Last week in one of my intermediate/advanced yoga classes I had a new student who was pushing herself way too hard, forcing herself into advance expressions of poses that she simply did not have the flexibility or strength for. I observed her for half of the class without offering any verbal or physical assists to get a sense of her practice and physical abilities. Finally, I decided to step in. Her alignment was horribly off and she clearly needed a block between her hand and the ground. I approached her and said, “I’m going to hand you one of your blocks.” To which she replied, “I’d rather not.” All I could think was, “Your hips and chest, which should be perpendicular to the floor are almost completely parallel. I’d rather you not make up your own yoga poses in my class.” I also felt stung. I literally felt a combination of rising heat and anxiety in my belly and chest. When students push me away or question me I retreat into a swirling mess of thoughts that all revolve around one central belief…I am not good enough. I have worked long and hard to chip away at this huge boulder of not being good enough. And while I have done considerable work, one does not crumble something that took over twenty years to assemble in a few days, weeks, months, or even years. And then I realized, I had probably made the student feel exactly the same way. Here she was trying her hardest and along comes a teacher, me, essentially telling her she is not good enough and she should use a prop to help make her good enough.
So the woman refused the block. So she was choosing to go for bust in every pose regardless of what her body could actually do. These were her choices. These choices had nothing to do with me. I do not know what her story is or what baggage she is choosing to lug around through her life, or why she even has the story she has and the baggage she has. To take her refusal of help as personally as I did was just plain silly. To have approached her in the way that I did was also just plain silly, and a little thoughtless.
The more I thought about this experience the more I realized I had failed to do one very important thing. I had failed to meet this student where she was in that moment. My years of dance/movement therapy training and practice taught me to always meet the patient where he or she was at. This helps the person feel seen and heard. It also helps the person feel safe and accepted just as he or she is. Change can be very scary. Meeting a person where she is and then slowly presenting new options, new ways of being, once she feels safe and has developed greater awareness of current and past behaviors is key in therapeutic work. The same is true in teaching yoga. I have to meet each student where he or she is. I am not going to approach someone who is extremely inflexible the same way I would someone who has lots of flexibility. If a student isn’t using a prop when it is needed my job is to help her explore the possibilities without the prop then slowly demonstrate how the prop can open up the pose in new ways. Ultimately, the student must decide what is best for her body, and psyche.
To my surprise this woman came to my class again this week. She wasn’t quite as gung-ho about pushing herself to extremes in each pose, but she was still pushing way past her natural flexibility and strength. As I watched her I decided to truly meet her where she was in each pose. I did not try to correct her alignment or offer her any props; instead I gave her gentle suggestions. I placed my hand on areas of her body that were seriously crunched or tensed and asked her to send her breath into my hand. I gently helped her create more length in her spine in poses where I could see her breath flowing freely through her body. She was incredibly receptive to these assists. At the end of class she truly looked more relaxed and gave me a warm smile while thanking me. While I cannot speak for the student, I know I had a better experience when I allowed myself to meet her where she was instead of trying to impose what I wanted on her. I also know that I felt more connected to the student in each moment I was assisting her and at the end of class during our brief exchange. This experience was yet another reminder that I am a work in progress just as each of my students are.