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Is Stopping Students in Practice a Useful Teaching Technique?

 

This is the current style of teaching as it’s passed down from Mysore. Teachers trained here usually carry on this approach where sometimes the only guidance from the teacher is in whether they will allow you to move on to the next posture of the series. This doesn’t seem much of a structure or method to base a teaching around.

From the very start, let’s be clear, I cannot present an unbiased argument on this subject. The only time I deem it relevant to actually advise someone to finish their practise that wants to do more, is if they look like they might end up injuring themselves, or proceed from one position to the next without being to access any sense of the posture. In this case, I would approach this proposition, by suggesting they use the extra energy they have to to repeat all or some of what they’ve already done. Going head-to-head with someone is the last resort when everything else has failed. The teaching relationship should not be about a struggle of wills, a power play; this would be to denigrate a very useful dynamic.

The other rare exception to my objection with this rather negative teaching style, is when a student is doing so much more than their ability warrants, to the degree that it’s chaotic and distracting to the other students. This doesn’t need to be described further; when you’ve taught for a while, you will well recall examples of this immediately. They are memorable in the kind of disruption created, and although they are simply another attempt at expressing something; with this person some action needs be taken. If not, it sets a bad-precedent for the rest of the group as well as undermining your authority; having encouraged a more thoughtful and disciplined approach in the room.

Apart from these scenarios, it appears to me that our foremost task as a teacher is that of encouragement not curtailment. Of course, some technique is offered, but ultimately, the journey is theirs; knowing though that this takes time to fructify, the foremost aim and intention then is simply to keep the student ‘on the mat’. Hence, to apply a critical and negating methodology seems absolutely and categorically counter-productive in this endeavour. We are used to feeling lacking and unworthy enough in our daily lives, yoga is the attempt at acceptance – however, that might feel on a somatic, bodily level to you, it certainly isn’t helped by the creation of paradigm of control and shaming around Practise.

There may be times when, as a teacher, you might feel that a person wants to do more than you feel they can get a grasp of; that can actually benefit them. However, rather than crush their enthusiasm, or, instil the attitude in them that their practise is actually your responsibility, instead of stopping them; I engage positively by focussing on what can actuality be worked on efficiently earlier in the Series.

Real and enduring enthusiasm for the Practise is so valuable and unique it should never be undermined. It’s not at all easy to develop a daily routine, especially with the added pressure of modern living; if due diligence and discipline wasn’t hard enough alone summon. Then, If it takes an extra posture or two, albeit slightly beyond the students level to help with this, it’s a worthwhile sacrifice of a negligible amount of our integrity in conveying the practice as it ‘ought’ to be. Because, what it should be is appropriate; in other words, sustaining, energising and motivating for the person in front of us.

On the other hand, the best case scenario is that we are fortunate enough to work with some people who, not only have ability, they also exhibit an understanding – from which proceeds respect – for the traditional method of guidance, which isn’t the heavy-handed ‘stopping’ of a student, but, the subtle moderation of their introduction to the developing sequences. On this occasion, sometimes the agreed holding-back of an individual allows them to focus their energy, mental and physical, to further understand what they are already doing, instead of spreading, thus dissipating, their energy over more practise.

They are the rare individual who can hold the paradoxical-seeming attitudes that it’s their practise, the obligation for studying it resting with them; though, as well as this, that teacher-student role-play and the deference entailed, can also be useful for drawing them into new, unconsidered terrain. A true relationship on this level, between two equal-individuals, yet, who are also able tolerate and allow, in tandem to this, the acting out of roles; is an incredibly skilful and subtle dance to navigate. This is a world away from that where the student and teacher have objectified themselves in a rudimentary hierarchy involving control and reward. Here, we don’t really allow for the students’ attitude to their practise to deepen as it should, for the very reason that they haven’t truly been allowed to own it as their own.

Contrary to this, the argument for the general holding-back of an individuals practise relates to the mutually-held belief that the system moves along in an integral way, and, that the teacher has a better overview of this integrity than the practitioner. But, this hardly then warrants the restraint of someone from doing anymore, if they can’t get a ‘bind’ on one side of Marichyasana D, for example; due to a tight-hip or torn meniscus. This is could equally be said to focus on the particular over the unity of a broader-picture of where someone is, in fact ‘at’ with their body. It is way to simplistic and romantic a notion to consider that one ‘opening’ rests on the immediately preceding position; that the system moves forward in this literal, linear, manner.

Relevant, also, to note, is that this methodology of needing to fully complete what can be unique and peculiarly challenging positions, before moving on to the next, wasn’t always the case in Mysore. We surely can’t honestly conceive that most bodies will be in unimpeded, optimal condition in all areas; and the physical demands really do range over all of our anatomical potentiality. In which case, why would we seek to penalise someone for the difficulty they encounter with a certain area of our body? It must be more effective to focus on doing more with what can be accessed in the hope that it will facilitate some further shift in the restricted area.

