Ahimsa for yoga teachers.

I’ve noticed several interesting phenomena over the years as a yoga teacher. One of the most surprising and humbling is what I have called the ‘reverse rebuke’ effect. Yoga students display the whole gamut of irritating behaviours in class, triggered by anything from deep-seated habits, or carelessness, to insensitivity and poor discipline. Examples of those behaviours might include a student who despite coming to a regular class for years, seems not to progress and resolutely stays within the boundaries of their ‘comfort zone’; or a student who tries to adjust their body or equipment while in shoulder stand instead of coming down and sorting themselves out; an older student pushing themselves further when the body needs to rest but the ego has taken control; or going into the pose while the teacher is still explaining the points he or she wants to highlight; badly folded blankets and putting props away any-old-how; eating, drinking or checking a mobile phone in class.

slamYoga teachers are supposed to rise above their feelings of irritation – it’s a welcome reminder of Ahimsa, the first of the Yamas – and when our instructions aren’t working, teachers have to find a different way to get the effect we are looking for in the student. That could be a different instruction, or the same instruction in a different pose. Sometimes a change of teacher works. There are students who come back to their regular class after a yoga holiday, waxing lyrical about the teacher who helped them to change the habit of a lifetime, only to realize we’ve been saying that to them week after week but they just haven’t ‘heard’ us. It took a different voice in different circumstances to create that mind-body connection, and then understanding comes for the student.

As teachers, in order to encourage that understanding, we have to determine whether the behaviour is caused by unconscious coping mechanisms, semi-conscious habits or deliberate acts due to poor discipline, a lack of respect or understanding. The unconscious ‘habit-of-a-lifetime’ behaviour may have deep-seated motivation, and lies outside a yoga teacher’s territory. That is to say, we can encourage them to try new things, but we must respect their boundaries. If the student goes too far too fast, the mind can generate much more concrete reasons in the body for it not to venture further, such as aches and pains, even injuries.

New students who come to Iyengar Yoga from different disciplines have to adjust to a much more logical way of teaching, with a greater clarity and precision than perhaps they have been familiar with. Correcting new students can require a sensitive touch in order not to alienate them, but after a few classes they will need to ‘get with the programme’ if they want to penetrate the body with the mind and access the deeper benefits of yoga.

garfieldWhich brings me to discipline and the ‘reverse rebuke’ effect. I have written about this before: in yoga, discipline is the key. Students know themselves very well but for obvious reasons they cannot see their own blind spots. It is the teacher’s job to hold the torch. In order that the mind can penetrate everywhere, we have to be willing to look, to see everywhere.

Suppose a student displays a pattern of lazy or careless behaviour. They aren’t responding to an instruction – their mind is elsewhere or they’ve decided they want to do it a different way. I might use a strong, no-nonsense tone to get their attention, and Geeta’s voice and piercing gaze come to mind here. They could take umbrage and never darken my door again, but that can’t be helped. If I let them continue without discipline, I’m taking them down the wrong path: in other words, my teaching is at fault.

In the past, when I felt it necessary to speak sharply to someone in class, I would spend the rest of the class anticipating a negative reaction. I’ve discovered that what happens is usually the opposite: the Reverse Rebuke effect. The admonishment serves to ‘pull their socks up’ for them, to capture their attention and cause them to concentrate. They seem to come alive, to engage, to enjoy the class more. They often come to me and thank me for ‘a good class’. They have their own Damascene moment and convert to the principles of discipline as a means of transformation.

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