Ok, so the motivation behind this post is pure irritation. I’ve taught a lot of led classes this month and have become increasingly frustrated by students’ seeming to just hang out in poses rather than trying to work within them. Hopefully the frustration hasn’t been too obvious. The led classes have all been the primary series – pretty much all forward bends when you get to the floor, and the opportunity for a teacher to see before them a landscape of humped upper backs and rounded shoulders, students trying to pull their foreheads down to the knees, deluding themselves that by doing so they have attained new levels of flexibility. No!
Now I get it… We live in a society far different to those original practitioners of Ashtanga (and yoga in general) in India with their petite bodies and hips opened from a lifetime of sitting on the floor and squatting – on toilets, at bus stops, anywhere. They squat. A lot. Instead we have short, tight psoas muscles from sitting on chairs/sofas/the western toilet for hours on end. And tight shoulders and upper backs from desk based jobs/riding bikes/driving/general sloth and slouching. I get it, I really do. But that understanding doesn’t stop me from frequently wanting to go up to students in their practice and asking, albeit passive-aggressively, “so what exactly are you working here?” as it seems that so many simply get into a pose like a forward bend and just hang out in the blind belief that by doing so a couple of times a week, something will change. It very often doesn’t.
As an alternative, I would urge all practitioners of yoga to maintain both curiosity and a spirit of enquiry within their practice. Learn what each pose does, how it feeds into other poses and how other poses feed into it (understanding the several patterns of the practice and working with them). Learn to navigate around and within each pose and see if you can actually enjoy doing so. Learn to enjoy the sensation of physicality rather than switching off, dissociating, and thinking about what you’ll have for dinner.
The difference between led classes and self practice rears its head quite interestingly here. It is difficult to maintain the explorative attitude within poses when you have a teacher leading you through a class, particular Ashtanga classes, and particularly full led primary classes as fitting the whole series into 90 minutes is quite a challenge, usually only being met by spending very little time in each pose. If I had my way, full primary series classes would be two hours long, just by the way. It is far easier to internally delve into the subtleties of the practice (by which I mean poses and transitions) within the arena of self practice – you can take however long you want, stay longer on different sides, not finish the whole series… and rather than being led through each pose and being told what to engage or where you should be feeling something – which, although helpful, has the effect of diminishing your own agency – YOU explore and really feel what YOU feel.
Again, I get it… most people lead such demanding lives, particularly in the city, that they want to come to class, switch off their brains and let someone else do the work. They want to go on autopilot. They want the easy option. Self practice is much harder. But through adversity and difficulty comes growth… which is why I’m so passionate about self practice, both the practice and teaching of it. Go on… try it. Then see what changes…