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Confessions of a yoga teacher is a series on YBC where I write about my own experiences as a teacher and student.
Last month, I went to a heated power yoga class at a local studio because #studentfirst. I go to class as a complement to both my personal practice and my continuing education as a teacher. It's nice to see what and how other teachers are teaching, and it's nice to be a student in a class and experience the flow from that perspective.
Anyway, the studio has a yoga teacher program and part of the training is to assist in classes. So our class of maybe 35 has three assistants. We closed our eyes, as instructed, and began the centering.
Immediately, the three assistants began tweaking this and that, pressing down on the tops of the shoulders. I found it so distracting and intrusive, and made a mental note to choose not to have assistants at my future (yet still fictitious) studio start adjusting people until the actual asana begins.
The flow began with a warm up and then went into sun salutations. I've been practicing being really mindful with my jumping back into chaturanga and also of jumping forward from downward dog to the front of the mat - intending to use my core and try to 'float' forward and backward rather than jump now that my upper body strength is slowly increasing.
I jumped back into plank, as taught in my teacher training, moved to chaturanga, and then into upward facing dog. It was the first one of the day, and one of the assistants straddled me and pulled my shoulders back aggressively.
Immediately, I said, "Woah, woah, be careful - that's too much for my low back," because when the spine isn't warmed up (remember, this was the first up dog of the day), and when you pull at the shoulders to open the chest, you also put unnecessary compression on the low back.
Further, the approach from this one assistant felt so aggressive and it reminded me of what I was taught in teacher training: be mindful of your energy when you approach a student to offer an adjust. Approach slowly, and gently place your hands so as not to startle the student or throw them off balance.
Most alarmingly, though, it felt dangerous to my body, and I started to feel like I had to worry about that one assistant coming back because he was sneaking up on me like a ninja!
We continued to move through the flow, and this one assistant kept coming over to me out of nowhere, continuing to adjust me so aggressively that I almost walked out of the class. If I hadn't been attending the class with a friend, I might've broken my self-imposed policy of not leaving a class no matter how bad my experience.
At the end of the class, I was walking out and he stopped me and said, "You have a beautiful practice."
"Thanks," I said, and continued to walk. I don't know why, but I didn't want to get roped into a conversation about what I do, or let him know that his approach was aggressive. Maybe that is selfish of me, but I just wanted to get out of there.
"Just be careful, though," he said, authoritatively. "You never want to jump back into plank - you should always jump right into chaturanga."
"Ok," I said with a smile, continuing to walk out, knowing full well I was taught that jumping directly into chaturanga is for only the most advanced students - students who have full upper body strength and control to jump seamlessly back with elbows at 90 degrees and wrists placed perfectly under the elbows. It's also important that the student use upper body strength so as not to let the shoulders round and the butt pop up.
"You're locking your elbows out," he said, as he followed me out, "and you'll hurt yourself."
"Kay," I said with a big smile, and left.
I laughed to myself, but I was sort of irritated. Immediately, my ego kicked in.
'Why does everyone have a f*cking issue with my elbows?' I thought.
A few months back, Yoga Journal asked me to create an upward facing dog cut out for their online site. They posted it to their Facebook page and it got more engagement than any of their other posts, and guess what? So many people jumped all over me saying I had locked out my elbows. And they weren't nice about it. In fact, many were so cruel that both my mom and Greg told me not to read the comments or even go on Facebook to see the post. (And my mom actually responded to one of the people saying, "Hey that's my daughter, and I would hope that if this were your daughter, you wouldn't offer criticism in such a cruel way." The person actually responded and said they were sorry, though, so that was nice.)
But the thing is, I hadn't locked out my elbows, I just have a lot of elbow skin (which I know sounds like the biggest excuse in the book), but it's true. It looks like my elbows are locked due to the folding elbow skin (God this is a weird conversation haha) but I had a micro bend, as I always do, in my elbows, and a micro bend is just that - something so subtle you feel it rather than see it. In hindsight, I probably should've put that pointer in there. Lesson learned. But over the years I've learned that the true tell-tale sign of locked elbows is a slight (or major) hyperextension on the inner elbow.
Anyway, just as I wasn't locking my elbows out in the upward facing dog, I wasn't locking my elbows back when I jumped back in the yoga class. Here's the thing about chaturanga. It's freaking hard. I would say it's harder than any of the pretzel poses you see all over instagram. Show me a fab chaturanga and I will be impressed.
No but seriously, the next time you're in class, watch the people around you as they jump back. In particular, watch their shoulders, hand placement, and butts (but be discreet with your oogling, haha). I am willing to bet many will have the hands in front of the elbows, and the shoulders super rounded with the butt sticking up as shown above on the right because the upper body strength required to float back with control and land the feet in the correct place so that everything up top - the hands, elbows and shoulders - are in proper alignment is no joke. That requires a serious amount of strength.
Now with yoga, my philosophy is that for the most part, there is no right or wrong except for when it comes to alignment. Point your toes or flex, who cares. Arm lifted in dancer's pose or straight out in front, who cares? But proper foundational alignment to prevent injury is a must - especially for a pose like chaturanga. Repetitively doing a movement incorrectly is a perfect recipe for major injury and despite all the upper body strength I've gained in the last year or so, I still do not feel I have enough to safely jump back directly into chaturanga. For this reason, I jump into plank before going into chaturanga, but I do it with a micro-bend in the arms. If you jump back with locked arms, it's bad news bears for the joints.
These are all things I wanted to say to the soon-to-be teacher, along with my tips for how to properly adjust people, but I was too irritated to deliver what I had to say in an effective way. I will own it and say that I know it was my own ego, my own insecurities bubbling up about people judging me on the internet from the whole YJ fiasco, and this teacher-in-training who thought he knew what I was doing simply because he couldn't see the subtle micro-bend, but I do wish I had just taken a few deep breaths and then said what I needed to say.
I've made up my mind that if I see that teacher-in-training again, I will explain my reasoning for why I do not believe jumping into chaturanga is safe, and that micro-bends are something usually not visible to the eye, and I will offer my tips for how to give a great adjustment.
So here's what I want to say to students: A teacher is just a person who has had a bit of training. They do not know everything and they most certainly do not know what's going on in your body. If their adjustments do not feel right, speak up. This is not to say teachers don't know anything - they most certainly do - but one of the major foundations of yoga is self-study. You've been in your body for as long as you've been alive, and a teacher has only been a teacher since the second they graduated, so I always feel the student has more self-knowledge. As a teacher, I can offer tips here and there, but only the student really knows how things are feeling and what's going on inside their practice. Knowing your body and trusting yourself are core lessons of the yoga practice so I encourage you to take ownership of your own body and take everything a teacher says (myself included) with a grain of salt.
And now I have a question for my fellow teachers out there: When a new teacher offers...I don't want to say 'unsolicited advice' because that sounds awful and I appreciate differing opinions on what's "right" but when when the advice is delivered in a way that suggests you don't know your body and practice, do you take the time to say something to explain yourself, or do you keep calm and carry on?
And students and teachers alike - when someone offers an adjustment that you feel is dangerous to your body because you know your body and your practice well, do you say something? Do you say it right there in the middle of class or do you wait until the end?