Sunday, April 03, 2011

Mano-a-mano (?) with the Inner Critic

Do we all agree (sort of) that yoga is working with your body rather than against it? At least in this day and age (I'm not sure you can call keeping your arm raised for a couple of years working with, but maybe that's just me). Are we trying to make peace with our bodies and quiet the monkey-mind, or are we trying to discipline the soft tissue?

Erica had a nice post about not de-toxing last week, and it got me to thinking about the physical and mental gymnastics we run ourselves through in the pursuit of a yogic ideal. I'll bet most regular practitioners have some awareness (or perhaps Keen Awareness) of the constant juggling act between pushing yourself and not letting ego take over, but what about our students who aren't so tuned into these subtleties (or when you see yourself loosing the ego battle--"if only I could drop-back into a back bend!")?

Let me start by saying I'm constantly juggling (arm wrestling) the Inner Critic in yoga and almost everything I get it. But I'm always a little lost when I see students struggle with the need to do a pose perfectly or, sometimes, even do the pose at all. I try to frame up my class with lots of modifications and opt-outs for people who don't feel up to a pose or aren't ready. I usually let them at least set-up for a pose, even if I'm pretty sure they won't be able to complete it, and then quietly show them what comes next or make a suggestion for something else to try.

The class is all skill-levels and all levels of experience, so asana-ability is all over the place. Which, for me, is fine. It's a opportunity for the long-time yogis to refine and the newbies to try something new or work on being okay with a modification (usually the far-more difficult skill). But what about the regulars who don't have the flexibility or strength for a particular pose, yet attempt--with great effort--to do said pose every time it comes up in the sequence, even if they've been guided to modify or substitute the last time around?

Is this just my teacher-ego getting annoyed that I'm not being listened to? Should I back off and let them try---they've signed a liability waiver, after all? I don't want to scold, but I don't want to stand idly by if some one could hurt him/herself (or the person on the next mat).

What do you do--either to calm the over-doer or, even, to get yourself out of striver-mode? Is this something you can teach or is it knowledge that has to be acquired on your own?

I'm ready for some imparted wisdom...


Rebecca said...

I only had the joy of teaching a semi-regular class once. I was the substitute, but I subbed so often for the 6:30 class that I felt like I could really get to know the students. I noticed often that one student would go as fast as possible through the vinyasas, and I wanted to find a way to help her slow down, so I tried getting everyone to do a modification, then reminding and reminding about keeping the elbows in for chaturanga, etc. I am not sure it ever worked, but what I know is that I was that student once as well . . . until one day it clicked. I realized that how I was doing asanas was not only not beneficial but probably harmful. I think all our students come to that realization at some point. I also think that teachers who guide through the process slowly, adjusting when appropriate, and allowing students the space to find what works for them, are going to be the teachers that really help students turn inward. Just like everything in life, it feels like things take forever and then one day they magically happen. Your regulars will discover that for themselves if they continue to be regulars. But make sure they don't hurt themselves - waiver or not (says the lawyer). Thanks for this post. I think this is a really important issue (for lack of a better word) for us as teachers.

YogaforCynics said...

During my teacher training we did a rather intense inner critic exercise, which, among other things, involved taking on the posture of the inner critic--which for me was so bent and twisted that my back and shoulders hurt for an asana from hell...which really got me thinking about how much pain the inner posture I was representing causes my

Wine Will Fix It said...

It's a tough road to get to the spot where you realize that class isn't a competition (while so many "fitness" classes are). It was a journey for me to get there - to look around at the "perfect" poses and realize I wasn't there yet and to be OK with that. I would perhaps encourage students to be comfortable with their own journeys and that while they learn different asanas they will continue to learn more about their body, even if they aren't able to sustain a pose.

Kristin said...

I've been contemplating this question for a while now, and decided, short of pulling my hair and shouting "don't DO that!", that I just need to let it go and let them try it their way.

If it's part of a flow, and they are popping through vinyasa like a drop of water on a hot skillet, then I may make a comment to the class as a whole to slow down, that it isn't a race and I don't give out prizes if you get through first. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.

Some people will come to an agreement with their ego, others will not. My position is only to show them a path. What they choose to do on that path is up to them. How I choose to react is up to me.

I choose to let them be.

But it doesn't mean that I still don't become frustrated sometimes. ;)

Interesting aside - I've noticed when I get most frustrated coincides with when I am also the most tired or stressed.

Charlotte said...

Thanks for ruminating on such an important issue. I've been teaching continuously for 25 years. I can say unequivocally that the the first 10 to 15 years I would say the words, "This is not a competition," or something like it, and although I got it intellectually, I certainly hadn't embodied it. It took years of facing my competitive conditioning in meditation before I was able to truly get why competing and comparing are futile wastes of energy.

