphasis on breath and concentration during the practice. There is no bad choice. What is important is to do the practice their way so that you can get the benefit from their style of teaching.
For example, I have noticed Iyengar teachers talk a lot during class. They explain every tiny detail of the asana until I feel mentally exhausted from the input. Also, I know several Iyengar teachers who can be very picky about the way you fold blankets. However, I am deeply indebted to them for teaching yoga etiquette and the great body of physical / mechanical info rmation they provided. I would not have gotten that benefit if I left the class because the teachers never shut up
7. YOU DO! In contrast, I have noticed that a s h tanga teachers give very little instruction. The class moves from pose to pose and you are left to figure out precisely how each pose should be done. One teacher would sometimes silently show a pose and then only say, “You do!” I learned a lot from those two words. To my surprise, what I did not know the doing often taught me. If I had not experienced the asana flow without the teaching interruptions, I would not have developed the slow , rhythmic breathing in movement that leads to a deeper practice. In the end , it is not doing asanas but learning to repose--to achieve a deep sense of the eternal within -- that is the real yoga practice. The understanding and internal experience that eventually come from the yoga are the best teacher. If you open your heart and just do the practice, then the timeless and pristine gifts of yoga will be discovered.
8. ETIQUETTE. The newer student may be surprised to know there is an unofficial yoga etiquette that is widely accepted. First on my unofficial list is to come with fairly clean body and mat. I am not all that finicky about odor. Even so, being on a yoga mat next to malodorous feet or mat has ruined the whole experience for me many times. Be on time. If you are late, just stand near the door and wait for the teacher to acknowledge you and direct you to a spot. Most teachers will arrange a spot for you, when the time is right.
9. RELAX/DON'T TENSE UP. As a result of being the equivalent of human pretzel dough to many teachers over the years, I have learned that the best way to take an adjustment is to RELAX. Let it happen. Try to get the feel of what the pose is like after you are in the adjusted pose. Try to get the “body memory” of the adjusted pose. Does it feel better than before? How is it different from what you were doing? Good things happen when you relax. You go much deeper into the pose. You may learn that mentally surrendering is a huge key to spiritual growth. DON'T TENSE UP. The converse is also true. Tense up and bad things happen. When you resist, the deep steady breathing is lost, tension comes in, the mind gets defensive and becomes unreceptive. The selfish mantra of “what will happen to me” is soon to surface. One of the challenges in backbends is to relax in what is at first perceived as a stressful situation. This lesson carries over into daily life. As my practice has become established, I notice that when my daily work gets intense, my deep , slow yoga with ujjai breathing get going and automatically the situation becomes more even.
10. HONOR AND ENCOURAGE. We should honor and encourage our yoga teachers. I notice that when a yoga instructor just walks by me, or adjusts me, my practice immediately perks up, and I try a little harder for awhile. Teachers also benefit from recognition and feedback. When I think of the great line of yoga teachers stretching back into antiquity who brought these great teachings to us, it is natural to feel humility and gratitude to all yoga teachers. For these reasons, it is good to honor and respect yoga teachers. I try to bring flowers to class once in a while. I like to remember them at Christmas with small gifts like nuts, incense or a yoga type calendar. Sometimes just a few words about how I sincerely enjoyed a class or how I improved from an adjustment in the class bring a smile to their face.
Russell Shields was last in Chicago in 1968. He came as one of many Students for a Democratic Society who engaged in anti-war protests at the Democratic Convention. Soon after, he began studying hatha yoga with Yogi Sharma in Long Beach, California. In 1972 he was initiated into surat shabd (meditational) yoga by G uru Charan Singh. Russell has traveled to India between 15 and 20 times, mostly to see his guru at an ashram in Punjab, India. He has traveled the Himalayas, studied medi t ation with the Brama Kumaris in Rajasthan, performed Shivaite practices in Varanasi. Russell is a partner in the law firm of Shields & Kowalski located in Tustin, California. He is a longtime , familiar student at many yoga studios. Since writing this story, Russell has started to teach a yoga class at Bally's Gym in Southern California.
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