by Joanna Nobbe
I have always been a rule follower and a teacher pleaser. When I began taking yoga class 14 years ago, I tried really hard to perfect the hardest poses, as if the instructor were giving scores for my poses or my yoga-ness. I think I hoped that the poses were the yoga, and that if I kept coming to class, my understanding of yoga philosophy would grow and I would become as present/mindful/tolerant/happy as the yoga teacher sounded. My childhood as a competitive gymnast and straight-A student was still with me, perhaps?
The profound personal transformation I experienced in my early years of yoga class was, of course, partly due to the physical discipline of asana (yoga posture) practice, the wisdom of my early teachers, my own inner curiosity, and my life stage. Since those days, my “progress” as a yogi has followed a very different course than I might have imagined back then: my asana practice is becoming slower, simpler, and with far fewer acrobatic feats than it did when I began. If asana was the only measure, I was a far greater yogini back then.
Yoga class is a safe and intentional setting for self-listening that begins with the body. For starters, class is a special time and place: you set aside 90 minutes of your day to come to a beautiful yoga studio to “practice”. The instructor guides your attention throughout your body as you move through postures and probably also introduces a metaphor or theme into the practice. Why the word “practice”? We come to the yoga studio to practice postures, sometimes new, sometimes familiar. The poses might get better with time (or they might not!), but we are practicing much more than just the pose itself. The physical challenge of the postures and movements may give you the opportunity to “witness” how you are treating yourself and engaging in this process, as well as the time to adjust, soften, or modify. All this creates an environment in which you have the time, space, and intention to tune into yourself in a way that is very difficult in your daily life.
The asana “practice” does not mean that every yoga pose is safe or beneficial for your body, or that every pose suits your intention for your yoga practice. The values and norms of fitness culture and professional life, in which more is usually considered better, do not apply in your yoga practice. Your challenge is to know what you seek from your yoga class and what your boundaries are. You’ve heard yoga teachers say it before: “listen to your body.” “Don’t do anything that is uncomfortable.” Be honest: have you ever pushed through pain or discomfort during a class? Have you ever forced yourself to do something because you didn’t know what else to do, afraid that you would just sit there looking silly while everyone else was working hard on their twisted crow? Have you found yourself rushing to keep up with a fast class, realizing that you’ve been holding your breath and tensing your jaw?
While at times it might seem challenging to do so, there are many ways you can adapt your practice during class to honor your body and your intention for your yoga practice. Sometimes, the best thing to do is to be a yoga class rebel; to do something different than what the teacher is instructing for the sake of your personal yoga journey. Here are some tips and practices that you can take into the studio with you to apply your body awareness and yoga intentions in the class setting.
1. Know why you came. Identify your expectations and your desires.
The practice: As you first step on your mat in preparation for class, get in a comfortable, symmetrical position (standing, sitting, lying, or child’s pose) and check in with yourself. Why are you here? What is your intention for today’s class? Try to encapsulate that intention in a phrase or a sentence that is not too general or too specific. For example, “in today’s practice I want to keep track of every inhale and every exhale”. Throughout the class, check in with your intention. Be neutral and unemotional if you catch yourself straying from your intention.
2. Use your body as your first filter.
The Practice: After setting your intention, prepare yourself to be sensitive during your practice. Periodically check in with how you are feeling right now. Identifying your feelings and comparing them with your intention can help you make a decision about what to do next, whether that is to keep going, go further, slow down, or stop.
3. Take your own time. Sometimes your breath pace is different than the teacher’s guided “inhale, reach up, exhale forward fold…”
The Practice: Move at your breath pace, even if it’s slower than the rest of the class. You’ll catch up with the class eventually, even if you miss a pose or two. Big picture reality check: taking the time you need to do the poses to your satisfaction will benefit you more than rushing to keep up with the class.
4. Be discerning. Not every pose is good for every body.
The Practice: Enter new, challenging or potentially painful poses slowly (refer to #3). Enter a pose in a way that you can “back out” if it becomes too much or if it is painful. If a pose doesn’t feel right, don’t do it! Return to the previous pose, which may have been a preparation pose (e.g. Extended Side Angle before Half Moon balance). Or, you can…
5. Make up your own pose.
Feel a twinge in your knee in that seated pose with your legs all twisted up? Please untwist your legs, for the sake of your future ability to walk on the beach, ski, or ride a bike!
The Practice: Take a moment to figure out what the purpose of the pose is (is it a twist? forward fold? backward bend? balance?) then emulate the essence of the pose, sans painful leg twisting. Then name the pose after yourself! Be sure to write down the pose so you can remember what you did!
Still not sure what to do?
Yoga “class” is hopefully just that: a class. The instructor should be able to offer alternatives and answer questions if you have them.
The Practice: The best time to ask a question about a pose is when the instructor is first introducing it. If the class has done the pose several times and is in a “flow”, the teacher is less focused on the mechanics of the pose, and there is less time to pause and ask (also, you may be upside down or twisted, making it difficult to get your instructor’s attention!)
Similar to point #6, communicating with your instructor is a great way to walk your walk without misunderstanding. As an instructor, I LOVE seeing people in my class doing something different than what I am saying, but sometimes it is very hard for me to tell whether the person is intentionally rebelling (Bravo/Brava!) or if I just did a bad job explaining a pose or movement. If this seems redundant to the previous point, it’s because it’s so important! Your instructors probably want to hear from you and learn more about you.
The Practice: Talk to your teacher before class, let her/him know what you are working with.
If you are the type of person (like me) who prefers to hide in the back of the room and avoid contact with the teacher, straying from the group and modifying your asanas may lead to attention from the instructor. Learning to explain my own practice to my teachers in yoga class was a new and uncomfortable experience for me, although rich and meaningful conversations and lessons have resulted from that initial discomfort. If you crave interaction from the teacher and don’t fear asking for help, you’ll get it. Wherever you are in your journey, trust that you always have full control over your body and your yoga practice. Don’t be afraid to stray from the rest of your class: you will be an inspiring example to your fellow yogis and your instructor. Rebel for the greater good!