I think that our cultural competitive conditioning is the biggest obstacle to Yoga (yes, the upper case "Y" is intentional here). We will stay in a (lower case) yoga mindset until we are able to see how it hurts us.

Living in a 55-year-old body that I pushed too far when I was in 30s has been educational—and sobering. I no longer do poses that feed my ego but compromise my body's integrity. Because of this, I find that my students are much less competitive than they used to be. I still verbally discourage competition and comparing, but what's more important is that I am no longer giving subtle messages to the contrary. So much of being a teacher is about being what you wish your students to embody.

YogaDancer said...

As someone who used to be that student who had to push myself into every pose, and now a yoga instructor, I see both sides of the spectrum. Although, as teachers, we want our students to come to a certain stage of enlightenment and awareness, we can not push them beyond their present capabilities just as we wouldn't push them in asanas. When I was that new student I didn't want to listen to the teacher (it didn't matter what they said), but when it was the right time for me on my path I opened up and became aware. I see the beauty in still being a student but also teaching now. We are still to learn as we teach. I have taken such situations with stubborn students to be a lesson in patience and faith that they will one day find awareness and letting go of the ego as well. And to know that that moment is in store for them is exciting to wait for and hopefully witness.

Amanda from Charm City Yoga said...

I think if you provide the modifications and assistance for the poses, you've done all you can. When someone insists on pushing themselves, I think that that's a personality trait that you can't change and all you can do is insist that protecting your body and not going over your edge is also part of the practice.

Anonymous said...

I'm only a student myself but here's my opinion:

I think many students who try to force poses they're not ready for, have a lack of understanding for the pose and what it's supposed to be doing.

Take trikonasana; it seems common to slump forward in an attempt to reach for the floor. I'm a novice myself but I have a yoga video with Kristen McGee where she says about this pose, "imagine your body between two panes of glass", which I do to this day. It feels good even if my hand is nowhere near the floor and teachers seem happy about it.

I think good explanations, including metaphors such as the glass panes, are a great tool to help students understand the poses. I believe that understanding, in turn, motivates students to do the poses correctly.

Brenda P. said...

Thanks, all.

Upon reflection, and reading your thoughtful responses, I suspect the problem is as much with me as with any overdoing student. It's not about disrespect for my teaching or my instructions going unheeded; if I get my feelings hurt it's because I need to stop taking it personally.

Like many of you said, it's a process that a student needs to go through--getting to the place where who don't have to force a pose or grit your teeth through a series. No teacher can impose that, you have to figure it out yourself. And continue to work on nauseum.

Careful instruction, clear directions, basic modification is all the teacher can offer...the rest is up to the body on the mat.

Yoga Fitness said...

I definitely struggle with being overly-competitive during class, something I need to work on for sure!

Jennefer said...

I love this post and all these comments...

Brenda you basically said yourself in your comment what I was going to add, that whatever is going on in that students head to make them choose to practice the way they are has more to do with them than it does to do with you. And your reaction to it has more to do with you than it has to do with that student.

These things that we resist or have intense reactions too, these are our lessons, our big opportunities to learn more about ourselves and grow. So my advise is just to recognize that and be grateful for the opportunity :)


Liz said...

Perhaps it's human nature to be competitive; to look at the next mat and pit ourselves against the other guy or to compete with ourselves overextending rather than listening to our body... whatever the case, I worked with a teacher a long time ago who understood the idea of transferring control and simply said, "yoga is centered in breath and if you aren't breathing you are too far into a pose. Your body is telling you to let up. When your breath flows you are experiencing the right pose for your body". Fantastic.

Nancy said...

I make my students take breaks so that the over achievers are reminded what resting feels like. I also tell them stories about how I've pushed to my edge and hurt myself.

Having said all of that, I realize that many students will do what they want to whether I suggest otherwise or not. So I can only offer my suggestions, give them gentle nudges and hope that eventually they'll listen to their bodies.

LiveLoveYoga said...

Thank you for opening up this topic - it is something I question a lot given that I teach classes to people who are less physically able, such as those with MS, mental and learning difficulties. In many ways they seem to understand the fundamentals of yoga more than students in my regular classes, recognising the benefits of gentle movement and correct breathing. I have a lot to learn from them!

LiveLoveYoga said...

Thank you for opening up this topic - it is something I think about a lot given that I teach people who are not so physically able, such as those with MS, mental and physical disabilities. They seem to recognise the importance of gentle movement and correct breathing, in some ways more than students in my regular classes. I have a lot to learn from them!

Maria said...

I was wondering what age is the best to start yoga to become a yoga teacher. My daughter is 5 who I always take to yoga retreat with me to encourage yoga but was wondering if it is a bit

Kristyn Lambrecht said...

This is fascinating - about the inner critic affecting pysche. I can completely see where it comes from. At my next yoga session, I'm going to pay closer attention to this connection. Thanks for this post.

Ryan said...

Interesting views.... Teaching often causes frustration based on different students. I give kudos to any that do it:)

Charmaine said...

