The Difficult Art of Being a Yoga Student

Comments Off on The Difficult Art of Being a Yoga Student Written on April 8th, 2014 by
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The yoga journey is as maddening as it is hilarious. I can tell you though that it seriously has taught me everything I know. As many times as I’ve declared “I quit!! I’m done!”, I’ve had moments of real understanding. As I reread this blog, I’m sensitive to the fact that the list (grammatically speaking anyway) is mainly one of commands which might seem, well, irritatingly didactic. As a teacher, it’s unavoidable to not get into the “you should”‘s. However, I ask you to think of the list below as helpful guidelines which I think could have helped someone like me out and saved me some tears if I’d seen them or realized them sooner. I think they also apply to students at every level. If you are in a state of frustration with yoga, just skip to number 8.

So here goes:

1. Don’t take your teachers too seriously
The more I teach, the more I realize that I don’t know diddly squat. And I knew less than diddly ten years ago. I cringe at things I taught then and I’d been teaching for eight years before that! I thought at that time I really knew what I was talking about. I spoke with authority, perhaps even a tad bit condescending at times (sorry old students, wish I could take that crap back! Thank goodness, NYC is a big place). Now it’s obvious to me that the way I teach will constantly change and learning is as much about unlearning what you thought you knew as about acquiring new knowledge.
If your teacher is extremely confident and gives off that yogier-than-thou-treat-me-like-a-guru aura, it is more than likely that their attitude is not caused by extreme awesomeness. It is because they are new and trying to cover their real lack of confidence or they are a little self-involved. A good teacher might be very sure about something, but also knows that being totally wrong is also in the possibility tree and acknowledges that. I’ve had really smart teachers teach me some ass-backwards ways of doing things, but they made sense at the time to both of us. So a little doubt and questioning on both ends of the teaching equation is healthy.

2. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
Oy, if I could count how many times that I have been a student in class and literally twisted myself into an anger ball ( I do mean literally not figuratively). I would be sitting with legs all folded up and arms wrapped everywhere berating myself for thinking too much and not thinking enough, not being able to let go and not engaging enough etc. I had the exceptional talent of being able to turn every class into an existential crisis, and of making a tight hip personal.
Hello self?! It’s yoga. Does your ability to do an arm balance affect anything In the world in any way? Don’t even pause before answering that. You can still put your absolute all into doing arm balances without all the accompanying judgment. If you get all fight club with yourself in yoga of all places, perhaps it is time to look at where else that is happening? And maybe even take a break from yoga altogether and just surf, letting the ocean instead of your psyche pummel you for a change.

3. Respect your own boundaries physical and emotional.
Remember you are taking class for you, not to please someone else. Most yoga teachers that I know don’t carry guns, so they can’t put one to your head to make you obey them. If they bully you (and new agey people can be maddeningly subtle!), just remember you can always say no or walk away. You have options. Ultimately, you know your body best. Also, tell your instructor ahead of time what you are dealing with or what modifications you might need to make so they can help you.

4. Go at your own pace.
Group classes are a blessing and curse. What a teacher can mean as encouragement “yeah, you can do it!!” while everyone else around you is doing it too, can be the final push you need. It can also feel like peer pressure and make a new pose very scary. Stay grounded if you know for sure you aren’t quite ready for the challenge yet.
If you feel your pace is ahead of the class and you want to do a pose that is harder than what the teacher is doing, ask first. It’s fine if you want a spot for handstand in the middle of the room, as it is hard to do that on your own. However, don’t do something that you could practice at home alone just to prove yourself and the class that you can.
One tip from a friend who wears glasses… She always goes for no contacts or glasses during class. Having everyone in soft focus helps her tune them out a bit.

5. Don’t let your yoga teacher’s instructions drown out your own inner voice.
If you are working on something physically like breathing or engaging your core, then keep working on it. You don’t have to follow a class on your insides. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. If everyone is working on flattening out their triangle pose and you know what you need is more stretch through your spine. Do triangle, but do it your way. Also move away from strain and pain. That seems obvious but for a long time I didn’t realize how much certain common ways of doing certain poses were causing me pain. At one point I began to try doing the exact opposite of the corrections the teacher was giving and see what happened. And it sometimes yielded very interesting results.

