Communication is a funny thing. I’ve been thinking about its various forms lately, as a relatively new yoga teacher (hmm, how much longer can I use that excuse?!) and in a writing exercise in which I explored the subjectivity of language — in conversational styles and interpretations of words spoken and written. We can’t control what others manufacture in their minds about what they hear and read, no matter how many facts are provided; we can’t control perceptions based on the life experiences, filters and biases that we all carry with us. Perception is reality. Hemingway couldn’t control what people thought his books were about, and plenty of academic discussions have tediously tried to decipher Author Intent. What did Mark Rothko mean by his color field paintings? Who knows. There’s no way to get around the subjective richness and complexity of being human. Heck, I can’t even keep the various ways we communicate straight. Some of my friends prefer texting (sometimes in paragraphs), others rely on e-mail and still others are more likely to use the old-fashioned telephone, not to mention Facebook and Twitter. (Sometimes I wish we had only tin cans and string.) But we can try to control what we say or write and how we say it.
In going from a fairly solitary, very sedentary desk job to teaching yoga, I’m finding that two of the biggest Not Me aspects of my personality are becoming Oh, Crap, I Have to Do This Now aspects: public speaking and leading a group. I’m the girl who used to nearly pass out while delivering oral book reports in high school, trying to get all the words out in one breath (Anne Frank deserved better, really). I’m the follower, not the take-charge Queen of the Castle, and I cringe at being the center of attention. But having to stand up in front of a group of yoga students and tell them what to do with their bodies, using words and my own body, which throughout my life has been a source of much disgust (blog fodder for another day and plenty of therapy, people), has been quite an experience. I’ve noticed some funny things in learning how to verbalize a practice that I have enjoyed for years from the other, quieter side of the mat.
Simon Says …
Students are far more likely to do what I do than what I say. I don’t think this is because they aren’t listening to my words, but sometimes I wonder. A fundamental aspect of yoga is the art of paying attention — it’s just funny that students often seem to be paying more attention to how I move, regardless of what I say, especially if I’m not clear about what I’m doing or why. If I’ve demonstrated a prop set-up, for example, and I go to move it to show them a better angle, they will do the same unless I explicitly say something like, “Keep your props there; I’m just moving this so you can see what I’m talking about.” The same goes for demonstrating a pose and leading them into it. If I come out of it to walk around the room without saying “stay there,” they’ll pop right out. By the same token, I have to be careful that my poses are worth demonstrating. If someone’s arm is bent when it should be straight, is it because my arm is bent? Am I being sloppy? I don’t generally like to practice in front of a mirror, but as a teacher there are times it’s been helpful. Dear god, my arm does THAT in half-handstand? If I’m a little “off,” I have to decide: Is this a pose I can refine enough to teach; do I say, “Ha, ha, do as I say, not as I do, since those who can’t do, teach” (that’s rhetorical, by the way); or do I find another way into the pose? Sometimes I think the body speaks in ways that words never will.
Do the Hokey Pokey
One of the biggest challenges I found when I first started teaching poses was how to verbalize body movements to get someone else into a pose I’ve done a thousand times. Sometimes my brain and tongue go on separate journeys in class, as I’m looking around at legs and hips and pelvises and lower backs and trying to figure out how to make the right noises come out of my mouth to get people to do what I want. I’m pretty sure I recently said “bring your nose to your knee” when of course I meant the reverse. I’ve internalized so much from so many teachers over the years, but it was a shock to have to go back to the basics and figure out how to tell people to move — firm this, externally rotate that, lift that, soften there, just breathe — without overwhelming them with details. In my first teacher training course, I took too long with up-front explication. “Just get them into the pose!” the instructor yelled. She was right. The layers can be added after the initial movements. People want to move without over-intellectualizing in the moment, myself included.
Find your asana
Using Sanskrit, the language of yoga, adds another level of complexity, at least in teaching a mixed-level class that might include beginners. In trying to focus on getting students into poses by calling out anatomical instructions in plain English, I find I have little time to tell them what the pose is or means in Sanskrit. Then sometimes when I do give the Indian name, it feels oddly like I’m showing off or filling the air with white noise. As if, By god! I learned this stuff, and I’m going to dump it on you! After years of taking Iyengar classes, I came to be able to recognize a pose in Sanskrit, but I didn’t necessarily know what the words meant. For example, adho mukha svanasana means downward facing dog. But at least in the early days, I didn’t know which word in Sanskrit meant what (adho=downward, mukha=face, svana=-dog — that one happens to be a linear translation).
Is this the party to whom I am speaking?
I also find that I sometimes when instructing I feel like a broken record and get a bit lazy. There are times I’ve said to do “downward facing dog” and thought to myself, “You know, blah blah blah, just do it! Downward facing dog! Get in there!” Interestingly, this is one of my many pet peeves when I take class — I can’t stand for a teacher not to give at least basic alignment instructions or to hear her say something like, “Whatever, you know, just do what you feel like.” Well, what I feel like doing is lying on a beach in Hawaii, but that’s not likely to happen, now, is it? There’s a line between encouraging students to pay attention to their bodies, to assure them that it’s ok to take things at their own pace and rest when they need to, and letting them just flop around as if you aren’t even there. They can do that at home. It’s a teacher’s responsibility to be the students’ guide: to be clear, to ensure their safety and to be mindful of what the bodies in the room are doing and adjust or correct as necessary, even in a pose as common as down dog. Above all, it’s my goal to make sure students have a good experience in class, whatever that means for them. There is infinite space for refinement in every pose, no matter how long someone has been practicing. And in my own practice, the only way I’ve come to be able to internalize poses is through repetition. Lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of repetition. “Put your left foot in, take your left foot out … that’s what it’s all about.” Here’s hoping that teaching will become smoother with repetition as well.
