by guest author Elissa Jordan
As a yoga teacher, over time, a funny thing starts to happen.
Walking down the street you stop seeing people covered in their clothes and shoes and hair. Instead you start seeing collections of muscle and bone, alignment and postures carried around in a thin casing of skin. The knocked knees, the hunched shoulders, the sunken chests taunt us.
I’ll sometimes mouth the suggestion of taking your shoulders back and down. Sometimes whispering the instruction to widen the knees over the ankles.
After a glass of wine my partner has to physically restrain me from adjusting bodies that are screaming our for a little more ease, a little more comfort. Of course lots of things happen after a glass of wine. Like I start speaking French or Japanese. But never mind…
As part of the Advanced Yoga Teacher Training I’m currently part of with Jenifer Parker of Wellington’s Healium Holistic Health, we’ve been tasked with observing and assisting as many classes as we can cram into a four week period.
So I sit inconspicuously at the back of the room, watching everything.
Taking note of which verbal queues the bodies respond to, the ones that result in a questioning glance. Seeing the hips, knees and shoulders that need to be encouraged into proper alignment, the flared ribs and straining backs. And in a way that’s not always easy to do when you’re teaching, just see the bodies. Bodies moving. Bodies that can do amazing things.
When you’re teaching you can get so caught up with remembering the sequence, providing the appropriate verbal instructions, demonstrating, checking that your students are safely understanding the basics of the pose.
There’s a lot going on.
It’s nice to take a step back from all the responsibility. I liked the opportunity to question:
- What’s up with that?!
- Why can’t this straighten or that bend?
- What’s up with the shoulders having a mind of their own creeping up, up, up when a student’s concentrating?
By my second observation session, I saw not only a room full of bone-and-muscle bodies, I also saw the fear and frustration that can come with wanting to do the pose not just partially, but perfectly.
The held breath, clenched jaws, straining eyebrows.
I saw how raw we can be when practicing yoga.
For me, the process of observing and assisting has opened up a whole new area of exploration in my practice.
The assistant in the class is there to support both the teacher and the student. The teacher has carefully crafted the intention, focus and flow of the class. As the assistant you’re helping to craft the alignment that best suits those goals.
You’re not there to teach, which can be distracting and confusing for the student. And with the student you’re entering into an energetic relationship as you silently slide into their space and physically shift their experience.
I prefer to make the most beneficial adjustment and then leave the student to process and integrate what their body is feeling. If you poke and prod to cajole the optimum pose out of the student they can end up feeling harassed and unable to fully experience the class.
And although the intricacies of relationship between the participants is endlessly fascinating to watch and take part in, what really struck a chord with me is my aversion to touch.
I’m scared that I’ll be too rough and hurt the student, or that I’ll take their body beyond what’s possible for them. I’m uneasy about being too intimate, verging on inappropriate. I’m nervous that everything I know will fall right out of my head the second I enter the students space.
Logically most of this is just my overly vocal inner critic overshadowing my innate awesomeness that knows I’m up to scratch with this stuff. Being too gentle can be seen as indecision or lacking confidence in your assist. And these bodies I’m toying with, they have voices and free will all their own.
If I’ve taken them to their threshold a look, a word or a touch will let me know. There are lots of ways to guide students into proper alignment: demonstration, verbal instruction, personalised instruction, the two-finger assist and then finally hands on assist. And sometimes you just need to get handsy.
Even after my official training has ended I intend to stay on as an assistant.
Showing up, being a part of the class and taking every opportunity to question – why didn’t that go the way I planned? – and soak up the knowledge of my teacher.
And so students coming to my class, and the poor fellow who crosses my wine-addled path with a misalignment, can benefit from the confident manner with which I’ll gently ease them into a safer, stabler, more sustainable self.
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Piqued your interest? Jenifer is running the same Advanced Teacher Training course, early 2012, in Wellington. She’ll also be starting an assisting/mentoring programme in the new year. Get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org or drop by her studio at 276 Lambton Quay.