6. Try something foreign on for size.
And now for the complete opposite instruction than the one above because yoga is annoying like that. Even though you want to keep hearing your own body, it is also a good idea to let a teacher take you for a ride. Obviously if something feels really bad, don’t do it or don’t do it yet. However, I’ve had my doubts about certain instructions, only to find out later that actually they were exactly what I needed to hear at the time. Great teachers have introduced me to radical new ideas that got my hackles up only to be surprised to see that they worked. If after a college try, the instruction doesn’t work for you, toss it later, but in the mean time, listen and try it out.

7. Remember that yoga is an ongoing process.
You will never “get it”. You will never “be balanced”. BUT you will come into greater balance and greater freedom. You will understand more and more things about how your own body and mind work, but there is no end point. You will never arrive and neither have those who teach you. We are all in this together just at different points in the process. My mother always told me a simple German idiom whenever I got frustrated which is “No master has ever fallen from heaven.” At the same time, it is important to remember that if you feel like you have finally really have gotten something, enjoy it, because that too will pass.
Sometimes you spend class crying, or angry, or hopeless, or bored. It’s not necessarily a problem, just an (incredibly annoying) part of the process. A process that for better or worse will never truly end, and one that is worth sticking with for the long haul even if sometimes you need a break from all the relentless learning.

8. I’m stuck. Now what?!
What if you feel like nothing is changing in your practice or worse yet everything is totally falling apart? First, when in doubt, refer to guidelines 1 and 2. Also remember 7, that this practice isn’t a linear process; backslides and plateaus are part of the game.
Second, you know the old definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results? Yogis can be quite good at that. And it usually indicates it is time to step away from the asana. But, you might think, this class or style has been so great for me until now. Yes, it’s great until it isn’t. A class can be life changing for a while and then feel empty and meaningless. If you’ve given it a shot in one place for four years or more. Maybe change it up. If you do Iyengar, try kundalini or aerial yoga or acro yoga. If you do ashtanga try some pranayama. Try a style you poo poo. The regular studio where we attend classes may indoctrinate us with the idea that they are the end-all-be-all, but the truth is that every style is a different bundle of goods, good and bad. And different styles will be what we need at different stages in our life and yoga experience.
Getting stuck physically can also be caused by different things at different times. At 30, you shouldn’t suddenly feel arthritic and like you can’t even walk (which happened to me). Something just ain’t right in your body or practice and it’s time to take a closer look. At 60 though, your body might start to change a little. Yoga promises us eternal youth and infinite possibilities. And I actually believe greater freedom is possible with age. It just may not look like how we want it to. BKS Iyengar once said something in class to the effect of “In my 90’s, I can’t do the poses I did at 40. The poses I can still do? I do better than I have ever done them.”
It’s true that the range of what we can do may start to shrink, but we can FEEL greater freedom within that range. I know when I was in my 20’s I could go deeper in my backbends, but boy, they felt like I was shoehorning my entire body into a pair of cheap stilettos. Now backbends feel great and are much more even, if slightly less impressive. What might be required of us as we age is that we let go of what we think we should be able to do. There is a great quote by David Foster Wallace, “Everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks on it.” Of course it is hard to let go of things we’ve really invested in (that’s the nature of investment), but then we have to decide if what we are sacrificing to the fight is worth it. My best and hardest yoga classes are often the simplest. There is sweating and shaking, but no straining. So if you have to go back to the basics, it can actually be quite humbling but also incredibly freeing (isn’t that why you did yoga in the first place?).
I know this sounds totally cheesy but every stuck place for me has always precipitated a really profound epiphany. So while you are whining and harrumphing, remember that you are on the edge of something very interesting that is about to happen, but you have to stew in your own juices a bit first, frustrating as that is.

I think the biggest thing I’ve finally gotten after twenty years as a student is that you aren’t doing anything wrong even when it feels that way. It’s a messy beautiful process. And everyone involved is a fortunately and unfortunately a human. Except when they are a dog.

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