Monday, March 18, 2019

Yoga Instruction: Somatic Awareness or Alignment Training?

By Theo Wildcroft

A few weeks ago, as I was messing about with a new sensory toy and thinking about current debates raging on social media, I had a revelation that had little to do with the new Liquid Timer that was making me so happy, and even little to do with the actual arguments I was watching scroll by. It had to do with something I’ve been struggling to say clearly for a while. I posted it, and Jivana asked if I’d share it here. In the hope that it is of use to you, or strikes a chord, here it is. Please note, it’s really not a criticism of any specific teacher or school. We’re all learning. We’re all trying to be better for our students. This might help.

Contemporary yoga culture has to realise the fundamental disconnect between any intention that the practice should lead to self-awareness, self-responsibility, and self-agency and a teaching methodology that emerged in the early 20th century based on telling people exactly what to do and how the practice should make you feel. Most alignment-based schools of yoga teach that the more exact the instruction, the safer the practice: so a knee should always be placed just here, and this muscle should always be engaged in this particular pose. And many teachers go further: in their enthusiasm to share the benefits of the practice, they say things like: “We get a wonderful sense of freedom in this backbend,” when there may well be students in the room who feel something very different in the same asana.

Any way you consider them, these are logically incompatible.

We are talking here about practices which use the body to touch the mystical, or in other words, many of us find that our experiences in a yoga practice can be magical, even spiritual, giving rise to feelings of divine surrender or radiant stillness. It’s easy to forget that someone on the mat in front of you might be having a very different experience indeed.

We’re also talking about practices which are taught synchronously and in groups; in other words, at the same time, and together. So we also have to consider the possibility that those senior teachers who are the most charismatic, whose own practice is the most accomplished, whose commitment to a single lineage or system is most devout, and who are most often surrounded by their most devoted students – those teachers probably have the most inflated idea of their own ability to teach, and the most inflated reputations to match.

They might just not be very good at teaching other people how to practice yoga at all, and never have found this out, because their own practice feels so advanced to them, and because no-one has ever told them, being too in awe of them.

You can trust not just my research on this, but my experience. I studied yoga with what, at the time, were considered to be some of the best yoga teachers in the world. I studied everything from intricate postural alignment to 11th century Tantric philosophy with them. And it took me too long to figure out that I’d allowed them to lead me unwittingly to a point where I didn’t trust my own judgement in movement any more. A good friend and teacher asked me to ‘just move’ in the position we all know as some version of Cat/Cow and, in that moment, I realised I was frozen without further instruction. Without meaning to, my teachers had taught me to trust them, not my own experience.

There are amazing teachers and schools of yoga out there that have been teaching somatic awareness, from a place of radical inclusivity, in a way that actually builds the ability of the student to know their body. A number of them are well-respected, but you won’t often find them teaching in workshops or shalas with hundreds of students. Throughout the 20th century the most famous yoga teachers were the ones who told students exactly what to do, not the ones who taught the students how to feel and move on their own. In the schools where students were taught exactly what to do, that level of independence is either seen as a prerequisite to practice (a student should just ‘know’ what to say no to), or its mystical and effortless side effect (as a result of being told how to move for a decade or more, a student somehow gains enough knowledge to be trusted to decide their own practice). This is so common within yoga to this day, let me say it again: you can’t teach self-reliance through telling people what to do.

Offered in peace. Come and see me talk about all this and more in person! I wave my arms a lot and it’s a lot of fun! Let’s learn together.

Theo Wildcroft, PhD is a yoga teacher (IYN500) living in the UK with multiple qualifications in yoga for diverse populations, and scholar with a PhD in the study of movement practices within contemporary religion, and an MA in community education. She is at the forefront of the movement for trauma sensitivity, diversity, and inclusion. Her ongoing research considers the democratization of yoga post-lineage, and the many different ways yoga communities are responding to concerns about safety in practice. She also blogs and writes articles on yoga, on social justice, on hope, and on untold stories.

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, co-editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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  1. Hey Theo, Thanks for sharing this blog. I agree that contemporary yoga leads to self-awareness, self-responsibility and of course self-care. Yoga can improve a body’s health status and stretching prevents joint pains and other back related problems. I hope people will find your blog as helpful as it is to me. Keep up the good work.

  2. I agree, depending on the teacher. I've had alignment-based teachers who are very respectful of what students are feeling, and of what they can and cannot do. For me, though, my real internal development in yoga has come from my home practice. I don't see enough teachers encouraging students to practice at home regularly. There's a huge shift when a yoga practitioner's home practice becomes primary and class time becomes an adjunct to home practice.