In yoga, just as in life, we are bombarded with rules and regulations. How many of you can relate to being in a yoga class and being asked to move into a particular position, or to breathe in a certain way. Perhaps, the instruction didn’t even sound like instruction, but instead a directive. I’ve been to many, many yoga classes where the directives are stated with clarity and authority (sometimes even with an edge of aggression), but in my head I know that clarity and authority are the tools — not the essence — of teaching.
New students may take such directives in one of many ways. For some, such directives make the teacher seem authoritative, as though they speak from a place of deep, ancient, sacred knowledge (I’m using a list of words here I often hear in classes). And so they might think “this teacher really knows her stuff.” I suspect that this response is actually quite rare.
For other students, such directives may seem like too much, almost as though the students are being yelled at or demeaned. In most cases, I would argue that the intention of the teacher is not in sync with how the students receive the directives, especially when teacher and student are not familiar with one another. We never know how our teachings will be received. So what happens then if our students listen doggedly to our directives out of a fear of failure?
Mistaking Rule & Regulations for Truth
One of my biggest concerns for my yoga students is that they might mistake rules and regulations (the directives) for truth. As yogis, we understand that part of the yogic path is to seek truth. But this requires a lot of introspection. For instance, in downward dog, is it true that the knees should be slightly bent, with a micro-bend in the knees? After some thought, I’m not really sure. There’s some room there to seek truth. However, when I teach, I say “Keep your knees slightly bent with a micro-bend in the knees,” and my students dutifully follow. As beginners, the students may have mistaken my directive for being some deeper truth about the human experience. “Nathan says so, so we do so!” (Is that really yoga?!?)
As teachers, and as students, we should maybe keep a few things in mind. For one, the human body (homo sapiens) has been evolving for about 1.5 million years. That’s 1.5 MILLION years! This body can move in very complicated and incredible ways, which we can explore and experience in almost every single moment. On the other hand, most of the basic yoga postures (including those taught in any yoga class ever) have been around for maybe 100 years. 100 years of downward dog, and a 1.5 million year old body? Can it really be so definitive what is the correct way to take a downward dog? I’m not so sure.
So What Do We Do?
Well, first of all, I think we should keep in mind the safety of our students. A lot of what we teach comes from traditions of injuring the body (sometimes called the movement arts, athletics, exercise, or just ambulation). Generations of human beings have injured themselves, and we pass on the movements and postures that we believe will not injure our students. This is a good practice, but the only way to avoid injury 100% is to not move. I’d prefer to move and get injured rather than live on a floating lounge chair sucking my nutrient goo through my iPhone.
Equally important, I think we need to emphasize (to our students and ourselves) that yoga is the search for truth. Sometimes, truth is the main thing missing from directives that are stated with clarity and authority. Our teachings are only guides, not fundamental truths. If we teach from a place of absolute authority, we risk corrupting the entire art of yoga.
Perhaps we should be teaching our students to question authority in the search for truth. If our students find a similar answer to our own, then great! We’ve come to some agreement. If our students find a different answer, even better! They’ve taken the first step on the path.