learning together: teaching as a collaboration

I begin every class by asking practitioners what their bodies need that day. I invite them to make requests: 1) for particular poses that they’ve either found helpful or challenging and wish to explore; and 2) for parts of the body that need attention, making special note of any new injuries or sensitivities.

There are times when this invitation is met with blank, self-conscious stares and silence. (Typically when it’s a brand-new group or when I’m subbing for another teacher.)  When this happens, I pose it another way: Where are you holding tension? What needs to be stretched? What needs to be strengthened?

Finally, a quiet murmur from a hesitant voice dares to reveal in a room (most often) full of strangers a perceived weakness: a knee or shoulder, lower back, neck or hamstrings that chronically and persistently ails. Now come the echoes of agreement! Oh, the relief at knowing we’re not the only one suffering.

I’ve been teaching for 7 years, and it puzzles me that, in a yoga class of all places, people (read: adults of all ages, beginning and experienced students alike) appear reluctant to respond to this invitation to fully participate in creating their experience on the mat.


Is it the awkwardness of public speaking?
Is it just wanting to turn off the efforts of the thinking mind after a long day to simply enjoy being led?
Are students deferring to the skill of the teacher because they have no preference?
Or, do they really not know/understand how to listen to what is happening in their body?
Do they not feel empowered to ask?

Naturally, beginning students feel like they don’t know enough to ask. But then I think: Well, what would you say to a massage therapist or medical professional who asked you to describe the sensations in your body and where you’re feeling them?

What about experienced practitioners who are reticent? Are they keeping quiet because they think the teacher should have a plan or because they don’t wish to appear as if they are challenging the teacher? Have they never been asked to consider these questions before?

In far too many instances, I suspect that it is the latter reason. Some teachers are either not approachable or are not creating an atmosphere where questions and curiosities are openly welcomed. It may not be intentional; however, the lack of awareness and connection between such teachers and their students becomes apparent when those students reveal, through the questions and observations they pose to me, disparities in teaching (philosophy, skill, etc.) and communication styles.

In a recent conversation, a practitioner expressed concern about her physical discomfort when doing a particular sequence of movements in class taught by another teacher. After guiding her once more through modifications I had just taught the group, I asked whether she’d ever talked with the other teacher about this. She paused thoughtfully and realized that she hadn’t–in part, because she was deferring to that instructor’s style and because of the well-noted rigor of the class itself.

My question gave her new perspective. Instead of outright dropping the class, she agreed to first speak with the instructor. I encouraged her to then base her decision on how that instructor received her questions and, when tested, whether that answer ultimately served to eliminate her discomfort and enhance her practice. I added that such feedback helps us learn how to teach our students!

Situations like that are common. So it has long been my practice to encourage students to respectfully approach any and every teacher to inform them of their injuries or sensitivities, to ask questions, and to make requests. It is how we teachers learn to listen, observe, instruct clearly, and respond skillfully to students–whether by modifying poses or by offering an all-together different pose option to accommodate the diversity in body type, range of motion, skill level (to name a few) in our rooms. It is how we teachers continue to develop our skills.

So it is important for me to invite practitioners to co-create the practice with me. When that connection and openness has been established, requests will pour in before I can even ask…sometimes the moment they walk in the door! I do this with the intention to empower students to make the practice their own: to help them discover how to listen and respond skillfully to their bodies on and off the mat.

We feel different in body, heart, and mind everyday. So–even if we move through the same poses time and again–our yoga practice is different! Honoring what we are experiencing in the present moment not only keeps us safe in our practice, but also deepens our intimate understanding of ourselves, strengthens our intuitive powers, and nourishes in our hearts the sense of compassion, resilience and trust we have for ourselves.

At the end, I thank everyone for helping to create the practice. Yes, I am an experienced teacher who offers them tools to stretch, stabilize and strengthen the body as well as to relax, understand, sort, settle and honor the heart and mind. But it is very rare that I come in with a pre-planned sequence. (Why? Inevitably, a new student will show up without any previous experience or a regular student will have a new ache or injury. Whoosh! Out goes the plan.) Instead I arrive with the intention to teach spontaneously from a mix of intuition, knowledge, and observation. What I teach then is inspired by the present-moment needs of the practitioners because they are the experts of their own bodies and, as such, the co-creators of their yoga experience.

{originally published 22 aug 2013 now-defunct dharma yoga arts blog}