“I give you permission NOT to do full Chaturaṇga each time”. I wondered at this comment from my teacher in class today. Do people really need this permission? Do they feel some necessity for this action in every vinyasa? If they do, would the validation of the teacher make a difference? I wonder…
I don’t do full Chaturaṇga very often, because I don’t feel strong enough yet. I find it hard to broaden my shoulders enough in Urdhva Mukha Śvānāsana and I’m not strong enough to take the backbend out of the lower back. I try a couple of time each class to feel how it’s going, but I reckon it needs more static work at home to strengthen and refine it. So would I do it every time in class if I could? Would I recognise if my technique was slipping through tiredness or lack of concentration and modify accordingly?
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the effort-ease continuum (as regular readers will have noticed). The instructions I hear from the teacher to the class more often seem to be about not forcing oneself too far. But the question I more often ask myself is about whether I open up enough into the possibilities of poses. Sometimes I feel as though I need the opposite instruction, the validation to try rather than to hold back.
And because my teacher has some magical ability even in a packed class to recognise individual needs, I’ve had some direct attention recently where I’ve felt supported in venturing further than before. At least, because this is the message I’m offering myself in my practice, I’m hearing it in my teacher’s words too.
Take Mayurāsana, a pose that I feel on the verge of feeling my way into. But not yet. For now it’s a grunting effort, a jaw-clenching grim determination to conquer gravity. My teacher came over and softened my attempts, not allowing me to give up but instead telling me to try again but with less effort. Oh yeah, so suddenly his physical presence and his careful attention just on me made a big difference. Sure I didn’t achieve a dramatically different physical shape, I wasn’t magically hovering with legs out straight, I’m still wobbling about with my knees bent out to the side, trying to find the balance point. But in that moment it all seemed perfectly possible one day, and not too far away. I believed in myself.
Again today Eka Hasta Bhujāsana. Encouraged into another attempt when I was ready to resign. And because of that I feel a little closer to this pose too. A stronger core would definitely help, but so would a stronger can-do attitude! I can work on both!
So as well as asking myself questions about effort vs ease, my teaching brain is viewing the question from the other direction and wondering how one supports a student’s approach to their practice as much as helps them with particular details of technique or whatnot. How does my teacher do this? How do I feel that he recognises and respects my efforts, not making me feel bad about where I am, yet gently insisting that I continue my exploration and nudge at my mental and physical boundaries?
I already notice that my students sometimes coyly seek validation from me about their practice. And I balance on a tightrope between supporting them but also wanting to foster independence. I’ve recently been listening to Georg Feuerstein reading his Lost Teachings book and he says something along the lines that an old-fashioned teacher would start you on your practice and then leave you be. It kind of made me think of my teacher — although he would probably be horrified at being described as old fashioned! But he certainly fosters independence. He rarely offers direct feedback on one’s practice, there’s no quick reward for anything, just a certain knowledge that he sees. Perhaps it’s the witnessing, the feeling of being held to account as much as supported, that is the most powerful thing?
The wise David Whyte (in his Consolations) says this of ‘friendship’, but it seems to me to apply equally to the student-teacher relationship:
“the ultimate touchstone of friendship is not improvement, neither of the self nor of the other, the ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another, to have walked with them and to have believed in them, and sometimes just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.”
I think yoga can be a lonely practice, and such company helps.