December 21, 2010

Ever felt like your yoga teacher just channeled the exact class you needed?

“How do they do that?” you might wonder.

If the kind of class you attend is a structured one (say, a classical Ashtanga practice, or a Bikram sequence) then after a while you learn which pose comes after which and how the entire sequence is threaded together, so you always know what to expect. On the other hand, if your class is the kind that changes every time, you know that sometimes you get a decent yoga experience and other times you can’t wait till you’re out of there.

And then there are those classes that you could swear the teacher is mind-reading you: everything seems to reach exactly where you needed and deliver the release and the soothing experience your body was after.

How do they do it?

Well, being a yoga teacher myself, there are times in which after teaching a class I might think, “That was pretty mediocre. I wish I could go back in time and do a different class.”  And yet someone might come up to me after one such class and say, “Oh, boy. That was just what my body needed. It was perfect.”

So I can tell you that magical, channeled-just-for-you classes aren’t a result of inspiration; it’s more like a numbers game: if we touch upon this part of the body and that part of the body and incorporate twists and inversions and backbends and forwards bends and balance and side stretches, chances are that if it’s not going to get the right spot, it’s at least going to be pretty darn close.

And yet to enhance the chances of giving as many people as possible that feeling of “this was just what I needed,” I have through the years tried to develop the skill of “reading” the class before I start – sensing how a room full of people feels energetically. Of course, if it’s a small class, you could check in with everybody about what type of class they need; but if it’s a large class, forget it – as a participant you’re bored waiting for everyone to weigh in, and as an instructor, it feels like half the class time is consumed in polling everyone and in the end it always averages out to “work every part of the body, and do it at a medium level of intensity.”

So, I no longer poll my classes – I just try to “read” them. Many times I’ve walked into a room with a specific idea of what kind of class to teach, what type of music to use and how to thread it all together, and as soon as I walk in, I know that’s not right: the energy in the room is different; as everyone sets up their mats, it feels like that’s not the class for them. Admittedly this is a highly subjective art, but every time I have changed my approach to suit my perception of the class, I’ve felt like I hit it right; and those times when I disregarded the feeling and went with my original plan, I felt like the class came across as forced, that I worked everyone too hard, and that I didn’t quite catch nor convey the effortless wave of yoga.

And then there are those times like the other day, when someone came into my gentle yoga class and adjusted her neck and back after each pose. I didn’t notice this because during the first 20 minutes we were doing lying-on-your-back kinds of stretches (did I mention it was a gentle yoga class?). But when we moved up to seated poses, I noticed her back and neck adjustments after each pose. After a while I thought, “Well, what the heck – let me do a class specific to this woman’s needs.” So for the remainder of the class, we did gentle stuff for the neck and the back, in hopes that not only would this help to heal whatever she was experiencing, but also so she could feel that magical “this felt tailored to my needs.”

At the end of the class, when everyone rose from their long shavasana and started putting away their mats and blocks and straps, I went up to this woman and asked her, “Was it your neck or your back that was bothering you?”

“The neck and shoulder, actually.”

“I hope the class was good for both, then.”

“Actually, the first twenty minutes it was perfect. It was like you were hitting all the right spots.”

Ah. The first twenty minutes. That is, before I tailored the class to her neck and back.

I had to smile at the irony. Remind me next time that in order to deliver a “magical, channeled-just-for-you” feeling, I can’t be trying to make it happen.

Photo credit: Hannah Webster

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