As yoga teachers, we exhort students to listen to their bodies. But let’s face it, we spend most of class telling them exactly what to do. Tilt your chin like this. Hinge forward like that. Press out through the balls of your feet. Shift your weight to your heels. When instructions don’t have the desired effect, we dole out verbal corrections and physical adjustments. The goal is to get students safely and more deeply into poses, and that’s a worthy endeavor. But there may be a better way, says Leslie Kaminoff, coauthor of Yoga Anatomy and founder of The Breathing Project in New York City.
For Kaminoff, the answer lies not in correcting students but in facilitating self-inquiry.
The outspoken yoga educator has long been preoccupied with how to individualize instruction in a group class. It’s a natural question for someone steeped in the tradition of T. K. V. Desikachar, who favored one-on-one instruction and emphasized that yoga must always be adapted to the individual. For Kaminoff, the answer lies not in correcting students but in facilitating self-inquiry.
Take for example the transition from warrior I to warrior II. “A very common thing that will happen is the front knee will dive inward. I can say, ‘Make sure you bring your front knee over your front ankle, and keep that shin perpendicular to the floor.’ That’s administering a correction, and the assumption is that right over the ankle is the only safe place for that knee to be, which I don’t necessarily agree with,” Kaminoff explains. “Or I could say: ‘Closing your eyes for a moment, can you sense where your knee is in relation to your ankle? Did it change just now, when you made that move, and were you aware it changed? Is there a place you can choose to put it that feels better for your knee?’ These are questions rather than directives, and they make the student less dependent on an external frame of reference.”
There’s a decent chance that students will arrive there on their own, knee over ankle. There’s little chance of hurting themselves if they don’t. Either way, they may gain more from the process than the pose itself.
“Engaging students in inquiry is far more empowering than administering a correction,” Kaminoff says. “It requires them to feel what’s happening inside their system, rather than listening to me reporting what I see from the outside.”
How you engage students in inquiry varies from pose to pose, but Kaminoff has found this verbal format to be particularly effective: Try this. Try that. See what you notice. In triangle pose, for example, you could say: “Try looking down at your front foot. Now try gazing up at your raised hand. See what you notice.” Kaminoff is quick to point out that: Try this. Try that. is very different from: Do this. Do that. This is what you’ll feel. “I do my very best to not tell students what they should be feeling. That’s really important because once you say that, you’re setting up a situation where some people will genuinely feel it, some people won’t be sure but will find a way to convince themselves they’re feeling it, some people will feel something else and wonder what they’re doing wrong, and some people will have the experience of ‘I don’t know what the hell I’m feeling.’ Even the word ‘feel’ is loaded for some people because it could imply emotions.”
When you ask students to see what they notice, it’s helpful to add that they may not notice anything. “One of the wonderful things that Desikachar would often say is that the recognition of confusion is a form of clarity, which is such a beautiful sentiment for students to know,” Kaminoff says. “If they’re confused, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. It doesn’t mean they’re stupid. It may mean they’re inexperienced, but that’s different than being stupid or wrong. If that’s genuinely what they’re experiencing in class, and they can recognize that fact, they’ve attained a state of clarity. All knowledge begins with that recognition.”
When a teacher attends to one student, it can distract others or disrupt the flow of class. We’ve all been there—wobbling in half moon pose or gritting our teeth in extended side angle while the teacher is busy adjusting someone else.
“The more you tend to individual needs, the more you lose the group energy,” Kaminoff says. “You’ll find yourself running a workshop or clinic more than a group practice. This is the situation many teachers find themselves in: they feel compelled to respond to what they’re seeing. I was paralyzed for many years by this dilemma, and I stopped teaching group classes. I just called them clinics.”
Eventually, Kaminoff says, he “began to understand the deeper truths of what it means to individualize. It means giving the individuals in your group some of the power to observe what’s happening. In a way, it’s a reversal of roles: students learn more of the skills that it takes to be a good teacher, and the teacher more and more is open to being a student, to seeing what’s happening in front of them rather than running the show. Personally that’s a stressful way to be in front of a room, to feel that I’m personally responsible for the alignment, health, well-being, and spiritual development of everyone in the room, which by the way is impossible.”
It’s a reversal of roles: students learn more of the skills that it takes to be a good teacher.
If you only have a handful of students, then giving them personal attention isn’t out of the question. But as your classes grow in popularity, it makes more and more sense to loosen your grip on the reins.
“If you understand the principles of how to individualize a student’s experience in a group setting, you can do it with 10 or 100 or 1,000 people in the room,” says Kaminoff, who credits his teaching partner and coauthor, Amy Matthews, with helping to shape his perspective. “The size of the room shouldn’t matter when your overall objective is getting people to turn their attention within, to their own individual connection with themselves.”
The urge to “fix” students’ poses is a natural extension of our teacher training. We’ve devoured the images in , dissected the poses, and discussed their benefits and contraindications. We teach because we want to share what we’ve learned—and gained—from the practice of yoga. But frequent corrections aren’t without risk. They can leave students with the impression that they need fixing, that there’s something wrong with their bodies or lacking in their abilities. The truth is, no two bodies are the same. To put it another way, no one’s downdog will look exactly like anyone else’s. “There is no single normal,” Kaminoff insists. “Being unique is what’s normal.”
Frequent corrections aren’t without risk.
“This is a very important thing to grasp anatomically,” he says. “When you look at illustrations of the skeleton, you see these beautiful curves of the spine. And then maybe you have a chance to observe your spine, whether through practice or an x-ray or something. Let’s say a chiropractor shows you an x-ray of your cervical spine, and the curve isn’t there, or maybe it’s flattened or reversed. You get the impression there’s something wrong with you. What they don’t tell you is that the vast majority of people who get x-rayed exhibit some flattening or reversal of the cervical curve. It’s not pathological. It’s just what it is.”
Out in the world, our students are bombarded with images of “perfect” bodies and messages about how they should look. Yoga class should be a refuge from those messages. The more we remind them that uniqueness is normal (“which is different than saying that there is a normal and we all vary from it in our own unique ways,” Kaminoff points out), the less likely they are to judge themselves harshly.
We teachers need that reminder as much as anyone. Social media feeds and pop culture are saturated with photos of willowy yogis in dazzling poses, creating the perception that mastery of yoga and acrobatics are one and the same. Let’s not forget that modern yoga practice has been influenced by things like dance and gymnastics, which aren’t exactly associated with long-term health or spiritual growth. Let’s not forget that yoga is about inner work, not the outer form. Let’s not obsess about the angle of that knee.