March 8, 2016

Helping Students to Trust Themselves in Yoga.

Author's own (Catherine Annis)

Every yoga teacher has heard this question at some point. You’re busy working in a pose, and suddenly someone calls out: “But what should I feel?”

Of course it’s not our job as teachers to tell students what to feel, although it does—inadvertently—happen. “Feel the stretch” is almost a mantra in some classes but what happens when a student doesn’t feel the stretch or whatever else their teacher suggests?

As teachers, we cannot know the complete body history of everyone who comes to class. Even when we run courses and work with regular students, there is no way of knowing how somebody feels inside, how they interpret and respond to suggestions, or the intricacies of how their body moves and adapts to particular poses.

Teaching is about sharing our experience, and authentic teachers teach from their own regular personal practice. They develop a class plan which they hope will illuminate a specific theme, element or focus, as they have experienced it that day, and then try to convey the essence of that experience to other bodies, with other histories, physical and emotional sensitivities and understanding.

When teaching really works, it’s because the teachers have spent time unpicking the poses in enough detail so that they can explain the basic nuts and bolts of what, precisely, they are doing. They have also thought about how best to express this clearly, in easily understandable language. After all that, they just need a little faith and trust that others will experience something similar, or at least something helpful and meaningful for their practice.

And what’s this all got to do with the student who asks how/where they “should” feel it?

In my experience, the word “should” is unhelpful at best, and often misleading. It suggests that teacher knows best, and that if the student’s experience doesn’t mirror that of the teacher, then it implies that they are doing something wrong.

Rather than suggesting what to feel, the suggestions that I’ve personally found most helpful have been those that direct my attention to particular areas, suggesting connections, and encouraging me to expand my own attention and perception, so that I begin to understand my own body and its responses more clearly.

For instance, when working with the feet and ankles in a forward bend, ask yourself where the weight is falling – forwards or back? When the tibia is lifted off the ankle, how does that affect your ankle space? And does it change anything in the pelvis? Does the foot respond at all? Is there more sense of grounding or opening? Or both?

Teaching cues are most effective when we ask our students questions and encourage them to explore their feelings and thoughts about what is happening for them, personally, at that moment.

The aim is always to inspire confidence in the student, so that they can leave class with a clear map of the body within the pose, and can take it home and practice alone, with conviction and faith in their own experience.

Particularly when we are new to teaching, or feeling a little insecure in our practice for some reason, there may be a tendency to take responsibility for students, and give them more information than is strictly necessary or helpful. But telling students how they should feel draws them away from what it is they are actually experiencing, and may prevent them from learning to trust their own interpretation of sensation.

We can all acknowledge our own experience by saying something like, “I feel a stretch in the back of my leg in this pose, but you may feel something else.” This gives people the freedom to explore and have faith in their own feelings and responses.

Very often people come to yoga because they are looking for a way to connect with themselves, so it’s important for us, as teachers, to give them the space to explore and come to their own conclusions.

When we teach, less is sometimes more. Sometimes all we need to do is reassure people that whatever they are feeling, is right. Ultimately, maybe all they need is the permission to engage with themselves, and the encouragement to notice what goes on for them, to be in their own skin, to observe their own sensations, and to take whatever action they personally need to make sure they feel good inside that skin.


Author: Catherine Annis

Editor: Katarina Tavlar

Photo: Author’s own

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