“The Importance of being Earnest” –Satya with Ahimsa – Truth can be a painful business.
“It is very painful for me to be forced to speak the truth. It is the first time in my life that I have ever been reduced to such a painful position, and I am really quite inexperienced in doing anything of the kind.” – Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, Act 2
Yes indeed, telling the truth is uncomfortable at times because we know that hearing the truth is not always pleasant. But do we practice ahimsa – nonviolence by avoiding the truth?
Let’s take a look at this issue first in our yoga classrooms then I will expand the argument to discuss how our teaching style possibly affects the community that we build around our yoga studios.
Structure and discipline. Push past your limitations and find your power.
There are some yoga styles that emphasize structure and pushing past our self-perceived abilities. They encourage students to shine through, in exchange, they promise that one will find, power, self-confidence, and happiness on the other side. Though there is truth in this statement for some people, it has its limitations. To begin, these styles assume that power is found in physical ability and in mental strength to push through. This concept is familiar to our Western cultural values. It carries within a certain version of the yogic “pull yourself up by your bootstrap.” Thus it is very easy for most students to feel comfortable in these classrooms, consciously or unconsciously but the message is familiar. On the other hand, there is amazing power in vulnerability, in the willingness to surrender, not to talk of the possibility that some students should back off, should not push and should learn that less is more because there is a risk of injury.
2. Let me show you another way...
More and more yoga teachers use the zero confrontation method of communication in their teaching to “make sure not to hurt” the student’s feelings. I am not sure that this is a correct path. I am not advocating being rude, on the contrary, but my duty is to teach, and learning specially spiritual and emotional learning is it not always a pleasant experience. Since when do we have to have all experiences be pleasant for it to be beneficial? Nowadays we demand education (both in yoga and school) to be entertaining and pleasant. This path has its limitations. For example we teachers are often taught that when a student is “flailing” (moving either way beyond ability or in a way to risk (re) injury ) we should not correct the student in a way as to take his or her “power” away but rather kindly guide them through an alternative route without giving the explicit reason why. I absolutely agree that we should not be mean and unnecessarily harsh with students, but I do feel that sometimes it is absolutely needed to practice straight talk instead of worrying about the student’s feelings. There is a time when it is necessary to say; “In my opinion if you keep doing it this way you will get (re) injured. Stop pushing so hard, it is not necessary. Let me show you an alternative pose.” If we withhold the information from the student that he or she is pushing too much, or his or her behavior is possibly leading to injury then we run the risk that that student will keep doing things the old way once they are practicing with a different teacher or at home. Yes in that moment we may have avoided being less than popular with the student and the student’s ego will remain well intact, but is that teaching? Is it worth the long term risk to the student’s health? The extra information that we withhold, that the student’s behavior or choice of asana is actually harmful is an important information.
The common thread in both of the above mentioned observations is the use of generalization and the focus on keeping power in our students. I am myself a huge fan of a hard vinyasa class. That is what I like to practice and that is what I like to teach. But I would like to suggest a possibility to teach hard classes in a way so that we don’t push our students. We simply offer poses and alternative poses and we ask our students to take responsibility to choose wisely whether they need to modify up or down in their practice. Then we could personally attend to those students who need help whether or not they think they need help.
When we teach from big universal ideas such as “finding power” our mind usually feels safe that our concept is the universal Truth. The mind always defends universal principles because on that level everything seems to be simpler and the mind likes quick answers. But on the individual level the universal never works. The universal keeps us away from individually connecting to our students. And by definition; the universal cannot represent truth – Satya, and it cannot be nonharming – ahimsa. We need to teach in a way that those students who need to find their power find their power, students who need space are left alone and students who need to not push learn to back off. I am not saying it is easy, it is a much more difficult way to teach, but to me this is what it means to be a teacher.
So how does the use of too many Universal principles affect our community?
“Pray don’t talk to me about the weather, Mr. Worthing. Whenever people talk to me about the weather, I always feel quite certain that they mean something else. And that makes me so nervous.” – Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, Act 1
Most of us are familiar with the general feel of a yoga gathering of any type. There are so many hugs and kisses, everybody is so amazingly bubbly that we get the chance to say hello to one and other. We are yogis, yogis are nice, and everybody loves everybody. Universal principle – right?
But is it always true?
There is a difference between being nice, avoiding conflict and being truly loving and supportive. When everyone in the community is acting like angels, when Yoga Journal, yoga advertisements, clothing and all yoga related topics talk of love, then how do we make sense out of all the gossips and law suits in the yoga world? Let’s be honest, something does not add up.
So why do we often pretend in person?
Yes, it makes things pleasant on the surface for the moment, but everybody pretending to be nice leaves no room for real conversations. NOT fights, but if we would reflect our true feelings and opinions to one and other, then it would eventually open a road to communication. Communications and discussions about different ways of teaching and being is constructive. What we consider polite will differ between cultures and personal humor, discussion of our truth will free us, unite us, and lead to true community and ahimsa. Only in absolute honesty can we respect the value of the words “love, care, happy, sweet”. We should protect the preciousness of these words.
We do not live in non-violence as long as we pretend.
Truth may not always be pleasant but I don’t believe balancing Satya and Ahimsa were meant to be pleasant. They simply need to be practiced. We should always think a little beyond our momentary escape from discomfort and think ahead for the total well-being of our students and community. Where there is Truth – Satya, Ahimsa-Nonharming will follow. There may be a delay but yoga is not bounded by time, it is bounded by principle… But wait a minute, if there are no universal principles, then how can truth be a principle?
OH gosh, well I will save that for my next blog, to scratch your curiosity I will just say that all is in flux, we have individual truths and to recognize a state of ahimsa for all of our satya is our work as humans.