Friday, July 3, 2009

Yoga Chronicles: A Teacher's Notes

A while back, Ruthie Streiter began her class at Jaya Yoga Center by saying she’d been on the phone with a friend the other night, talking about what it took to be a good yoga teacher.

I liked this right away. It was a pleasant reminder that there are people trying to be good yoga teachers just the way I am trying to be a good yoga student. I felt in that moment all of us in the class had a common cause.

Unfolding a piece of paper, Ruthie read out a list of four key tasks for the instructor.

Sitting on my mat, I half listened and half began working feverishly to concoct an acronym by which to remember the four items. Later, of course, I could recall the acronym, but not what it stood for.

I emailed Ruthie, and she was kind enough to send me the list, which she said should be sourced to her friend, Kimberly Johnson. Here it is, partially (but I hope responsibly) paraphrased:

The Four Key Tasks for a Yoga Instructor

Instructors should help students to:
1. Connect to the breath.

2. Visualize. Visualization helps students to focus, sharpen observation skills, tap into creativity, learn how to use imagination to create and move energy and feeling, and awaken the inner senses.

Understand that there is constant change—or, in other words, to grasp the inevitable truth of impermanence. If we know that things are changing all the time, then we won’t cling or grasp as much; it’s easier to let go.
At the same time, teachers should:
4. Hold a higher vision for students even when the students don't or when it is difficult for them to keep it in perspective.

* * *

I’m not a teacher, but it occurred to me that this list might contain useful ground rules for any kind of instruction.

The ideas about breath and impermanence (1 and 3), for instance, are among the core teachings of Buddhist philosophy, and obviously these have wide applicability.

It seemed to me there was a lot to chew on in point number 4.

I'm sometimes envious of yoga teachers and therapists—who often promote enormous personal progress in the people they work with, but in ways that rarely leave their student clients feeling judged or criticized.

(It may sometimes help that students may as yet have no clue whatsoever about the ideal they are shooting for—it may take years even to know how far we are falling short!)

In both fields, I suspect, the pace of the project depends largely on the motivation of the student. What this means for the guides, I imagine, is that faithful adherence to a higher vision may require a great deal of patience.

Is there some way to integrate gentleness with higher vision if you’re in a field in which you must apply specific standards or there is some period of time in which the student must show improvement?

What if you’re a teacher who has to give a grade? Or an editor who feels the piece won’t be publishable if you don’t overhaul a sentence?

I don’t know the answers, but I’m no longer thinking about the question in quite the same way.

Above all, it was the point about visualization that hit home for me.

I’ve read about athletes envisioning a brilliant performance before the big competition, but I’d never played sports or thought that was something I could do.

As for visualizing where I wanted to be in five years, or imagining what kind of tree I might like to be, forget it.

It is very different, somehow, to be asked to behave like a tree.

If somebody asks me to stand like a gnarled old oak, I’ll give it the old college try. And if someone asks me to move like a willow, I’ll do something entirely different—especially if my eyes are closed and nobody’s looking.

This kind of visualization (through enactment, in many instances) is going on in yoga all the time. The English names for some asanas, like plank or corpse pose, already contain images.

It’s not unusual to be asked to imagine your heart as a flower or to breathe like a jellyfish or to think about grass blowing in the wind or the waves on the shore.

Much to surprise, I find myself actually building these images, experiencing them, somehow feeling that I can live them in my body.

It does feel like an act of creation—a path forged by metaphor, or simile, or analogy, or whatever it is. One begins to embody so many different things.

When she came to visit, my friend L. remarked that she’d never written so much fiction as when she was regularly taking yoga. Focus, observation, creativity, imagination, moving energy and feeling, awakened senses—it makes sense to me.

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