The Case for Anarchy in Yoga Class

September 7, 2016    BY Anna Dubrovsky

If you think that headline is pure clickbait, I don’t blame you. After all, the words “yoga” and “anarchy” hardly seem to belong in the same sentence. One describes a state of union, and the other a state of disorder.

But Leslie Kaminoff makes a compelling case for “individual anarchy” in group yoga classes. The author of Yoga Anatomy urges students to breathe at their own pace, move at their own pace, and sometimes choose their own postures. He has even banished “left” and “right” from his teaching vocabulary.

“It’s shocking how many experienced students have never done a single vinyasa at their own pace,” he says. “Group synchrony is a powerful experience for sure, but because the breathing pace is everyone’s, that means it’s actually no one’s.”

Honoring individuality is fundamental to the teaching tradition Kaminoff inherited from T.K.V. Desikachar, the yoga-therapy luminary who died in August. “The practice should always be adapted to the individual, and not the other way around,” Kaminoff says. “When you’re working one on one, that’s the prevailing context. But the real question is: How do you apply this to a group? Any teacher who pays attention to what’s going on while they’re teaching is going to notice all the differences in students’ abilities, their level of understanding, their connection to themselves and what they’re trying to do. So unless you turn yourself into a robot that’s spewing out a script regardless of how it’s being received, you’re going to start thinking about how to address the variances in the people you see in the room.”

Injecting a bit of anarchy into your classes ensures that everyone has a personalized experience. It also helps students become better acquainted with their own bodies and breath. Here are five ways to do it:

1. Individually Paced Vinyasa

There’s a lot to be said for synchronized movement. It’s captivating to watch (think Riverdance or Michael Jackson’s Thriller video), and fun to do (Electric Slide, anyone?). In yoga class, moving in unison through sun salutations or another sequence of poses can allow people to feel connected and part of something bigger than themselves.

If we always move with the herd, however, we may never find our own rhythm. When a teacher dictates the pace of practice—“inhale into X pose, exhale into Y,” and so on—some students will inevitably cut short their breath, others will strain to lengthen theirs, and still others will abandon the effort to sync breath and movement.

“What’s the harm in letting students do a vinyasa to their own length of breath, at least for a round or two?” Kaminoff asks. “Because what’s more individual than breath? What’s more individual than you taking the air in and out of your lungs? No one else can do that for you. Allowing students to get in touch with the unique, individual nature of their own breath—simply from the standpoint of length, which is only one attribute of breath—can be a very powerful and simple thing to do in group practice.”

What’s more individual than breath? What’s more individual than you taking the air in and out of your lungs? No one else can do that for you.

Before you drop the reins, of course, make sure your students are comfortable with the sequence. If they’re not experienced practitioners or regulars in your class, it’s a good idea to guide them through two or more rounds. Then set ’em free.

When everyone has finished, take a moment to engage your students in self-inquiry. Having tried the sequence in unison and then on their own, what did they notice? “Some people want to be carried along in a stream of energy, but some will notice, ‘I’ve always been cutting it short, and now it feels so different!’” Kaminoff says. “Allow for all the different responses people may have.”

2. Individually Paced “OM”

If your classes include the chanting of “OM”, you have another opportunity to let students explore their unique breath.

Students often wait for their teacher to begin OM-ing before adding their voices. If they finish an OM before the teacher does, they may sneak a breath or hold their breath while waiting for the next OM. Other more experienced students may cut their OMs short to keep in sync with the group.

“How many students have ever had the opportunity to do their exact length OM in a group practice?” Kaminoff asks. “So I say: ‘You’re all going to do your own length OM, and you’re going to do that three times. We’ll start together, but then each of you is going to end whenever.’”

3. Free-Form Counter-Posing

“Instead of teaching the usual counter poses to intense asanas, give students a few minutes to do whatever their bodies need,” Kaminoff suggests. “Prepare to see some people do the expected out-of-rote habit. Also be prepared to see the unexpected and counterintuitive.”

4. Free-Form Pose Prep

This one’s for more advanced students. Assign them a challenging target pose. Then give them time to prepare for that pose with a series of self-selected practices.

5. Down With “Left” and “Right”

The way Kaminoff sees it, “left” and “right” are dirty words (and he lets expletives fly when making that argument). As a lefty with “dyslexic tendencies,” his bias comes more from personal experience than from his yoga tradition: “I get completely befuddled in terms of right and left and other things. There are plenty of students who are that way too. When you use the words ‘right’ and ‘left’ too much and in too close proximity to each other, it’ll confuse anyone.

When Kaminoff instructs students to come into an asymmetrical pose, he says something like: “Choose a foot [or hand] and start with that one. We’ll get to the other one next.” That allows him to use words such as “first,” “other,” “opposite,” “front,” and “back” to guide them.

“An interesting challenge for a teacher,” he suggests, “would be to see if they could teach an entire class without using the words ‘right’ and ‘left.’ It’s another way of introducing a little bit of individual anarchy into what often is a very regimented experience for the student.”

If you’re up for the challenge, here’s a tip: Keep the side-switching to a minimum. Instead of doing a pose on one side and then the other, do a series of poses on one side before switching to the other.

Giving students the freedom to start on either side gives you another opportunity to engage them in self-inquiry. You could ask: “Why did you choose that side? Is it because it’s your dominant side? Is it your easy side? Did you make the choice consciously or instinctively?”

“Most people will do their easy side first, even if they don’t consciously know which side that is,” Kaminoff says. “That’s just human nature. That’s the human state of asymmetry showing up. We all have a dominant side. We have a slight torque in our pelvis that makes certain things easier on one side and harder on the other. Rather than overriding all that individual difference by insisting everyone do the same thing on the same side—because it’s more convenient for me as a teacher—I don’t give a shit. Just pick a side. After doing this for a while, people begin thinking, ‘Okay, so I know I prefer starting on my right side. Why don’t I just start on my left side for once? What’s my experience going to be if I consciously choose to do something I don’t usually do?’ So it’s creating this atmosphere of inquiry.”

Anna Dubrovsky
Anna Dubrovsky is an award-winning journalist and author whose productivity has plummeted with the birth of her two children. But she always makes time for assignments that broaden her horizons. Her work has appeared in dozens of print and online publications, including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Utne Reader, Fitnessmagazine.com, and Parents.com. She has been practicing yoga since 2001 and teaching since 2008. After much globetrotting, she now makes her home in Southern California.

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