“So Now What?” A brief composite of convos with yoga teachers after #WAWADIA? workshops

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When I present on the tangled history of early modern postural yoga, I detail what we know about the teaching modes at the Mysore Palace, the privations suffered by the young Iyengar, and Jois’ accounts of beatings. I ask participants to consider whether it’s possible that this colonial-era cruelty and spiritualization of pain has vibrated through yoga pedagogy ever since, given the stories of intrusion and injury and abuse coming to light, which are made less visible under the stories of healing and awakening.

I ask them to consider whether the basic premises of bodily goodness, personal agency and consent in adjustments that the broader yoga culture claims to value might in some ways be occluded by these historical echoes, especially as they blend with any unresolved sadomasochism in the personal psychologies of those who practice. I talk about becoming aware of assumptions towards bodies, and the power of projection upon and transference onto teachers, especially if they are charismatic, and especially if their physical instructions are grounded in metaphysical imperatives or anxieties.

This can all feel sticky in a room full of yoga teachers. Sometimes a participant will approach me with a troubled look while I’m packing up my gear. We’ll have an exchange that I’ve had enough times that I can offer a composite here:

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Participant: “That was a lot to take in. I teach (lineage x), and now I’m having doubts about whether or not I should.”

Me: (Oh shit.) “Um. Well, do you think the basic sensations and benefits you derive from practice will change just because you have more history on board?”

Participant: “Well, I’ll still have my practice, and its gifts.”

Me: “Totally.”

Participant: “I’ll still doing what I’m doing in the present. I know how it feels in my body. But what about for other people?”

Me: “Yeah. Yoga teachers are often taught to make subtle assumptions about what things feel like in other bodies.”

Participant: “How do we get around that? I want to be transparent about it.”

Me: “That’s hard. Have open discussions about experience with students? It really depends on class and student culture, and that’s sometimes out of your control. A lot of folks in (lineage x)  do really well at fostering it.”

[Pause.]

“It also helped me to examine my expectations for my students’ bodies. Like whether I felt gratified if they reported experiences that resonated with me, but bummed if they didn’t. That made the whole thing clearer for me.”

Participant: “Okay, but what am I supposed to do with all that?” (Points at my laptop, where all the jagged slides live.)

Me: “Um…” (fumbles with shirt).

Participant: “Well how do you deal with it?”

Me: “Lots of chocolate” (laughs).

“I mean, I’d been told that yoga is simply a good and holy thing that came from a good and holy place. I saw how that story can cover over the strange motivations and hidden wounds that I practiced with and maybe others did too. So it became an important point of inquiry in my practice, and made me wonder about the diversity of people’s experience.”

Participant: “So what about the adjustments? Do you think we should do them?”

(In the talk I described how modern yoga adjustments have changed enormously over the decades, but had originally emerged from a culture of corporal punishment. Many who hear this for the first time are shocked and wonder for a moment whether they’ve been abusing students by simply touching them. In the vast majority of cases this of course isn’t true. But considering the history, our capacity to rationalize invading the space of others, and waking up to the diversity of responses to touch must ultimately be a good thing.)

Me: “I don’t do (lineage x) so I don’t know.”

Participant: “Well what about adjustments in general?”

Me: “I imagine that the primary consideration is how the adjustments foster relationship between teacher and student, and that’s a totally personal thing. Some people say it’s the most important thing of all. It reaches deep into our history of needs.

“I do know that people who study the neurology of movement say that putting somebody into a position that they can’t get into or out of by themselves is a really bad way of teaching them how to get to that position. So on that level it would seem that adjustments — especially those that take a person deeper into a pose — would nurture dependency on the teacher.”

Participant: “But it’s so ingrained, and the students seem to expect it.”

Me: “And there’s a problem with implied versus explicit consent in some rooms, and whether some students who come into those rooms have diminished capacities for consent. Some teachers scoff at that problem, but the people who spend their lives studying and recovering from trauma don’t.”

“And lots of people are still getting injured from adjustments. So there’s that.”

“So there are some potential negatives. Then again, can that dependency and intimacy of touch be healing for some people if they experience it in an environment of trust? Absolutely. Can it transmit love and care? Absolutely.”

Participant: “So it really depends.”

Me: “I think it always did. I don’t think it wasn’t ever just good or just bad. Maybe going forward, we just turn habits into choices. Our choices to adjust and how, or not, will be more informed. In my opinion, trying to understand the complexity of our choices in regard to ourselves and others is a huge part of self-inquiry, aka yoga.

