A theme that continues to surface for me in my teaching and personal practice is student preparedness – especially in terms of its connection to ahimsa (non-harming, love, reverence and compassion).
When I first started teaching I had the idea that because “yoga is good”, that meant that it was good for everyone all the time. A decade into my teaching practice, I feel differently about it. I still believe that, in general, yoga is good… More precisely, I believe that the tools yoga gives us are very good when properly applied… This however, is a topic for a whole other newsletter! However now I understand that yoga is only helpful when individuals are prepared to receive the teachings. I also recognize that sharing teachings that are beyond a student’s level of preparation is actually very harmful.
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the very first sutra is YS 1.1: Atha yogah nusasanam.
A common translation of the sanskrit is “Now that the student is ready, here begins the instruction of Yoga.”
According to Nicolai Bachman, there are some interesting ideas around the concept of “Atha” – the very first word of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras:
1. When used at the beginning of a text, it means “Here begins”.
2. Is considered auspicious.
3. It is considered a vow or promise to study diligently, and to devote a significant amount of time to understand the subject matter (in this case yoga) thoroughly.
4. It implies that the teacher and student are ready, and that for the student the prerequisite preparation is in place (dedication, respect, level of knowledge, and eagerness to learn).
As someone who believed that everyone needs to learn yoga (which I still believe), this last one blew my mind!
I recognize what a gift the teachings of yoga are – they are empowering and transformative. If I’ve learned anything since starting yoga, it’s that yoga changes us. Perhaps it’s an increase in wellness, or a decrease in emotional reactivity, or something else. What I do know is that one cannot practice yoga consistently and not change. I like to think of this part as “yoga doing us”.
It is also my experience that change can be really hard on people. I see so many people in unhealthy situations that they almost fight to stay in, mostly because they can’t handle the idea of change. I believe the expression is “Better the devil you know than the one you don’t”… Having been in the boat of resisting change for years, I get it. Change is hard.
However, I now question pretty much everything I choose, especially staying in unhealthy or unsatisfying behaviours, habits or relationships.
So, if I insist that everyone does yoga, what I’m basically doing is putting him or her in a position where change will happen. In yoga we call this tapas (not to be confused with small sharing plates) – the building or cultivating the inner ‘heat’ of transformation through disciplined practice. This isn’t good or bad, it’s a tool. Yet if the person isn’t prepared for change or does not have the tools, coping mechanisms, or support in place to work through the change – this could be harmful, and even traumatizing.
I believe that putting people, without the tools to cope, in a situation that will create a lot of change in their lives, is a form of harmfulness. It is destabilizing on one or many levels – the physical, energetic, emotional, mental or spiritual – and without adequate preparation is not only unkind, it could be dangerous. As multidimensional beings, what we do impacts us on multiple levels simultaneously. It requires a very skilled teacher to understand the ripple effect that occurs within our multidimensionality. And know that yoga does not only affect one level, its effect(s) ripple through all our layers of being.
The situations I’m describing above ranges from putting someone in an asana (posture) that they are not ready for; teaching them a breathing technique that is beyond their energetic level of integration; excavating emotions they don’t understand and have no idea how to work with; and introducing thoughts/ideas/concepts that they cannot reconcile.
This is why I love the idea, in yoga and in life, of “challenge by choice” – people need to make their own decisions and their own choices so they can own the effects of their karma. If someone else pushes them into something, it becomes too easy to put the owness on the other person. We as teachers of yoga also need to be extremely careful not to put ourselves in situations of owning our students’ practices, choices or karma… Our role is to teach them to own their own lives, choices and karma – therefore empowering them. We are not here to choose for others, to fix others, to heal others or to save and rescue others… All of these are disempowering to our students and it means we need to check in with ourselves and see what’s really going on as each of these behaviours indicates an imbalanced, misunderstood or unmet need within ourselves. We have our own work to do too. People need to figure out how to live their own most fulfilling lives.
I often hear teachers say things like “but if I don’t push them, they won’t do it and I know they can”. I hear that, however I believe this situation merits a discussion. If we push our students and they succeed, they are unlikely to own that success, but to attribute it to the teacher (more karma passing). Is that helpful? Another question to ask ourselves as teachers is – why am I pushing? Do I believe in someway that the success of my student is a reflection of me or my teaching? Is there another reason I am pushing/insisting? What is that reason?
There is no end to the self-inquiry on this path.
As with all things in this glorious and fascinating world of form, there is a lot of grey. In life, nothing is 100%. I have students who have asked me for the push, explaining that this is the support they need from me in order to accomplish their goals.
I also like to remember one additional teaching – that we are perfect as we are. Remembering this allows us to find the beauty and love in the present moment, and to let go of the need to strive and achieve… As my teacher Devarshi says, “There’s nowhere to go, and nothing to do.”
I truly believe that we’re all doing the best we can with what we know. As we live and learn, we can make more deliberate, and hopefully appropriate choices for ourselves… And our students can hopefully learn from our example.
Om Shantih and Prema (universal peace & love),
Mona L. Warner, ERYT500 & CYA-E-RYT500