Students as Teachers

I’ve had some interesting experiences as I work with students here in Nicaragua that have presented as challenges.  I view a challenge as an opportunity to learn something new about the world and something new about myself, so I welcome these learning experiences.  I also welcome your feedback on how you work with students who throw curveballs.

The first challenging experience came when I was teaching a class with only two students.  This isn’t unusual for classes here at the gym.  Las turistas wax and wane, so our classes at the gym can go from a full house to unexpected private lessons within a day.  On this particular day, I had two students who were friends with each other.  One student was a long time yoga practitioner, and the other was new to yoga.  The experienced yoga practitioner has a habit of doing her own thing with her practice.  This is fine, and I encourage students to listen to their own bodies and to give their bodies what they need in any moment, which might be very different than the sequence I’m offering on any given day.  The challenge arose about thirty  minutes into my class, when I noticed that the friend of this woman was choosing to follow her friend’s practice rather than the offering I was making for a sequence.   At this point, I felt a little extraneous.  I continued to make my offering of poses, and sometimes the students chose to practice the sequence I offered, and sometimes not.

This strangeness culminated when I had the students in Trikonasana and I was offering adjustments for the pose.  I’ve found with students new to yoga that Trikonasana can be an especially tricky pose.  No matter the verbal and physical adjustments that I give, I find that newer students seldom find the full expression of this pose early in their practice.  I believe that it’s important to create space for students to find asanas in their own bodies and in their own time.  This means that I will offer adjustments to create a safer asana and adjustments to help find a more perfect alignment, but I will not excessively badger my students with adjustments and I will not manhandle students to get them into a pose.  I believe that a  gentle touch here or there is more useful to the student finding the asana in their own body over the long term versus being manually adjusted into the perfect visual expression of a pose.

Flash back to this class with two students.  Both have opted to practice this particular asana that I’ve offered in this particular moment.  As I’m working with the newer of the two students and adjusting her in the pose, her friend proceeded to get up and energetically push me out of the way so that she could adjust her friend. I was dumb-founded.  What does the teacher do at this point? I have some friends who hold the seat of a teacher in such a way that they’re able to assert control over a room.  As a new-ish yoga teacher, this was a first for me.   As I finished class that day, I continued to make my offerings of poses, many of which were ignored, and wrapped up a very unsatisfactory class.

The second experience I had with students as teachers has happened a number of times.  I’m working with a group of students to center them in preparation for class.  Often, I have my own eyes closed while I center students.  Just as often, I have my eyes open to look around the room and gauge the energy of the students in front of me.  From time to time, there will be students simply sitting there with their eyes opened and not responding to my cues.  Most recently, I had a student who was not only not centering, but was actively making noise as she scooched her seat around on the yoga mat and adjusted her purse and yoga props.  In these cases, I normally choose to ignore the behavior and go on making my class offering.

I’m reminded here of two students I have here, both new to yoga, who sit in the back of the room and giggle their way through practice sometimes.  I can tell that the giggles rise out of a place of trying something new, of going out on a limb and feeling uncomfortable.  I’ve never shot these women harsh looks to stop their laughter, or verbally reprimanded them.  I was speaking recently with a visitor from the States who told me that she tried yoga once in college, and had the poor experience of having a yoga teacher who took yoga too seriously.  A yoga teacher who was offended when she and her friend giggled through their yoga class.  She told me that she’s been put off yoga ever since that experience.  I assured her she could giggle through my class and invited her to come.  She didn’t find time on this visit — many tourists don’t despite the best of intentions.

Fellow yoga teachers and yoga practitioners, I ask you.  What would you have done in these situations?  As a student, what would you request of your teacher in these situations?  I’ve always fought against a part of my personality that my mother called bossy when I was younger.  I feel like I very much have a natural take-charge attitude, but these accusations of being bossy affected me deeply, and I try very hard to make space for others to express themselves when I find myself in a position of being in charge.  That said, I feel there is a certain amount of holding space that a teacher must do to create a sacred space for practice, for growth, and for transformation.

2 thoughts on “Students as Teachers

  1. I typically begin classes with meditation or savasana; something for centering and quiet; and I know most of my usual students greatly appreciate this time…what we frequently encounter is the Late-Arrival student. I have a special appreciation for punctuality (if nothing else, it shows a level of respect for Time), and I know that it greatly perturbs many students to have the doors opening and mats being *FWOPP*ed out while trying to turn inward and find stillness or internal-quiet…this is true also at the end of classes, when valuable savasana time is underway.

    I often make a little joke about punctuality at the very outset of class, partly to remind those already arrived that their timeliness is appreciated, but also to help diminish their expectation that their meditation will not be challenged by someone walking in and shuffling around. This is precisely the type of excercise we don’t get enough of in yoga classes. Balancing in warrior3 can be tricky, even with the most accomodating atmosphere. But outside the studio, off the mat, the conditions are not going to always be so ideal. This is the arena where yoga is most useful, afterall. So when the World interrupts at the Studio, it is a great time to practice Presence, Mindfulness, Awareness, etc. When late arrivals walk in, or when the “Starers” are eye-balling me while myself and everyone else has gently closed their peepers, I offer a smile of acknowledgement and let it be. That is the example I would like to set, anyhow.

    I try to encourage people to attend class even if they know they will be 20 minutes late or have to leave 20 minutes early, because people who are learning to create positive habits and to devote time to their Self often have a vast array of excuses at the ready, and I don’t want to give them another one. And like your gigglers, sometimes a New experience has more obstacles to overcome before it can become part of someone’s life. I wish I could get my students to talk more during classes. I like to ask questions about where to take our practice next, or crack little jokes and people just give me silenced stares…and ujayi breaths, so that’s good, but… Yoga can be serious work, but it is seriously Fun! Therein lies the challenge I guess. Achieving the balance.

    As for the pushy-alpha-student…perhaps a way to handle that situation is to allow her to lead the way. That is the graceful way to handle that, i suspect. “Wow, you must have a dedicated personal-practice! How about you guide your friend and I through your typical routine? I could use some new sequencing ideas!” No Ego to it, just Truth.

    This could have been presented and/or taken the wrong way just as easily, but it sounds like this person was on a mission and had no intention of straying from the agenda…so let her lead. If that’s what she wants, then great. If not, hopefully it informs her that you are not there just to watch or to talk to the walls. She could easily go do her Thang on the beach or something!

    I’m glad to read this post because I have been through several bouts of Growth with my own teaching methodologies of late, and your story has both reminded me of how mundane my teaching problems generally are (I can’t say I would know what to do with that lady and her friend, honestly…as the saying goes “if we all threw our troubles in a pile, we’d quickly grab ours back!”) and given me lots to think about in terms of problems I have not yet, or may not ever, encounter.

    Sorry; this is almost as long as your post! What can I say, I am a Wordy-Fellow. Namste.

  2. Thanks! I appreciate your response. It’s wonderful to know how other yoga teachers choose to set the mood in class. I’ll keep the Alpha-student response in my back pocket in case I encounter that again. Sat Nam!

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