by regular columnist Elissa Jordan, Adventures in Teaching
I live in Brooklyn, Wellington. If you’re not familiar with Wellington, Brooklyn is at the top of a hill. A very long, steep hill. To cycle from work to home is just over 3km. Brooklyn hill makes up about 1.5km of uphill climb. It’s a monster.
Why am I telling you all this?
Because when I first moved to Wellington I spent weeks telling myself I couldn’t cycle up that hill. Finally one day I decided to give it a go. I got about a quarter of the way up and my legs just wouldn’t move anymore. My beliefs were confirmed: I could not do this.
A few weeks later I tried again. I got half way up and had an asthma attack. It took me a full six months before I made it to the top and it was a hard, miserable ride. But I kept doing it. And now, I barely notice the climb, I just pedal. And I cycle to and from work four days a week.
What you tell yourself is what you believe. When you make a blind assumption – I can’t cycle this hill, I can’t do a handstand, I can’t hold plank pose – this is what comes true, because you believe it.
As a yoga student this plays out as I’m not strong enough, I’m not flexible enough, I’m not good enough. All these friendly phrases we tell ourselves ingrain in our psyche the belief about what we can and can’t do. We set out expectations and then we live up to them.
As a yoga teacher, it’s much the same. But instead of the yoga student setting limitations and assumptions around their capabilities, we do it for them.
As yoga teachers we see the tight hips, hamstrings and shoulders of the athletic woman in the front row and assume she’s going to struggle with forward folds. We see the seriously overweight woman and assume she’s never done yoga before or if she has she’s got low stamina. And that older gentleman, he’s inflexible.
When you’ve got a new person in your class you want to get a picture of their practice quickly. And sometimes that can mean jumping to conclusions based on previous experience. We make assumptions.
Even in writing this article, I am drawing the assumption that because I notice a tendency in myself to make assumptions that everyone else does that same. When the truth may be that you, as a teacher, walk into a room and see only possibility. No limitation, no assumed strength or weakness. That is the kind of teacher I would always like to be. It is not always the kind of teacher I am. For I am fallible.
If you are susceptible to making assumptions, what can be done?
For the yoga student, keep trying. Yoga is a practice, there is no end, there is no perfection. There is only the practice. So you leave those self-limiting beliefs, those “I’m not good enough” thoughts at the door and you keep exploring. It may have hard and miserable aspects. But you get back on your mat and explore where your practice will take you today.
For the yoga teacher, walk into the room with no expectation. Greet the students with no assumptions. As you put the students through the practice you have carefully crafted, you watch their practice unfold.
There are certain poses like stretching forward into cow pose and rounding back into cat pose that will start to highlight the general flexibility of the spine, hips and shoulders. It will give you an indication of a student’s awareness of themselves, of their bodies. It will also help highlight modifications or advancements you may want to offer particular students.
But this understanding of how a practice is built and modified for each student in a group of students receiving the same teachings comes not from the age, weight, gender, hair colour, or clothing brand of the student. It comes from an understanding of how the body works. And watching that understanding unfold in the bodies in front of you.
When you notice that you’re making assumptions, acknowledge them. In the moment, in the middle of a class, let them pass. But after class, come back to those assumptions and process them.
As you learn to recognise those assumed conclusions you’ve drawn and where they come from, as you process the tendency, you’ll arrive more at a place where you can leave your assumptions at the door.
After all, if you set an expectation for your student – that this one is should be inflexible, that one weak – you’re transmitting out a self-fulfilling prophecy. Your students will pick up what you’re putting out, ultimately colouring their experience of the practice.