The Language of Yoga: Part Four — Value The Horizon

The Language of Yoga: Part Four — Value The Horizon

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In my previous three posts, I’ve been exploring how the language of yoga can impact our teaching of yoga and our student’s experience of yoga. In my first post of the series, I spoke (briefly, it seems now) about the problems that I see with much of the language of yoga as it currently exists. In parts two and three, I began to offer tips and tools for how we can use language more artfully, more skillfully, and more rewardingly as we engage with our students (and teachers!).

As this series of posts continues, I want to next address the importance of Valuing the Horizon…

Value the Horizon Toward Which You’re Guiding Your Students

When students come to yoga class in a culture of materialism and consumerism, of comparison and competition, and a culture in which images of yoga are used for marketing ideas, clothing, cars, beverages, and states of mind, it is easy for the student, and the teacher, to forget the horizon toward which we’re growing.

At times, yoga class objectives get whittled down to accomplishing a certain pose; or accomplishing all of the poses in a certain way (more perfectly, more deeply, more enthusiastically, more proudly). Or attaining the most advanced versions of poses, even to the point of self-harm. Or experiencing the most creative sequencing in a series of poses.

(Please note that I value creativity and that novelty is important to our human brains.Yet, too much emphasis on ever more creativity in sequencing can stress a teacher to perform teaching, rather than teach yoga, and may give students a perception that they would not be able to translate their classroom experience to a home practice.)

Yet, too much emphasis on ever more creativity in sequencing can stress a teacher to perform teaching, rather than teach yoga, and may give students a perception that they would not be able to translate their classroom experience to a home practice.

What is the horizon toward which we’re guiding our students? Where is it? When does it happen?

Students come to yoga for a variety of reasons. Depending on the settings in which we’re teaching yoga, they also come in with a variety of capacities, life events, personal developmental celebrations (or challenges), life skills, needs or goals. Yoga welcomes us all. A primary horizon to which yoga is magnetically pulling all of us can be encompassed in the word Ananda.

Anandamayakosha is the central kosha in the five-layered experience of our human eco-system. It is the indwelling, already existing, innately available, yet poignantly-elusive experience of Bliss. Bliss is a common translation for Ananda. However, our cultural use of the word bliss points to peak experiences that are attained, not sustained. Often these are also conditional experiences.

Through my studies of yoga and the relationships I have been honored to have with students from a wide variety of life paths, I have come to translate Anandamayakosha as Indwelling Joy and Unconditional Belonging. It is a felt sense of the joy with which we were born; or the joy that life expresses through us prior to and beneath our conditioned minds’ obscuration of such joy (conditioning that makes us prone to forgetting our basic nature, this forgetting is called Avidya and is the first cause of suffering).

Anandamayakosha is the felt sense of unconditional belonging, ours and all beings, past, present, and future. It is a quiet, shimmering recognition of belonging here (in life, in this moment, in the larger mystery of existence). In contrast, conditioned mind seduces us into believing that our belonging is dependent upon certain conditions, behaviors, relationships, or accomplishments.

Belonging is not out there, in a future, lucky, luminous moment. It is here, in the now, beneath the veil of mental habit.

Our role as yoga teachers is to support students in piercing through mental habits, to glimpse that which is indwelling, to stabilize in that glimpse, and then to learn to live from that which is innately luminous.

There is more to say here, though not in this medium. If you would like to hear more about the Koshas (the five-layered experience) and the Kleshas (the causes of suffering), please listen here. *****

 

So, what does this mean for us when teaching?

Much like a music teacher, a math teacher, a teacher of gardening, in order to be effective, they teach to the level of their students’ understanding, interest, and capacity; and they know the potential for higher stages of learning. As yoga teachers, we use a similar framework.

When we value the horizon toward which we’re guiding our students, we also thoughtfully consider their brain and body state, their availability (mentally, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually) to the teachings that reveal their true nature, the conditioning and the capacity that they came in with (which may be very high or very low), the sorts of challenges they may have faced or are facing, their mental and physical dosha, and even their attachment style (this is a psychological model and the word attachment here is not from a yogic text).

While we observe this in our students, we do so without judgment. We’re not assessing, diagnosing, or labeling. Our teaching language of yoga should reflect this.

What considerations shall we use when teaching toward the yogic horizon?

  • Valuing the beauty in the students’ current effort in their current ability in any one pose.
  • Addressing their foundation first.
  • Not repeating instructions that your students don’t need to hear.
  • Offering one or two insights into their physical practice.
  • Creating opportunities for Invitation (choice – an important conversation in our trauma-informed conversations!), Imagery (engaging a brain capacity), or Theme (connecting to the larger body of teachings and life).
  • Not crowding the tools used.
  • Considering different learning styles.
  • Timing the “luminous” or “poetic” moments in class.
  • Providing pauses for reflection and opportunities for the “felt sense” to occur.
  • Not intruding on luminous moments.

