Teaching Yoga: Learning to Listen to the Body and Mind

Taking the time to respond to the truths of our bodies and minds in our yoga practice allows us to discover what is uniquely best for each of us, and integrate this wisdom into future practice, writes blogger and yoga teacher Kathryn Borland in this article. This type of patient and continued processing is what has allowed yogis and yoginis to develop and pass on the yoga tradition to millions worldwide. It all begins with taking time to process and respond to change, she suggests, rather than moving swiftly from yoga pose to yoga pose. 

As an undergraduate tutor in academic writing, there was one concept that particularly resonated with me – giving writers “wait time” to think and respond. This goes hand in hand with asking open-ended, yet clear and direct questions. Those queries can lead writers to their own insights much more effectively than simply giving answers or closed instructions. As the saying goes, “Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day, but teach him to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” These principles are also very applicable when teaching yoga.

In the six years that I have served as a tutor, I noticed that asking questions and giving writers time to mindfully respond results in more productive and nuanced sessions. Though awkward pauses and what can feel like obstacles are sometimes difficult, the hard work of taking the time to reach a self-generated answer helps students to achieve learning that will last. The same process can be very useful for yoga students.

Creating Space in Yoga Practice

As a yoga instructor and practitioner, I believe the way in which we approach challenges and develop new learning in our practice and teaching can be incredibly beneficial. I love offering yoga students hands-on assists (when and where they are appropriate) that require the experience of working with tactile feedback. That work can develop student’s bodily memories of moving from alignment or positioning that at first feels comfortable (but may not be healthiest) to one that allows them to safely experience a pose’s potential benefit.

With time and repetition the new physical patterning may become the norm. The result – incredible holistic growth, multiplied with every posture or movement flow in which one undergoes this process.

I am currently honing my physical cueing skills to help set my yoga students on the path of that kind of growth. Sometimes I have to take a breath and remember to allow students time to physically respond to my cueing, that giving of “wait time” an essential part of this approach. Bodies need time to process and respond.

Using Questions to Create Space

Another option is to give yoga students a chance to self-correct through mindful questioning. This can be helpful in situations where touch is not allowed or where it is contraindicated for physical or psychological reasons. Such questioning can be a helpful alternative to point-blank instruction.

Imagine a yoga student with feet significantly farther apart than hip distance, for instance. An instructor could say, “Move your feet hip width apart.”  The student could respond by making the proper adjustment, and the instructor might feel pleased at helping the student achieve healthier alignment. The student may not understand the reason for the change, or feel self-conscious, however. In this case the student may not adopt a corrected stance when engaging in the posture in the future.

Another approach might be to ask the student, “How does the posture feel on your hips and knees?” She might say it feels just fine, which may very well be true. There is now at least space for considering other options rather than being instructed to take them, as in the prior approach. In that same line of questioning the yoga teacher might help the student move his feet to hip distance apart and ask, “How does that feel now?” This might be followed by an explanation of how the new positioning may transfer energy from the core and spine through to the knees to avoid straining the knees through faulty alignment.

In this scenario the yoga practitioner engages his mind while experiencing different physical sensations, and may be more likely to attempt this modified stance in the future. He may not have been able to answer the instructor’s questions right away because he had yet to have the experience of adjusting himself into the new postural alignment. Giving “wait time” allows the student and instructor to be present during that experience of physical and mental exploration.

Keeping an open line of questioning also allows for the positive instructional responses in cases when the conventional form of the posture is not ideal for an individual’s unique anatomy and/or capabilities. Although it may be difficult to give students this degree of individualized instruction in large classes, it is something for us instructors to strive for.

Exploring Space in Our Own Yoga Practice

As yoga students and teachers we can explore this process whether in studio classes or at home. The main idea is to bring a questioning and discerning attitude to our mats, so that we can experiment with different approaches. For instance, when comfortably in a favorite posture, a modification that you read about might come to mind – perhaps a way to open up space for the breath in Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), or a new form of a balancing posture. Why not try it and see what happens?

To allow the body and mind to understand and respond to the new approach, take the necessary time to allow yourself and others time to explore making changes. Then act upon those responses, such as in maintaining the change or going back to the preliminary state (such as positioning or formation of a posture).

Taking that time to respond to the truths of our bodies and minds allows us to discover what is uniquely best for each of us, and integrate this wisdom into future practice. This type of patient and continued processing is what has allowed yogis and yoginis to develop and pass on the yoga tradition to millions worldwide. It all begins with taking time to process and respond to change. 

Kathryn Boland is a third-year Master’s degree student in Dance/Movement Therapy at Lesley University (Cambridge, MA), and an E-RYT 500. She is originally from Rhode Island and attended The George Washington University (Washington, DC) for an undergraduate degree in dance (where she first encountered yoga). She has taught yoga to diverse populations in varied locations. As a dancer, she has always loved to keep moving and flowing in practicing more active Vinyasa-style forms. Her interests have recently evolved to include Yin and therapeutic yoga, and aligning those forms with Laban Movement Analysis to serve the needs of various groups (such as Alzheimer’s Disease patients, children diagnosed with ADHD, PTSD-afflicted veterans, all demographically expanding). She believes in finding the opportunity within every adversity, and doing all that she can to help others live with a bit more breath and flow!

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