I have been struggling with this aspect of teaching as well. And interestingly enough, it's my more intermediate students who seem to really want to push themselves into more and more complicated poses, or more challenging versions of even basic poses.

It's tough, and reading one comment about how she notices that when she is tired or stressed, that's when watching her students do this frustrates her the most. Is it partially about wanting to be the "best" teacher my those students keep coming back; so that classes are well-attended and I feel good?

I reached out to one of my teachers about this very subject and he wisely advised me to be careful in how I pushed those students, and for what reasons. It's similar to hands on modifications in a group class. Are you doing it just because you think you need to, or because the student would benefit and have given you cues that they are willing to accept that kind of touch?

So interesting to think about what we as teachers bring into that classroom as well, isn't it?

Thanks for posting, and to all the folks who commented, what wonderful, and insightful thoughts. How cool to have stumbled across this blog!

Anonymous said...

I am currently a new student of yoga. I have been taking it for 6 months. I must admit that I sometimes have the ambition to do the full pose all the time and become frustrated when unable to do so. It has nothing to do with the teacher if I am stubborn to instructions or modifications. I just want to see how far my body could go. Examples are binding on twists which I could easily do. But reading other books on yoga and then realizing the possible injuries that might occur, I became cautious. I also realized that explanations from the teacher, which is more important : to reach the full pose or to work a particular part of the body in a modified pose is more constructive than just saying you might hurt yourself. So in a twist, I realized it is more important to lengthen and turn with one arm on the back and on the side than just to pull the arms backward together with poorly lengthened half-twist. In a class, it is unavoidable that the teacher cannot fully explain all the important points to remember in an asana. So a student might fail to understand why this and not that and ignore the instruction. Now, I realized that I have to listen to them more even if I don't know their reasons. And sometimes, as a student, I fail to understand clearly what the teacher said. So I might be construed as being stubborn.

Mijael "Yoga for Everyone" Brandwajn said...

I can see by the amount of comments that this is a hot topic!

I teach all kinds of classes, from very soft to very hard, and time and again I find that it's not the class but the student that makes the most amount of difference between those who hurt while practicing and those who don't.

This of course doesn't mean the sequence, the environment the teacher creates (how competitive we feel it is), don't play a role -of course they do!

But overzealous students and teachers are the main reasons people get injured while practicing yoga!

Anonymous said...

Hi, all! First posting here. I'm a teacher, and I was (sometimes still am) competitive in reaching for the "full expression" of a pose. Mostly, though, I just didn't know what I was doing.

I am with "anonymous" who said students often do not understand the pose. Being overly competitive and doing a pose incorrectly or unsafely are usually two different things. If I had been told early on that the teacher cared more about my hips being squared in balancing Warrior I (back heel lifted), I would have expressed my ambition by squaring my hips better than anyone else in the room. Not really, but I would have tried. Instead, I tried to do my best pose (and show off a little) by going for a 90 degree knee while my hips were misaligned. No one explicitly told me about good alignment in Warrior I and other poses until teacher training. Instead, I was often told to sink lower in the front knee, as if that were an important point. Flow classes that encourage athleticism over alignment add to the problem. I did take a lot of flow classes early on as they are popular in my area. I really do think students have a lot of confusion about the standing poses in general.

As evidence, we could look at the great number of students that take teacher training for the purpose of deepening their practice. They want to understand the poses the same way the teacher does. So why isn't this happening more in the regular classes?

One reason is that regular classes could easily turn into lectures. People don't want a full lesson or to feel anatomically dissected at a yoga class. They want to be in their bodies. They should be getting more of that in their home practice, with our classes being a little laboratory where they can practice alignment. So this is one reason: I think we want to not over-lecture the students with the result being that many don't get explicit instructions in the primary alignment points.I have a much easier time with students in an introductory series where we are all on the same page than in drop-in classes.

I've taken some weekend seminars with some great teachers like Christina Sell and that's where I learned that students need to be told explicitly what the teacher is looking for.

I start many of the "problem" poses in an easier version with proper alignment. Like, letting people stack their hips in triko with the front hand on the thigh rather than the floor or block. Then I invite them to move lower but only so far as they can keep the butt from sticking out behind them. They know I'm looking to see if that ass sticks out or if they are sagging through the lower ribs. If they are competitive, they at least have a better idea of what to "show off" with. Likewise, down dog. The first one of class we start with knees deeply bent and I tell students "only straighten the legs so much as you can still keep the spine long."

I also constantly tell them-- "choosing the option that is safe shows wisdom". everyone wants to show how wise they are. I know we all say these things for our students. I just think it's a cop out to blame students if we have not fully examined our languaging or how we lead them into poses.

That being said, there are the students that still don't listen and insist on risking injury. For those, I can't add anything that hasn't already been said by others, and I appreciate the good advice offered.