Older teachers, some practicing for up to towards 50 yrs now, maintain that when they encountered the tradition in the 1960’s it was made as available as possible to them. If certain postures were out of their current reach, they would be proceeded, with these then added back in,over time, they became more proficient.
The perspective seems to have changed, sadly, not due to experience of teaching as more students arrived; instead, for the very fact that so many more students did arrive and could be not worked-with as individuals any longer. So very general rules had to be established; ones that could be applied at a brief glance, to prevent the chaos of students, generally unchecked in Practise, doing whatever they deemed fit. There had to be a semblance of jurisdiction, and most cyclically, this was finally how it was presented.

In my earlier years, even though I was aware that the system had been subject to this change in presentation, was essentially man-made and not received directly from the gods as a prophesy (as was eventually encouraged), I was reluctant to admit it. I wanted to believe that the system was imbued with a transcendent senes of magic, whereby, if it were practised ad-verbatim as instructed, posture for posture, the correct observance of the order would itself act as a kind of magic combination-lock, unlocking enlightenment to those humble enough to follow.

However, humility must also be balanced with an equal amount of pragmatism and common sense. As mentioned, there are certainly times when developing patience
Is part of the process. On the other hand,
any generalisation, although necessary in instructing large groups of people, is exactly that. It works effectively for a general dissemination of the method, but is not specific to anyone; and everyone is a specific and particular instance of an ideal-in-action. Forcing someone to stop because of an isolated area of contraction does not view the person as an individual.

Furthermore, it is imperative to remember that these positions were synthesised from the experience and observation of working with an exceptionally able small demographic of subjects. It is well known these days that the Practice we do was synthesised from a number of sources using young, Indian boys as the guinea-pigs. This does not have to be a reason to invalidate it, as it is, indeed, often taken as; but, it does need to be taken into consideration, when most evidently we are now teaching this system in a different age to a different demographic.

Living in a warm climate, with a much healthier lifestyle than we are able to maintain nowadays, they are not the individuals we now encounter. Most specifically, by virtue of their age, they were not yet prone to the diminishing levels of collagen and elastin in the body that impacts progress when we generally commence with this endeavour already two-to-three times their age. Finally, if this weren’t enough to mark them and thus the demands of practise as pertaining to the uniquely gifted, the tough and critical way we are told it was then taught, maintained that it was only the very best that remained in the experiment.

It would seem obvious, then, that some concession to realism need be made in our current presentation of these teachings. Most fundamentally, we are not teaching these bodies, and we have a choice as to whether to preserve tradition for the sake of itself, or make it appropriate, efficient in achieving its aims, in the light of current circumstances.
The former option has most widely been taken here, due to elements of control present in all ideals or religions, and the situation unfolding, in the holding-back, is nothing but detrimental to maintaining a positive and committed approach to practise in the students in general.

The possibilities that this methodology will precipitate are wholly negative In their outcomes. That is; either the restricted student will get frustrated and give up, whether out of disappointment, or, the boredom of not advancing; or, they will become so irritated at not superseding the perceived obstacle you have, in fact, made overly apparent to them, they will (often quite literally) break themselves, in use of sheer brute-force, in order to achieve the required shape.

Lately, and most shamefully, this method, as eluded to, has been adopted by ‘traditional’ teachers with the underlying motive to preserve their status and justify their position and the abuse of it in the control they attempt to exert. In order to maintain our preeminence and role we must be the most advanced practitioners. This naturally, then, leads to the obstruction and curtailment of others in their advancement. If not from the very fear they may actually surpass us, at least as a way to further demonstrate the role we occupy as ‘masters’, most basically, undermining their confidence, by pointing out their limitations.

This begets the greatest catastrophe for the teaching, that it is not used to instil a confidence in ourselves, instead quite the opposite. The notion that it is not our own, but the responsibility of another, needs to be reconsidered. Yet, the externalisation of what we are doing to some erroneously conceived visual standards ( due to being formulated through the considering of someone else’s body) does not render this as a viable possibility. The fact we often here espoused by teachers, that ‘yoga is a personal practise’ doesn’t seem to be borne out in the reality of a current practise ethos and etiquette.

For this reason, we must take due care to adequately and consistently convey to the student that we are simply a benevolent and skilled helper, but the ultimate responsibility for feeling and learning to relate to their body must be, moreover, can only be, their own. In contrast to this, the wielding of authority and obvious contrived insistence on a hierarchy in the constant need to wait upon our judgement, only conveys to the student that they are not sufficient to handle this obligation.

Of course, in an ideal world each individual would ascertain exactly how best to regulate their practice, and, at each point over time. That this is not the case, still doesn’t warrant our interference. They will, inevitably, make mistakes; bite of too much, then, at times, perhaps, too little. Nevertheless, if one is to learn, one must be encouraged and given the freedom to do so, which is what this process is about, handling the responsibility of the inherent freedom we were born into.

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