Taking up this perspective comes with some danger!

To value the horizon of anandamayakosha for our students may be a lens shift for them as well as for us. Our contemporary yoga culture has far more images of yoga poses than ever before in history. It is understandable that students of yoga, including us, may become misguided as to the value of the poses themselves.

We may even take a scenic detour (possibly very scenic!) into accomplishing poses that delight and astound our teachers, fellow students, friends, and family. Yet, the awakening isn’t in the dogged pursuit of poses. The process is the journey. The luminous moments are signs we’re awakening to our true nature, coming back home to ananda.

Existing Beauty

As teachers, we begin by seeing the existing beauty in our student’s efforts. In our training programs, we encourage teachers to be able to verbalize this existing beauty. There is a fine line, however, between acknowledging your students’ poses or efforts, and making it about them pleasing you; or being able to offer it genuinely to them, without attachment to them pleasing you. And without them getting attached to the performance of the pose.

Read the following phrases slowly and notice how they feel to you in your body: (I’ve mixed some recommended phrases with some that aren’t as skillful. Notice what you feel with the phrases and see if you can feel the ones that would benefit from some additional skillfulness.)

“Good job!”

 

“That looks great.”

 

“I see your concentration growing.”

 

“I’m noticing a lovely sense of focus and camaraderie in this room right now.”

 

“My sense is you’re practicing with kindness in relationship to your body.”

 

“I see your dynamic efforts. And, I see you breathing with those efforts.

 

“This is where our body, mind, and breath come together.”

 

“Your poses are so awesome!”

 

“You did it!”

 

“Your practice feels very integrated today.”

 

“I see you making courageous efforts. This isn’t an easy practice.”

Now, let’s look at some of these together.

“Good job!”

This, floating out into a yoga classroom without either a specific reason or well-established relationships can feel confusing to students. What am I doing a good job at? Does the teacher say it when I make an extra big effort? When I touch my toes? When I go higher or deeper?

I recommend bringing in specific reasons. (I also recommend this in our life relationships when expressing appreciation, disappointment, or forgiveness, and so on.)

“Good job pacing yourself as you step back from Warrior 3.”

 

“Good job listening to your body’s ideal end range in this pose.”

 

“Good job using a block to increase your stability.”              

If there are existing, well-established relationships, often we see a student grow in a specific skill, such as following their actual breath pace or softening their eyes in Warrior 2. When we say to an individual, “Good job. I saw that.” with a warm smile and a moment of connection, the relational foundation helps them to know to what we’re referring.

This can also be the case in a group of students when there are established relationships with the methodologies the teacher is teaching. Such as pausing at the end of an inhale or exhale. When a teacher actually hears the room doing so, the pause may be long enough to say “Nice job”; affirming, without distracting, the students.

This can also be the case in a group of students when there are established relationships with the methodologies the teacher is teaching. Such as pausing at the end of an inhale or exhale. When a teacher actually hears the room doing so, the pause may be long enough to say “Nice job”; affirming, without distracting, the students.

“That looks great.”

To what is the teacher referring and what message may a student get about what is valued in this practice or in this class? How might we make this more meaningful, specific, and also convey yogic values? (which, surprisingly, aren’t about looking great).

“As a group, our arms may all be in different positions here, yet each of your poses looks lovely, integrated, breathable, and sustainable.” (Warrior 1)

 

 “Wonderful choices honoring your hamstrings everyone! No one student needs to look like any other student in these poses.”

 

“I see your concentration growing.”

 

“My sense is you’re practicing with kindness in relationship to your body.”

 

“I see your dynamic efforts. And, I see you breathing with those efforts.”

When I observe students practicing, I look for their development of the qualities yoga is teaching us. Consider the list of the Yamas, Niyamas, Brahmaviharas, Five Core Attitudes, and so on. It is also important that phrases like these feel true to the students’ experience. I am not recommending empty praise nor guessing. To feel these qualities emerging in our students, we need to be present enough, empty enough, and tuned in enough. It helps to constantly remember there is a human journey unfolding for each student. We’re in different places on common mountain paths.

“My sense is you’re practicing with kindness in relationship to your body.”

Notice here that I am not telling the student what to feel. Nor am I actually telling them what I think I know about them. The sentence would convey a different meaning stated like this:

“Feel the kindness you’re offering yourself right now.”

In order to prevent the perception that I know my students’ experience better than they do, I begin the phrase with “My sense is…” I might also add, “Notice if this feels true for you.” Or, “If this is your experience, I welcome you to celebrate such an offering to yourself. If this isn’t your experience at this moment, please remember we’re all learning about this kindness together. You’re not getting it wrong.”

“I’m noticing a lovely sense of focus and camaraderie in this room right now.”

