“So pretty” is not a phrase I hear often when I’m in class. My teacher is very sparse with anything that might sound like a compliment. He’s big on no judgment, no expectation: everything is simply along a spectrum of experience, where we practise non-attachment to any particular outcome. It’s strong yoga medicine: ultimately good for me, I know, but sometimes hard to take. But this time I wasn’t with my regular teacher, I was with a guest teacher. An American and quite girly in demeanour. She was full of exuberant praise for our collective practice. I smiled through rapid convoluted sun salutation variations which involved lots of ankle crossing (for reasons I didn’t understand) — where I repeatedly ended up with the wrong foot on top. I’m not sure I looked pretty. I felt pretty clumsy actually. But maybe she could see my smile and maybe that shone through prettily even in my wrong-ankle-crossed downdog!
It got me thinking about the value of encouragement from a teacher and how to communicate feedback appropriately. I’d like to support my students in feeling welcome in their practice, but of course I don’t want them to practise in order to please me. As a trained teacher, I took “so pretty” with a big dose of amused detachment. But what do my students need as feedback during their practice? Some of them are early on in their yoga journeys and need reassurance that they’re doing OK. They worry about injury so I try to teach them to look after themselves and to check in with their own alignment in some basic but fundamental ways. They worry about not being good enough, so I offer them encouragement to derive support from others without drawing comparisons. They are anxious not to ‘get it wrong’, so I try to take care that assists are collaborative to some degree and communicate support and ease rather than correction or some imposition.
This is what I try to offer them, at least.
But yesterday I fell headlong into the praise trap. A little copse of treees, a multiplicity of Vrksasanas, sprang up before my eyes and I was suddenly distracted by the sight. It’s no big deal, in the wider yoga world, this pose. But it was through my words and guidance that I’d brought them collectively to this shape and I was just a bit overwhelmed watching them — seeing them lift up, centre, wobble, refind themselves and establish their form. So I gushed (very un-British!) and I told them they were making beautiful shapes and that I could see they were so much steadier through the repetition of this asana over the past few weeks!
I know that this was praise by me, for me. I was essentially reassuring myself that I was doing OK as a teacher if this is how my class looked. It was all about me and it was nothing about detachment. But there are worse mistakes to make as a rookie teacher! I don’t think anyone will be completely put off my teaching by this little mutual ego boost.
And if for my own practice I sometimes crave more indulgence than my yoga teacher’s slightly austere attitude permits, it is at least a welcome step on from one of my schoolteachers who had a rule with new classes: “don’t turn your back until Christmas, don’t smile until Easter”! I’m not sure either my current yoga teacher or my former schoolteacher would have wholly approved of my teaching on this day — too much smiling by far! 🙂