yogi in cat cow

Loss of certainty

A few weeks ago in a general class, a student looked up from the cat-cow leg extension pattern we were exploring and said:

“When I stretch out the leg, it hurts the back of my knee. Why is that?”

I stopped, and in that moment I realised how much my teaching has changed. It’s a situation that will be familiar to most contemporary teachers of asana. So familiar in fact, that most of you are already thinking about how you would respond. Before you do that, I think it’s worth examining this exchange more closely.

In my first yoga teacher training, I was told that we were being given a level of training that far outstripped most other methods. We were expected to absorb so much anatomy theory, dialogue coaching, and neo-tantra philosophy that we were warned in advance – it will feel like drinking from a hose. Once trained, it took two years of practice under supervision before we could even apply to become junior teachers. To reach full qualification our knowledge of the system we taught would need to be encyclopaedic. Every word we uttered in class would be assessed. Even our students would have to conform to strict standards of physiological performance.

As an Anusara teacher, I would have known exactly how to respond to that student. I would have assessed her posture for certain symmetries and lines of engagement. I would have instructed her in a series of universal alignment instructions. I would have taken my hands and guided her to push here, draw in there, talked confidently about elegance and grace and what feelings she should be reaching for. I would have stepped back and confirmed that she felt better, knowing that the system worked.

And I would have been entirely wrong.

Study after study is beginning to show that the most important impact on decreasing pain in the body is to do something – almost anything – with the support of a confident therapeutic relationship. One study of lower back pain compared the results of a number of alignment-based systems: from Alexander Technique to Pilates to general exercise. The overwhelming conclusion was that people just need to spend some relaxed time learning to move again. What the movements were, and the justification of their different alignment systems, was irrelevant.

When the Anusara scandal broke, a lot of us started to question the method as well as the guru. As elegant as it was, as aligned with tantric wisdom as it appeared to be, it wasn’t stopping us getting injured, and after the initial few years of progress and joy, it wasn’t making us happy or more enlightened either. Now I watch new system after new system trying to become the next universal answer: codified and presented as a universal alignment that you can learn and apply to any body, healing any pain, physical or metaphysical and I smile.

Older mechanical alignment models are starting to give way to more sophisticated models based on neurology, developmental movement, patterns of habit and fascial tension. But even with the most up to date, scientifically tested information, we are still looking for problems to fix, still looking for a single, confident answer to give when students say ‘why does this hurt?’ I believe that for most established teachers, more knowledge in yoga isn’t making us a lot smarter. It’s not improving our relationships with students, and it’s not helping us serve them better. It might even be doing the reverse. I love new models, new understanding, but the model we need to question now is the teaching relationship itself.

We’re still diagnosing our students. And we’re putting immense pressure on ourselves to be the source of all solutions. Let me explain.

My master’s degree isn’t in yoga studies, or even religion. It’s in community education, specifically, education for liberation – in a political sense at least. And one of the biggest shadows not just in yoga, but in education in any stratified, hierarchical society, is the shape of the student-teacher relationship. In yoga, we have three main models of that relationship, and all of them have something in common. You can return to the guru-disciple model in which traditionally the adept waits patiently for whatever knowledge the guru decides they are ready for. You can follow the modern, supposedly ‘safer’ therapeutic model, where the patient comes to the therapist and the therapist gives them specific, detailed instructions to follow according to the therapist’s diagnosis of the issue. Or you can embrace the model of commercial, business-based personal training, in which your brand as a trainer is dependent on your ability to create, market and apply a set system which you can confidently transfer to clients.

Every one of these is an authoritarian structure in which the adept-patient-client – student asks to receive knowledge from the teacher according to the teacher’s assessment of their bodily needs.

This is so fundamental, it probably seems normal. But for many years, there’s been another way. Community educators have so many other models to share of what teaching can look like, particularly inspired by the work of educational theorists from the Global South, increasingly coming together with digital activists. Peer to peer knowledge sharing, each-one-teach-one, teaching to transgress and many other pedagogies of liberation exist.

All of them begin with a loss of certainty.

There are neurological and developmental studies to support this. It turns out that learning movement and alignment by rote is very different from learning it by experimentation. When you learnt to walk, no-one taught you which muscles had to engage in which order. They simply held your hands – held a space for you to explore safely in. The more detailed our alignment instructions to students, the more dependent upon us they become. And no system is universal enough to apply to absolutely all students at all times.

As yoga teachers, I don’t think you need to start reading up on teaching models and education for liberation – although if you do, you could do a lot worse than starting with bell hooks and Paulo Freire and also learn about transference, counter-transference, confirmation bias and cold reading. But what you really need to do is stop carrying that weight of certainty. You don’t need it. Your students don’t need it. What they really need is someone to metaphorically hold their hands, walk with them on the journey, and suggest new things to try in a space that promotes learning, healing, challenge, rest or whichever quality of being you’re trying to help them reach. It can look a little like this…

A few weeks ago in a general class, a student looked up from the cat-cow leg extension pattern we were exploring and said:

“When I stretch out the leg, it hurts the back of my knee. Why is that?”

I looked at her leg, and she wasn’t taking her knee joint past the range of motion that was normal for her. I thought back at the time we’ve spent together and she doesn’t have a history of knee issues. I look at her whole being, and she’s not overly frowning or flinching, just curious. There are no lines of obvious tension running down the leg, but I think about the muscles that flow around the knee and say…

“Huh. That’s interesting. What happens if you try flexing and pointing the foot?”

“Oh! When I flex the foot a bit it stops hurting!”


smiling yogis
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