This past Thursday I was in Philadelphia for a workshop and decided to go in early and take a yoga class. It is harder and harder for me to find a class that I feel comfortable in, for many different reasons. If it is in a city and is a vinyasa flow or similar level of activity, I look around and see I am the oldest one in the room. (That is not the part that makes me uncomfortable, it's the look from the teacher who is afraid I am going to have a coronary that gives me pause.) Sometimes it is because the music is not in harmony with the instructions from the teacher, and I find that disharmony disruptive to my nervous system ("Follow the smooth slow flow of your breath" might be the instructions when there is a rapid chaotic drum beat in the background.) Most of the time however the discomfort is because the teacher is following a disturbing trend. "Feel a stretch" teacher says. "Where is that supposed to be?" inner voice says. "Feel the stretch in your back body as you come into this backbend" teacher says. "Too bad the muscles are actually in contraction." inner voice says. "Put your arms this way.... because it is sattvic" teacher implores. "How does she know if its sattvic for me, with my injury and all?" inner voice muses. I wont even get in to how ruffled I was by Thursday night's teacher telling us that if we cross our fingers the opposite way of comfort it will help fend off Alzheimer's. My inner voice almost pushed my outer voice into protest.
This class happened to be described as "alignment based". When I walked in the teacher welcomed me, introduced herself and went into a quite long explanation about how her yoga is not one size fits all, as I will see when she offers modifications, and that my alignment might not fit with what the cue is, etc. I ordinarily would love that intro, except I really had to go to the bathroom, having been on the train for 1 1/2 hours, and it turned out not to be accurate.
What is the disturbing trend I reference above? It is this: at no point did the teacher ASK anyone what they were feeling. When she gave her one-size-fits-all cue or individual correction, she never followed up with "do you feel that?" or "is that better for your body, more sattvic, can you feel your body more?" (I would have settled for even a "Y'all still with me? Is this making any sense?"). Instead, she literally told the class what we should be feeling based on her script. She might have let slip a "See how that is better, right?!!" every now and then without waiting, or really inviting, an answer. Here is why this disturbs me- This kind of "guidance" takes all the power away from the student on the mat and puts it in the hands of the yoga teacher, who, unless there is something I don't know about their super powers, does not know the students anatomy, surgical or injury history, does not know what kinds of physical activities the student currently or previously has participated in, does not have a complete (or like in my case as a drop in brand-new student, ANY) idea of what the students proprioception is (knowing where your body is in space) or interoception is (knowing how your body is feeling internally) or know if the student is able to connect with the present moment and not be triggered by something that causes them to dissociate. Without all, or even some, of that information, there is NO WAY a teacher will know what the student is feeling and experiencing. If you tend to dissociate, or just have had a bad day, and the teacher TELLS you what you are feeling, you will believe them and believe it to be true, without question (especially if they are very charismatic) . If they ASK you, or even invite you to look for what you are feeling, it will help to ground you, bring you present, and allow you to know more about yourself and EMPOWER you to continue to know yourself more. Understandably it can be quite comfortable to have someone tell you what you are feeling rather than looking for yourself. But what happens when you are in real life, and you are having a confusing emotional disturbance, or a pain in your body that you have to explain to a doctor, and you can't reach the teacher to tell you what is happening, or what is next in the script?
Yoga teachers have an obligation to guide a student to find out more about themselves by asking good questions. The truth is, we yoga teachers DO NOT need to know the answers. In fact, if we think we do know the answers, we are doing our students, clients and ourselves a great disservice. A good question posed to a person in a pose is worth much more than a script written by someone who has never met your body, and repeated by someone who doesn't feel it necessary to ask "how are you doing, what are you feeling, what is going on in your body?". And if the question is asked open-ended, that is with no agenda, then a door is opened to a beautiful array of potential discovery and intimacy with your soul and it's vehicle, your body.