Yoga voice. We all know it. That calm, smooth, calculated voice with a predictable cadence that tells us to breathe, forget our troubles, and let yoga sail us into serenity. This way of speaking works for some students, but I confess that it makes me feel disconnected from the instructor—as if we’re not of the same world. It’s definitely not the way I talk when I teach my classes. My unwillingness to auto-zen my voice is just one way I teach yoga outside the lines—one way I deviate from conventions. I have learned over the years to break with yoga conventions that do not serve my needs and enhance my practice, and as an instructor, I encourage my students to do the same.
Here are some ways that you as students might try scribbling outside the lines in your practice; you may find that by doing so, you can create something even more beautiful than your practice already was.
1. Don’t always follow the instructor. WHAT?! Yes. Sometimes—especially for those in physical pain or those who are slowly building up strength and endurance—skipping a pose or part of a sequence is just what is needed to make the class more balanced and healthy. Beware of any instructor who makes you feel bad for taking a break. It is your body and it gives you inner cues that no instructor can feel. I can’t tell you how many students have come to me with pain, and when I ask them why they are still moving the way that creates the pain, they tell me that an instructor told them to.
I suffered with sacroiliac joint pain for years, but it was that pain that finally gave me the permission I needed to learn to cooperate with my body, even when that means deviating from the teacher’s sequence. Now, I don’t mean that you should get up and do a handstand during savasana because your inner signaling told you to (yes, someone did that during one of my classes). I just mean that a lovingly substituted child’s pose or skipping a vinyasa could actually bring the harmony you need.
2. Come messy. Sweatpants and yesterday’s eyeliner—bring it! You don’t have to look put together in order to come to yoga. Heck, yoga might make you feel like pieces of you actually are getting put together, that the most meaningful parts of you are being set into place—your perspective, your priorities... your hips. Let’s face it: The main adjustment we all need is an attitude adjustment—our hair can wait.
Sweatpants and yesterday’s eyeliner—bring it! You don’t have to look put together in order to come to yoga.
The truth is that no one is thinking about how polished your look is; they are thinking about themselves. After all, yoga is about going inside—under-the-surface stuff—to do the most important polishing possible: shining up our hearts.
3. Ask questions. Stop feeling confused! Raise your hand and ask instead! The saying, “If you have a question, someone else in the room is probably wondering the same thing,” is true. As teachers, we try to explain most things, but we are human and sometimes we leave something out or aren’t quite clear enough. We want you to feel empowered and knowledgeable. We want your yoga to be motivated by knowing the reasons you might perform certain asanas or movements, so if anything is left unclear, know that your questions are welcome.
That being said, we all know that one person who asks a million questions (often rhetorical ones). Don’t be that person. Be the person who is genuinely curious and willing to ask the teacher for information. Sometimes we can answer right there and the whole class benefits; other times we can talk with you after class or set up a private lesson. The main thing to remember is that yoga is a conversation even though it can seem like a monologue.
4. Laugh... cry. One of the biggest ways I teach and practice “yoga-ing outside the lines” is with a strong dose of humor. We are not one-dimensional and neither is the yoga practice. I’ve seen the way a bad pun or awkward reference to an ’80s song lyric can bring students out of over-thinking or self-criticism and into their lighthearted, spirited selves. If you lose your balance in tree, for instance, it’s better to laugh at yourself than mentally beat yourself up about it—and humor is an attitude more likely to let you find your balance when you try again, too. If we can laugh with each other about these things, the community knits closer and we feel more like family. Plus, it makes falling on our ass-anas less of a big deal.
We are not one-dimensional and neither is the yoga practice.
And after you laugh—cry. Go ahead; let it out. I know from experience that if you don’t let the tears come when they want to, they will come out at another time or maybe as another emotion—possibly anger. I once heard the act of holding in tears compared to holding a beach ball under water. At some point, they both come bursting out—often with more force than they would have had had they been let out when they were initially felt.
In the studio where I teach, there are tissue boxes lining the yoga room floor. It may appear that they are for the sneezes (and yes, especially here in Austin, Texas, often referred to as the “allergy capitol of the world,” they are there for that too). But in truth, they are there mostly to catch your pain, your grief, all those deep layers of emotion that are being lifted to the surface. They are there, just as your instructor is, to allow life’s messiness to be sopped up and celebrated in a community of fellow messy-haired, curious, snarky, compassionate, recovering type-A yoga scribblers who are ready for a real transformation.
In short, don’t let the lines, whether real or imagined, box you in and possibly limit the potential yoga has to transform you. Break the box open wide enough to include you. Yoga outside the lines, outside the box, and maybe even just plain outside! Do it. Yoga studios have no principal’s office.