Your body is your teacher. I point out which way your foot is facing and if the knee is safe in that direction or not. You are the one who feels it and gets it or not. If you are talking aloud or talking to yourself in your head constantly, it is probably a good idea to let that get as quiet as you can, so you can really listen and feel. This is yoga after all (Pilates too!). If you are constantly rearranging and judging with your ego, you’re not trusting your body’s natural ability to learn what to do. Your body is very smart. Your job is to breathe and remember to breathe and to follow the breath. My job is to make sure you’re doing that in a way that will not hurt you immediately, or down the road in 20 years. My job is to point out when improper alignment has turned to habit and you cannot “feel” the healthy place to position yourself.
If I am more interested in my own agenda then what you are doing, if I am just grooving on the music, if I am thinking about dinner and not how to guide you safely through the next hour and a half, then I should not be leading your class. I should “snap” out of it. That doesn’t mean I don’t let you fly free sometimes. That doesn’t mean I don’t actually let you do things out of alignment sometimes or just because it’s fun even though you haven’t mastered step one yet. That is part of learning too.
My friend Cecily had a sign in her yoga studio that read, “Please feel free to ignore the instructor.” I love that idea that a student can just be in their own meditative space and ultimately what I am saying to you is just another interruption or distraction from your yoga practice. I remember a class once when I was first learning to teach where I boldly announced as the class began, “Don’t ever let me tell you no,” and of course someone half way into class asked, “Can I…” and I said “NO!” I was mortified and yet somehow couldn’t take it back. I take it back now. For now. However, I think it IS all right for the instructor to say no if they feel what was asked wasn’t safe or if it would break the group flow or if you don’t feel you can teach something safely to that person or at all. We all have to draw limits.
Yet I want my students to claim their inner yoga space. I want them to float their arms up with their breath without waiting for me to tell them to do so. More and more, I demonstrate less and less. It is hard for folks who are used to following visually, but it is good practice to follow by listening and remembering too. I try to demonstrate for yogis who are new or new to my classes, but I also try to let people who’ve been practicing rely on their inner knowledge to move. If they’re just imitating me, then they’re probably moving at my speed, maybe even picking up my bad habits too.
There are a lot of yoga classes these days that have teachers talking constantly, maybe this has always been so. For instance, the teacher tells you how your feet should be placed and how your should feel the breath moving up your body and words are used like “expand,” and “open,” and “trust.” It is a lot like the guided imagery of a meditation session or a dance class. It can be good and bring people to new understandings of their bodies and souls, however, it can also replace the authentic tenor of someone’s mind, with the teacher’s way of looking at things. It can also be a distraction from just being present in your self with your breath. I also feel that is true with music. The background music can be like an annoying fly that won’t let you rest into yourself. You might like it. You might find it is an escape from the difficult work of the asanas, but then you are not really experiencing the yoga. You are ignoring the yoga. If a teacher tells you to feel your breath and your heart is pounding at 180 beats per minute to an uplifting song, do you really know where your breath would be if you were just still in your self, your body?
What if you were sad, and you need to let it out? What if what you need to be is listening to the ache in your knee? What if you tense your muscles to hold yourself in a hand balancing pose and you’re only half breathing? Where’s the yoga then? Do you want the teacher chattering about openness then? Do you want to hear Michael Franti then? Or do you want to discover your authentic self? Do you want to wobble out of tree because you fully exhaled instead of holding your breath?
Okay, not many people want to wobble out of tree. It’s embarrassing. We “should” be able to hold the pose. At least that’s what our minds and sense of inadequacy tell us. But if we exhale fully, then our body can learn to balance with deeply oxygenated muscles and mind, not with pneumatic stabilization. Also, if you exhale, you release all the carbon dioxide, and then you nourish your body more fully with more oxygen. Now you’re breathing, maybe wobbling, listening to your body and breath. Now you are learning.