It is very painful for me to be forced to speak the truth. It is the first time in my life that I have ever been reduced to such a painful position, and I am really quite inexperienced in doing anything of the kind.Oscar Wilde

Yes indeed, telling the truth is uncomfortable at times. But do we practice ahimsa – nonviolence by avoiding the truth?

Let’s take a look at this issue first in our yoga classrooms, then I will expand the argument to discuss how our teaching style possibly effects the community that we build around our yoga studios.

Structure and discipline: push past your limitations and find your power

There are some yoga styles that emphasize structure and pushing past our self-perceived abilities. They encourage students to shine, and in exchange they promise that one will find power, self-confidence and happiness on the other side. Though there is truth in this statement, for some people, it has its limitations. These styles assume that power is found in physical ability and in mental strength to push through. It a yogic version of the old saying: “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

On the other hand, there is amazing power in vulnerability, in the willingness to surrender. Some students should not push and should learn that less is more because there is a risk of injury.

“Let me show you another way”

More and more yoga teachers use the zero confrontation method of communication in their teaching to “make sure not to hurt” the student’s feelings. I am not sure that this is the correct path. I am not advocating being rude, but my duty is to teach. And learning, especially spiritual and emotional learning, is not always a pleasant experience. Since when do all experiences have to be pleasant to be beneficial? Nowadays we demand education (both in yoga and school) to be entertaining and pleasant. Though this path has many benefits, it has its limitations.

We teachers are often taught that when a student is “failing” (moving either beyond ability or in a way that risks injury ) we should not correct the student in a way that takes their “power” away, but rather kindly guide them through an alternative route. I absolutely agree that we should not be mean and unnecessarily harsh with students, but I do feel that sometimes we need to be explicit instead of worrying about the student’s feelings. There is a time when it is necessary to say: “In my opinion, if you keep doing it this way you will get (re)injured. Stop pushing so hard, it is not necessary. Let me show you an alternative pose.”

If we withhold the information from the student that he or she is pushing too much, or may be heading towards injury, then we run the risk that the student will keep doing things the same way. Yes, in that moment, we may have avoided being less than popular with the student and the student’s ego will remain well intact, but is that teaching? Is it worth the long term risk to the student’s health?

The common thread in both of the observations mentioned above is the use of generalization and the focus on keeping power in our students hands. I am a huge fan of a difficult vinyasa class. That is what I like to practice and that is what I like to teach. But I would like to suggest teaching hard classes in a way that doesn’t push our students. We should simply offer poses and alternative poses and ask our students to choose wisely. Then, we could personally attend to those students who need help.

The yoga universal principles

When we teach big universal ideas like “finding power,” our mind usually feels safe that our concept is the universal truth. But on the individual level the universal never works. The universal keeps us away from connecting to our students. We need to teach in a way that those students who need to find their power find their power, students who need space are left alone and students who need to not push learn to back off. I am not saying it is easy, it is a much more difficult way to teach, but to me this is what it means to be a teacher.

So how does the use of too many universal principles effect our community?

Most of us are familiar with the general feel of a yoga gathering. There are so many hugs and kisses; everybody is so amazingly bubbly. We are yogis, yogis are nice, and everybody loves everybody. Universal principle – right? But is it always true?

There is a difference between avoiding conflict and being truly loving and supportive. I come from Eastern Europe, where people don’t spend any time with “niceties.” So moving to the West Coast was a big culture shock. You see in Hungary you ask somebody, “How are you?” that means that we are sitting down for coffee and you are really going to tell me how you actually are. If I hug and kiss someone (three times on the cheek, Hungarian style) that means I really mean it; we will go out, we will build a friendship and if you call me at midnight, I will pick up to phone because I care. On the other hand, if I know you but am not crazy about you, I will politely say “Hello” but there are no hugs and no kisses.

When everyone in the community is acting like angels, how do we know who are our true friends? Let’s be honest: we all know not everybody is in love with one and other.

So why do we often pretend in person?

Yes it makes things pleasant on the surface, but everybody pretending to be nice leaves no room for real conversations. I am not advocating being rude. But if we would reflect our true feelings and opinions to one and other in a polite way, then it would eventually open a road to true communication. Discussion of our truth in a respectful and polite manner will lead to true community and ahimsa.

We do not live in non-violence even if we pretend we do.

There is always a way to say the truth where ahimsa and satya is balanced. It may not always be pleasant, but I don’t believe balancing Satya and Ahimsa were ever meant to be pleasant. They simply need to be balanced. We should always think a little beyond our momentary escape from discomfort and think ahead for the total well-being of our students and community.

[Photo by Vinoth Chandar – CC BY]


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