In my yoga teacher training we used to have Observation clinics, where we would observe each other both in static position (standing or lying down) and movement, and compare notes afterwards. It comes as no surprise that those teachers who had more experience were able to notice much more than those who were just starting out. But the most challenging part in this exercise for most of us was to observe somebody without immediately jumping to conclusions. “Her right foot is turned out, she must have tight hip rotators”- may be she does, may be she doesn’t, it always requires further investigation. The strangest assumption I ever heard (elsewhere) was: “She complains of the pain in her right shoulder – that’s her Musician archetype is trying to get out.” What?!
An ability to observe the student, notice things and accurately interpret them is essential for a yoga teacher. But HOW you do it will determine the future relationship with your yoga students.
Here are 6 sure ways to ruin your relationships with your yoga students:
“Just stand here with your eyes closed while I walk around and watch you.” The easiest way to make someone feel uncomfortable is to inspect them from every angle like a museum exhibit. Anybody will feel self-conscious, but especially new students.
Instead: Give them something to do! Ask them to do their own internal investigation while you watch them, leading with questions like: “Does your weight feel evenly distributed between right and left foot? Do you feel yourself leaning forward and backwards?” etc. This will also give you some valuable information about their body awareness.
“You are not flexible enough to do the Pigeon pose, so we will try something else.” Even if it seems like stating a simple fact to you, it sounds like judgment to the student. And any time the student senses judgment, she will retreat.
Instead: We need to let go of our own ideas of what things are supposed to be like for other people. We shouldn’t pass any judgment on student’s size, ability, diet, lifestyle, etc. even if we feel very strongly about it. We can discuss it, of course, if the student is interested, but from a very neutral place. Every person gets to make their own decisions on what’s best for them.
“Yes, I have the same problem – it’s from tight hip flexors!” Well, may be it is, may be it isn’t – let’s not jump to conclusions. We can keep it as a working hypothesis and continue the investigation.
Instead: Use this idea as a lead to explore further and always keep your mind open to other possibilities.
“Yeah, looks like you have piriformis syndrome / irritable bowel / anxiety / intimacy issues / root chakra imbalance / apana vayu drainage” etc.
Any time you feel the need to “diagnose” the problem – stop. First of all, you are not a medical doctor. Second, once we slap a label on something, we usually stop looking, since we think that we have things figured out. Third, save your yoga lingo for your internal notes. Even if you know exactly what you are talking about, your student will not. There is no need to alarm them.
Instead: Keep your mind open and keep investigating. Try to look at the student as a whole person with some challenges, rather then a collection of conditions. Keep track of things that you can actually see. “She seems anxious today” is very different from: “She has anxiety issues.” Avoid labeling people.
“Your pelvis is twisted, your right knee is torqued, your shoulders are uneven, your core is weak, etc, etc. “ Even if you observe all those things, keep them to yourself. There is no need for the laundry list of imbalances, it’s overwhelming and discouraging for the client.
Instead: Summarize your observations to your client AS IT RELATES TO THE ISSUE that she is presenting. Don’t forget to mention positive/balanced things that you’ve observed.
6. Try to fix
I had a student who had the knees that were pointing out. She had hip pain and ended up having hip surgery. Her overzealous surgeon set her right hip so that her leg was perfectly straight, with the knee pointing forward. As a result she started having pain everywhere in her body – her back, hips, knees, etc. Her body was used to the old pattern of organization that she had for 50 years. The new pattern didn’t work for her at all. This sort of artificial correction is rarely advisable. Our bodies are like scaffold structures – if you change alignment of one thing, the entire structure responds and can become destabilized.
Instead: We look for patterns of chronic tension and uneven muscle development. Then we try to release what’s tight and gradually increase the range of motion. All the while we need to keep a close eye on the student’s response to the practice and proceed gradually and with caution. It is not about “fixing”, but about figuring out how different parts work together and where more support is needed.
In the Yoga Sutras Patanjali talks about “cleansing our instrument of perception” and uses the classical image of a crystal. When the crystal is cloudy from our own experiences, projections, opinions and preconceived notions, we cannot see clearly. It is our job as yoga teachers to purify that crystal, so that we can see our students for what they are, without mixing our own stuff into it. Once we learn to see our students more clearly, then we can begin to be helpful.
Also, read this fantastic article about yoga teacher’s encounter with overzealous diagnosing and oversharing. The author, Amanda Green, will be our guest blogger this Friday.