Participant: “So the ball’s in my court.”

Me: “Yeah.”

[Pause. A little anxious.]

Participant: “Um. Cool.”

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It’s at this point that again, I want to eat chocolate.

5 Comments

  • reminds me of a question I put out when first stated my yoga journey. Asked various teachers about the concept of bridging-using human touch/adjustments in class to create a connection with a student and the authenticity of such interactions. Teachers response=”crickets…” Bridging or using physical touch to create or reinforce connection is used in many different social interactions, from car salesman to grief counselors. The authenticity of the gesture depends on the individuals involved but it sure felt like I had looked behind the wizards curtain when I posed the question to the teachers at the studio I practiced in. That was the beginning of the journey of realization that my teachers where not perfect beings of masterful wisdom but marvelous beings of flawed perfection just like me. It was the beginning of the journey to self-inquiry, for better and worse, that is my yoga practice.
    tldnr-your words helped me to remember why I started this particular journey, thanks for sharing.
    paul

  • Recently, one of my YTT students was uncomfortable with offering a series of adjustments in teacher training to fellow teacher trainees. This included broad palm compression on the tops of the thighs, shoulders, and the gentle neck traction from behind so commonly offered in MPY classes. These are common adjustments to receive and many students report really appreciating.

    I asked him if he felt comfortable receiving any adjustments in Savasana in class. He said ‘no’. They felt intimate, and distracted him from relaxing in Savasana. Something he usually silently endured.

    I asked him in front of the other YTTers how many times in the last few years of practicing with me I had adjusted him in Savasana. He said ‘maybe a dozen’. I suggested to the other Trainees that perhaps I had violated him physically in Savasana 12 times in the last few years. It sparked a conversation about how, when, why, and with what permission. Asking, “Would you like a HOA?” is not enough. Plenty of people don’t feel comfortable saying no.

    At the time the use of the word ‘violated’ seemed strong. Later I questioned whether I was tactful enough in that exchange even. I question whether I offered the inquiry respectfully and gently enough as a teacher. We never know what our students might be experiencing silently inside. I’m grateful I can have a tender inquiry with my students like that…but it does open me up to vulnerability and fallibility. Violation. Is there any other word for it? He didn’t ask me to touch him, and I had. It was not welcome. And he didn’t enjoy it. Worst of all, I didn’t know that for years. Just because it’s present and expected in the MPY environment, doesn’t mean it’s right.

    Our studio recently received an excellent review on Google + by a traveling yoga teacher. She took several teachers’ classes including my own (all happened to be graduates from our YTT program). She mentioned not receiving HOA despite other students receiving them. She wasn’t clear, but the implication seemed to be that she would have appreciated more. I personally err on the side of waiting until I get to know a student better, and ask my trainees to do the same. I’m glad they all gave her space. It’s tempting to move in quickly to establish a sense of ‘paying attention’ to new students.

    On the other hand, I have received negative feedback from students in my own community who come less regularly. They have felt left out at times (their perspective: I gave preferential attention to ‘my favorites’ or ‘the in crowd’. my perspective: they are less regular, I don’t know them as well and don’t feel as comfortable inserting myself into their practice, physically or otherwise).

    I don’t offer strong adjustments. I never assist students with force more deeply into postures. My adjustments are usually directional only and often totally or mostly verbal with the exception of 3. The down dog assist with the palms of the hands on the pelvis, the gentle pressing of the pelvis in ch pose, and the savasana assist described above.

    It’s such a fine line to walk. I find myself questioning every interaction. Did I make this student feel welcome? Did I give that student too much attention? It’s so much easier to stand in the shoes of the infallible yoga teacher. The absolute authority. “You will get my attention once you’ve earned it…proven yourself as a committed student etc…and then for your own good whether you welcome it or not.” Which is the environment I remember experiencing in that more old-school setting you write about.

    Another Trainee had an idea to keep a deck of cards on hand. Invite the student to place the card at the top of their mat. Face up, welcome HOA, face down, don’t welcome HOA. That way the student can choose throughout class at any time. Curious to hear other’s thoughts on this.

  • History of modern yoga. Mmmm..maybe start with Vivekenanda and his guru Ramakrishna who was an intense bhakta who had attained great heights of spiritual aptitude.

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