I recently attended a yoga class where the teacher, after a challenging posture, inquired brusquely of the class: "Were you burning a hole in the floor with your gaze?" Was I? I may have been. My gaze had felt intense and focused, and there may have been, ahem, blue blazes emanating from my eyeballs. I paused, feeling ashamed for a moment.
How we teachers phrase our cues and questions can make a big difference in our students’ experience of the class, and of their yoga practice in general. When you teach, do your comments support and encourage your students? Are you kind and compassionate, or are your comments nitpicky and your tone verging on bullying? Your own issues with perfectionism might affect the way you relate to your students—as have mine. After all, we can only be open and accepting of others if we are that way with ourselves, right? As someone who is ridiculously hard on myself, a recovering perfectionist (and I don't mean that things I have created have resembled "perfection" but that I held myself back from creating anything at all due to illusions of achieving perfection), believe me, I am the first to admit that accepting ourselves isn't always an easy task.
How we teachers phrase our cues and questions can make a big difference in our students’ experience of the class.
That said, thanks to my own struggles, one of my greatest goals as a teacher—and strengths, I believe—is enabling students to feel accepted regardless of their mindset when they stepped into class that day (whether they came in with a fiery need to conquer their practice, or the desire to lie in savasana the entire time). Whether students lean toward effort or ease in their practice, questions can be phrased in a way that allows and even encourages them to find new ways of doing things.
In that same class, after another balancing posture, the teacher interrogated us: "Do you feel you just nailed that pose?" Her intention was apparently to remind us that “nailing poses” is not what yoga is about; however, I believe yoga can absolutely be about “nailing” a pose—about holding steady and strong in a challenging posture.
I come from a place of floundering and have taken my fair share of, shall we say, missteps in life. My teacher, on the other hand, says she grew up an overachiever, and someone who consistently "overdid." So her experience of a "nailed" pose might be different from my own. For students who are used to always “getting it right,” it may be freeing to wobble every now and then, and to make and learn from missteps. For me, a sense of freedom comes more from feeling myself steady, strong, and unwavering (at least at this juncture in my life).
Your questions to your students do not have to invite judgment as to whether they did a pose right or wrong, let alone belittle their sense of accomplishment at getting it right. Questions can simply create a way for them to explore their experience.
I wholeheartedly believe it is essential for teachers to keep in mind that we are not here to control our students, but to encourage them to explore their own experience.
To encourage students to explore their experience rather than judging their performance, a good question might be: "What does it feel like when you hold steady in a pose versus when you fall? And is it possible to be okay with both?" On some days it might be possible to be okay with both, and on other days the answer might be "No, it’s not." I remember once practicing next to a woman who was consistently losing her balance, and she was visibly and extremely irritated by it (swearing under her breath). She was not okay with losing her balance. We don't know what she came to her practice with that day; maybe she was taking care of someone who was ill, or going through a break-up; maybe she needed to swear under her breath in that moment—who is to say what is and isn't "yogic”? After all, yoga is about accepting this moment, accepting how we are in this moment, and not about forcing something or someone to be different. By giving our students permission to have their own experiences and reactions, we help them move more easily into a more balanced state of mind.
In general, a teacher can encourage students’ exploration with an inquiry or reflection that stems from the teacher’s own experience, such as: "When I attempt a balancing pose and fall, I try to allow myself to feel any frustration that comes, while remembering that the stumbling and the frustration are also part of my practice and my experience." When we ask genuine exploratory questions (e.g., "What does it feel like if you lengthen your stance?"), we recognize that what we have suggested may not feel right for everyone, and we give students space to validate their own experience of the practice and make decisions based on the needs of their unique bodies.
When we ask genuine exploratory questions (e.g., "What does it feel like if you lengthen your stance?"), we recognize that what we have suggested may not feel right for everyone.
The point is, you don't know exactly where someone is coming from—which is one of the reasons I favor open-minded language. It helps me guide my students in exploring their own experience, without assuming that my experience is their experience.
Each teacher's particular teaching style will inevitably stem from his or her own experiences. However, I think it's valuable to consider that our experiences are not necessarily our students' experiences, and that we do well to tailor our language to reach as many of our students as possible.
In The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving Kindness, Pema Chödrön tells us that "When you find yourself slumping that's the motivation to sit up, not out of self-denigration but actually out of pride in everything that occurs to you, pride in the goodness or the fairness or the worstness of yourself—however you find yourself—some sort of sense of taking pride and using it to spur you on."
Consider this: Whatever the context, when people receive input in an open and nonjudgmental way, they are far more likely to listen and make beneficial changes. With that in mind, let your comments to your students encourage them to identify all those things—both in their practice and in themselves—that they can be proud of.