This is not a recital
To that end, I have a lousy memory in many ways. Although I’m a visual person, I could never memorize poems or my piano music. (I cheated at my recital and had my sheet music propped up in front of me. Was that because of a lack of practice or confidence? Maybe both, but I digress.) At some point, I hope to be able to lead a class in a more freestyle way, being responsive to the energy in the room and individuals’ needs, but for now I plan my sequences carefully and write them out in a notebook I keep by my mat while teaching. There’s always room for editing in the moment, if I’m running out of time or need to pad a class, or if I see someone is not going to be able to do something. But my process for now is to have a script, and I’m enjoying the unexpected creativity in planning classes.
During my teacher training in D.C., I ran across something that Erich Schiffmann had to say about building a home practice: “The idea is to start calmly wherever you are. … The idea is to increase your sensitivity to the inner feeling of your body and let it guide you into the appropriate action for that particular moment,” he wrote in “Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness.” Also, he said, “The key is interest, and the trick is to be attentive in the moment to that which elicits your fullest enthusiasm and response.” This really made a huge difference for me and got me over a lot of hang-ups, and it was essential to becoming a teacher. Basically, he advised, just sit on your mat and wait for poses to come. You wait for your body to tell you what it wants to do, and then you guide it. Just show up; trust the process. So that’s how planning classes goes for me. I think of a pose I want to work on, such as the horrific (for me) camel pose (ustrasana), and then I play with how to get there and how to explain what to do. The process is not unlike writing into a journal and then refining parts of it into a poem or prose for public consumption. First comes the exorcising, the unedited, creative purge; then the editing, the refining, trying to make it make sense for other people.
Don’t be a Debbie Downer
Negative language. It’s a drag, like the Debbie Downer character on “Saturday Night Live,” who always sees the glass half-empty. Wah wahhhh wahhhhhh. During a class, especially depending on a teacher’s tone and attitude, negative language can fill a room with a heavy, gray, Pigpen type of cloud. In giving asana instructions, I try to be careful about how much I use words and phrases such as “don’t” or “bad” or “you want to avoid x, y and z.” But sometimes it’s necessary to show and tell what not to do for safety reasons and also so that people can compare it with the proper way. You can learn what to do by learning what not to do. And another thing: I also try to catch myself before saying that a pose sucks. Then why do it?! I was in a class recently in which the teacher said as much about a pose that was indeed truly horrible, at least for my many-sprained ankles (it involved standing with the legs sort of scissored apart and rolling to the outside of each foot). I immediately checked out of it and did something else. As a teacher, what I try to say instead during a challenging pose, like, say warrior III, is that yes, it’s challenging. Take it in stages. Build from the ground up. Work where you need to. If yoga is about paying attention, pay attention to what your body parts are telling you, especially if you have injuries. Try this and that to stabilize this and that. I don’t want students to get too discouraged, and I don’t want to psych them out from trying in the first place. On the other hand, I wonder if sometimes I’m being too soft or pandering. Where does my need to say “Good!” or “Great job!” come from? Because I like to hear it? (Hello, ego.) Why do I think students need or want to hear attaboys and attagirls? Do they? I want to be encouraging without tipping over into condescension. It’s a fine line.
How are you feeling? No, really. I want to know.
The flip side of trying to figure out the best way to verbalize body language is that I never really know how my words are being received in terms of how students feel in a pose. I try to read their faces, their bodies, and wonder: Am I making any sense? Are they feeling what I mean, what I feel, in the shoulder blades? Those furrowed brows, is that pain, confusion, curiosity, indigestion? I realize that grown-ups can take care of themselves, and most people aren’t going to do something that causes them pain, but I’m mystified by the unspoken transmissions between teacher and student. I welcome questions, whether out of curiosity or for clarification. But sometimes if the class is quiet for a long time, I start to get a little paranoid. Are they still with me? Were they ever? Do they wish they’d never come? Do they love this pose as much as I do? Are they thinking about lunch instead of their hamstrings? I know what my internal running commentary is like when I’m a student and what it’s like to try to concentrate on what a teacher is saying and put it into my body. I know what it’s like to receive verbal and physical adjustments, sometimes to the point of excess. It’s really weird being on the other side, trying to be a mind-reader. Or a body-reader.
There will not a be a quiz, I promise.
To that end, I welcome any kind of feedback. I’ve appreciated any compliments I’ve received from students, but I try not to get too attached to either end of the spectrum. I had a sweet girl leave one of my classes last summer while I was teaching half-handstand. I’d stopped to explain something about it, and she said she just couldn’t sit still for that long. And it was just a minute or so! She was apologetic and said that she liked my classes but that she had to keep moving (I guess she was part shark?), so she moved on out the door. You never know how you are going to be seen or received, whether appreciated or rejected, and I could relate to her in a way — I also have a low threshold for boredom. I’m not going to gel with everyone I teach, and that’s fine. I know that from my own experience as a student. But I do wonder what goes on in students’ heads sometimes. At the end of class, I usually ask if there are any questions. Invariably, I get blank stares and head shakes. Like, huh? There’s a test? You didn’t say there’d be a test. So if there aren’t any questions, does that mean I was totally clear and complete? Or so boring they weren’t paying attention after a certain point? I don’t know. I hope to create a class environment that welcomes a certain amount of dialogue without alienating anyone. But there’s only so much of another person’s experience that I can be responsible for. This is all new for me, the role of being the one responsible for controlling a room. Ah, control. But I digress again.
I’m not fluent in body language; I’m just now learning the alphabet. But I’m finding that teaching is the greatest teacher of all.