It was your typical Monday morning in Las Vegas. About 14 students rolled in to the 9am mixed-levels flow class. I like to take it easy on people first thing Monday morning. Most of these people were either retired or had the day off, so it wasn’t like they were going to rush into work that morning and have another dog day. And yet still, Monday deserves some easing into, rather than jolting into.
We started class with the breath and explored kapalabhati pranayama, skull shining breath. As I’m rambling on about white light entering through the whole skull, there is a man having trouble in the corner. We are in vajdrasana, thunderbolt pose, and there is a large gap between the top of his ankles and the floor. Although I had offered up a block to place under the pelvis, this still wasn’t enough for him. We carried on to stand on the shins and flow through some bowing gestures, but he wasn’t having any of it. A sour look came over his face and he sat down with arms crossed.
“Whoa,” I thought, “he’s not ok.” So, I went over and asked, “Is everything ok?” He had no trouble immediately replying in a loud voice that we had spent too long on our shins and it wasn’t a fair warm up. “I need more time to get warm and ready.” I sincerely did not want him to give up on the class in the first 5 minutes and so asked him to come to bharmanasana, tabletop pose, and place his hands under his shoulders to take the weight off of the back side. He did so and I walked away, with some steam coming out of my ears too.
I must admit that it was alarming to have a grown man react so quickly to me and the pose, which in my mind was neutral. What a great moment to realize that these are the real teaching moments. If teaching is what you want to do, then you must welcome in all sides of humanity and not judge what you find. I took three deep breaths with an exhale through the mouth—unseen by the class, who was in balasana, child’s pose. Someone may have peeked, but the classroom felt calm and still. He had a comfortable looking tabletop and I regained my composure, so we carried on.
It’s a challenging thing when you assume that a pose is accessible to everyone in your classroom, even just a small group of 14 mixed-level individuals. When I was teaching at 1440 Multiversity and had this type of group 3 times a week for a whole year, I learned to throw in modifications, grab props right off the bat and watch every student to look for serious struggling or frustration. Because I am an empathic individual, learning to watch students and not jump in at the first sign of frustration was (and is) important. Instead, just using my words and own demonstrations to cater to the different obstacles in the room proves much more effective than singling out the problem. However, this time, it was different for me; it affected me to have someone get so angry at a pose and blame me for insensitivity to their needs.
It being a 1.5 hour class, we worked through hip openers and balance, peaking at times in vriksasana, tree pose. I saw this gentleman look over at visual examples of poses throughout the class and when matsyasana, fish pose, came along, I pointed to a lady in the first row who knew exactly where to go. He looked, follow suit and got into it with the aid of verbal cues. By the end of class, we were all good and had made silent amends. After everyone else had exited the room, we met in the center and talked.
“I was mad at you at first, because my feet had surgery a bit ago and that shin thing is impossible for me. I need to warm up a lot more before going there. But, with all the hip opening we did, it felt really good and I think that’s why I let it go. This was a good class for me.” I was happy that we could come to terms and witness both of our reactions to such a sticky start, so I replied with, “And it was good for me too. I need to remember that there is always something like an injury or a pose that is tricky for people in the classroom. Now that I know more about your physical being, I will be more aware of providing modifications to you in the future. In fact, it’s tricky even thinking about how to do that off the shins, so you have provided me with a good challenge!” He thanked me and said, “See you next week.” “Alright, I look forward to seeing you next week,” I said back.
As fate will have it, I had another student Tuesday who was struggling with things from the get-go. Not in a healthy way, but in a frustrated way. So, I held back and gave it space, noticing my own reaction and feelings about someone else’s experience. By the end of class, we were friends again, but I felt the same kind of unsettled demands of the pose on her body, this time viparita karani, legs up the wall pose.
One of the lessons among the many in these instances was that I too have been that student: the one who doesn’t agree with the instructor or where she/he going. If I was a beginning student and didn’t have the understanding of the poses yet, then I too might feel caught in a place with no options—just as they did. Over the years, I have learned to take space in my own practice in the classroom and make modifications as necessary for my body; but that has taken years. What’s important for the teacher here is to keep the connection to the person, as in “I see you compassionately,” without taking offense to the reactions or aversions of that person in the practice, in other words, feeling attacked.
I know that we all left class a little bit bigger this week. We showed our frustrations and chose to end with ownership of our experiences, as well as a larger framework for understanding others along with the self. It was a good week.