When the Student Can Outdo the Teacher

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So the genesis of this blog post is that Henrietta MacEwan posted an interesting question on this magazine’s Facebook page:

Can I just ask how would you handle a student coming in and asking you to help with pose that you cannot do? Many thanks.

So I realized that because I have lots of ideas about this, rather than writing a torturously long FB post, I could make it the scintillating, torturously longwinded blog post you have here! Anyway I want to continue the conversation, and would welcome others joining in.

It’s a complex question, Henrietta. It might be helpful to know where you are, what your practice is like, where you’re training, where you expect to be teaching (if applicable).

But I can tell you I’ve been teaching quite a while and that’s never been a problem, even though I must admit I’m not the most advanced asana performer (not for lack of trying; my excuse is that I came to yogasana late in life). I understand the anxiety of course, but let me try to assure you it won’t be much of a snag for you either.

For starters, people who do really advanced poses don’t usually need you to help them. They go about their business, they know their practice and they probably won’t be coming to class so you can finesse their Firefly. They might be doing that during your class but quietly, typically. In fact the more truly advanced the practitioner, the more surely they will be able to make the class as intense or light as they please.

Furthermore, the superyogis will naturally gravitate to the advanced classes. So unless you debut as the teacher of Yoga III, you won’t be expected to demonstrate your talents at a Cirque du Soleil level. I don’t teach the most advanced classes, and people generally stick to what you’re teaching them, which is teacher’s choice.

And you’re not really there to perform, anyway. I find that sometimes a teacher’s remarkable abilities can actually be a liability, because they will understandably want to showcase their artfulness. This can get in the way of teaching. Sure, you want people to know you know your stuff. Maybe you can find what you are naturally quite good at, and show them a bit of that at the appropriate moment (yo, no one does a better talking and teaching Chaturanga than me!), but the real stuff of teaching yoga is in walking around the room, looking at the bodies, correcting and guiding, using your voice and your intelligence.

Which gets us more specifically to your question, which is how to help someone into a pose you yourself can’t do. I’m fairly confident that in your training you will learn the instructions for poses you cannot do. When I went into my 200 hour training, I couldn’t do Salamba Sirsasana (supported headstand), and during that period I was feeling tingling in my arm and a doc had told me it might be a nerve in my neck, so I sat out when everyone else was exploring the pose. Still I paid attention and learned about it. When I got back home and the tingling was gone, I practiced until I could do it, and now it’s easy for me. But I was anxious for a while that I didn’t have the experience of the pose and I’d be asked to teach it. I didn’t include it in my programs then so it wasn’t a problem, but if somebody had asked how you do it, or asked for help with it, I knew the basics, as you eventually will.

Okay I know my legs should be closer together, but nobody's perfect all the time haha. Photo: Ed Hutchinson

Which leads to how to deal with any questions that you are unsure how to answer, which is in reality a more common challenge. The most important thing is that you be honest. So for example in the scenario cited above, if someone had asked me about doing headstand, I would tell them my experience, that it’s not a pose I had yet accomplished, but I could share the knowledge of the pose that I felt confident about. Students sometimes ask me tough questions, usually about something they experience physically either in their daily life or during class. For example, a woman in my most recent class told me she felt a pain in her lower back during Urdhva Dhanurasana that she’d never felt before, and asked me what that was about. Well, I know the vertebrae are compressing in the pose, but the back is so complex, it would be difficult to pinpoint why it happened. And anyway I’m not there to diagnose ‒  in fact a yoga teacher should never diagnose. Well I speculated a little bit, I must admit, with disclaimers that I really couldn't say what it was about. But then I gave her some practical ideas, such as doing the pose over a balance ball so she could control it more and play with the pain, and to report back.

I have no doubt Henrietta that you will be amazed at how generous and understanding people will be, if you just tell them the limits of your experience/knowledge. These are yoga people we’re talking about, after all. In the title of this post I reference a student who can ‘outdo’ the teacher, which is what this anxiety might be about, but in reality, yoga isn’t a competition and your truest students will know that.

When I was in a band we would all get butterflies before performance but our motto was that the best way to deal with it was practice practice practice, and then let it go.

Lastly, here is a relevant passage from my interview with Jason Crandell in this magazine:


JC: …And teachers also have to learn how to say something really important, which is, “I don’t know the answer. I don’t know the answer to that, let me refer you.”

YTM:  That can be hard for any educator.

JC:  Really hard for any educator but it’s even more important for yoga teachers, and the truth is, if yoga teachers don’t know how to, or don’t have the internal strength to say “I don’t know,” sometimes they are putting their students at risk. Because a lot of times the question that you have to say “I don’t know the answer” to has to do with an injury or illness or discomfort.

YTM:   There’s that responsibility.

JC:  Yes and it’s a responsibility to not play doctor. To me that’s another hallmark of a good teacher, knowing what you don’t know, right, it’s really dangerous to not know what you don’t know, and it’s really important to know what it’s appropriate to get feedback on, and know what your boundaries are. It’s huge, it’s huge, and it’s rare. It’s rare that a teacher will say, “I don’t know,” or “I’m going to help you find someone else that is a different professional that might be able to help you safely and effectively.”


The entire interview is here: http://yogateachermagazine.com/content/jason-crandell

I hope this has been helpful and I hope you keep us posted on your progress!


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