These moments of acknowledgment are purposeful choices that I also recommend to teachers. Here I’m considering the contemporary yoga practice done more in groups than with one teacher and one student. Knowing that we have social brains and that both our conditioning and our awakening are interdependent, I enjoy engaging the social brain in some language in my classes.

We can’t assess how everyone is experiencing any one moment. Some of us have the kind of conditioning from which we became good pretenders of experience. (Much earlier in my yoga development, it would have been hard for a teacher to know if I was smiling or over-efforting). With this in mind, here I offered a spectrum of observation: focus and camaraderie.

This also allows a student whose work is to become more inward to feel valued; and a student whose learning edge is to become more outwardly connected, to also feel recognized.

Again, it’s important that these observations are relevant and real. And not stated as a “please the teacher” strategy.

Addressing the Foundation First

There will be times when we have to give guidance to our students with regard to their poses. Not all bodies have the same capacity for proprioception, range of motion, nor stability. When offering recommendations (current language culture says “adjustments”), I suggest we begin with the students’ foundation.

The poses rely on the foundation being established. You can incorporate a variety of ways to refer to the foundational pieces of poses. And, it is also appropriate to use phrases that you repeat. Repetition is one way that we practice yoga: in asana and in mantra. Repetition of a foundational instruction can be used as a sort of “Down Beat” (like in music) in your yoga class to bring students’ minds back to the moment. Such as:

“Place your feet hip distance apart”

 

“Place your hands beneath your shoulders”

 

“Notice the quality of your breath in this effort”

When you notice that someone’s foundation needs to be made more stable, you can change your voice tone from the group class to the individual, and you can offer it as an exploration. “Sally, you may feel more stable if you widen your hands by two inches.” “Harry, can you line your knees up with your toes? That’s often easier for the hip sockets. Notice how it is for you as we proceed.”

Not Repeating Instructions They Don’t Need

Teachers often get into teaching habits (humans get into habits!). The habit of “saying it all” or repeating a script pose to pose isn’t helpful. Your students may be able to say your script in their sleep. They may tune it out at a certain point. They may not feel that you actually notice them doing such things. They may feel like they never quite get it right (because they need to root their darned tailbone again!)

And, they miss out on the possibility of silence, reflection, or feeling their body remember a particular action.

Keeping in mind that we’re helping to usher our students toward the indwelling experience of yoga, if an aspect of this lovely journey is a reconnection with their body intelligence, offering them instruction that encourages that connection becomes essential.

“As you breathe into your pose, consider that your body will provide you with the signals needed to understand your unique alignment.

 

If all is well, you may experience a smoother, deeper, more easeful breath.

 

If some part of your body is over-working, it is also signaling your brain.

 

If the message is too subtle, your brain will start adjusting your breathing as a way to get your attention.

 

If that doesn’t work, your body may start offering your some trembling, or burning muscles, or your mind may become distracted, agitated, day-dreamy.”

Offering One or Two Insights into their Physical Practice

Our bodies hold the map of our lived experiences. The annamayakosha (the physical body of muscles and bones and postural habits) is considered the densest of the layers of the koshas. As such, it is also considered the least powerful layer for transformation.

Transforming a mind habit is more potent than having longer hamstrings.

With great respect for the map of our lived experiences, we proceed to unwind tensions and habits in the body, which entices deeper layers of unwinding in the pranayamayakosha and the manamayakosha.

Providing students with one or two insights into their personal practice gives them something tangible to work with.

For example, inviting them to line their knee up with their 3rd toe in Warrior 2. The mental effort to remember this, incorporate it, and understand its ripple effect down into their foot and up into their hip, is the yoga. The body-mind training in this undertaking develops their attention (Dharana), memory (Smriti), steadiness (Stirham), and as they become able to incorporate it without still needing their mind to “tell their body”, they can rest in and trust their body intelligence (shraddha).

Giving too many insights into their practice can overwhelm, reinforce their critical mind, entice our cultural messages about dominating our bodies and getting our lives figured out through ownership over rather than collaboration with our lived experiences.

Moving Forward in the Language of Yoga

Hopefully, the humbly offered insights into the language of yoga and its practice will help you to more mindfully connect with your students and will offer rewards to both the teacher and the student.

In our next discussion, I want to address the concern about yoga teachers valuing giving choices to people who have experienced trauma since events that leave the residue of trauma in our brains and bodies inherently were also events in which we may have had CHOICE taken away from us.

What I’ll share about choice may be surprising. I will also share with you why imagery is important, how to engage the right brain, and how themes can become catalysts for the Life Skills that yoga so beautifully teaches. Please join us for the discussion! 

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Sarahjoy Marsh, MA, E-RYT 500 is a yoga teacher, yoga therapist, and author with more than 25 years of experience in the field of yoga. She is the founder of the DAYA Foundation, Yogajoy and Living Yoga. Her book, Hunger, Hope and Healing can be purchased from Amazon.

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