During teacher training and development workshops teachers often ask how to present a philosophy of autonomy and encourage students to take on and ultimately take over their own yoga practice. These are exciting positive questions especially in the yoga world today where there seems to be a dependence on the teacher for an “experience” of yoga, but few guidelines on how to practise creatively and productively alone.
Originally the transmission of yoga theory was through personalized curriculum. Teachers taught each student individually and advised on all areas of their development. Times have changed. Now teachers are instructing many students at once with little knowledge about or connection to the student and a limited scope of practice. It seems logical and imperative that each student be guided to learn the art and science of their own body/mind relationship to yoga in order to progress authentically and safely.
Teachers today easily become caught in the trap of simply teaching the form of the asanas. For many beginners yoga postures are complex configurations and it takes time to become familiar with the names and shapes of the poses. The next important stage which many teachers seem to be reluctant to enter is to begin to view the asanas as containers for movement, for flow of energy. Over time we yearn to practise the postures in service of feeling movement within the structure of the body, of finding our way inside both literally and figuratively. Without this intention to locate or catalyze inner movement and sensation, asana practice can become formalistic and even rigid. It may not move students towards the ultimate goals of yoga which include self awareness, improved health, integration of body, mind and spirit, a sense of physical ease and lightness, and inner strength, self-reliance and independence.
How can we teach inner mobility, inner awareness, personal exploration, and personal choice? As teachers we must have sincere curiosity and an authentic desire to encourage exploration. We must create an atmosphere in which the student feels safe and valued. Real time is required for this exploration to occur. Silence is essential in order to enable the students to drop inside and truly listen to their own bodies.
Once we have the confidence to commit seriously to this radical, evolutionary approach, we must find forms that are open ended so that exploration of inner mobility can take place easily. A single asana, a sequence or an entire lesson plan can be the form – choose to teach what you are most comfortable teaching – then slow down, make simple suggestions, ask simple questions, listen to the answers, and observe the results. For example, instead of the usual dynamic Sun Salutation repetition, a simplified version might be considered with many minutes spent investigating each detail, breathing deeply. We might encourage our students to observe the effects of a specific pranayama practice on the variety of asanas included in Sun Salutation. We might remind them to notice body sensations, muscular, skeletal or breath movement, to notice how the experience of a posture changes with simple adjustments of the torso, head or limbs, to feel or search for more ease or more energy.
By choosing our teaching language carefully we can encourage a great deal of exploration within these known forms. We can learn to be less directive and more suggestive and descriptive, entreating students to vary, observe, feel, and assess their practice. Actively involving the mind and intellect in yoga practice will promote continuous long-term engagement, creative decision-making, and will stimulate further study.
Many teachers would like to dialogue with their students but fear a loss of class “control”. If we truly believe our role is to hand over control to the students we can begin, even if we are afraid, with questions such as “Do you like or dislike this pose, practice, breathing technique?” “What about it grabbed you? Stayed with you?” “What do you notice?” “How do you feel?” “What purpose do you think this practice will serve?”
Teachers fear loss of control. We also fear not knowing “correct” answers. In dialoguing with our students we are handing the practice to the student to dissect, understand and use. We are signalling our interest in their experience and our willingness to learn from them. We are assuring them that experience is always valuable and true, sometimes surprising, never dull, neither right nor wrong.
With every comment, question, pose, sequence or technique we can encourage our students to drop inside their own bodies and find out how to be more and more present and resourceful. This approach of guiding the student back to herself is a potential pathway to engaged and thoughtful practice. We might call this path creative engagement.
Teaching creative engagement requires interaction, dialogue, creative problem solving, courage, compassion and flexibility. It can be frightening at first. But in this approach we are asking our students to practise with vulnerable and open minds and hearts and we must be prepared to do the same. Suzuki Roshi says “we are feeling our way along in the dark” as we practise, as we teach and as we live. When we move in the dark, we must go very slowly in order to understand where we are, being quite attentive each step of the way, feeling, sensing, thinking, touching, carefully moving forward by ourselves.
by Tama Soble and Monica Voss