Western-Culture Mindsets and Yoga – Part I
By Kathryn Boland
Do you find yourself trying to boost your students’ confidence as yoga practitioners, they are constantly wondering whether they’re “doing it right”? In my view, those type of self-doubts come from a Western culture mindset that often defines achievement very narrowly, that there is always a right and a wrong way. Yoga, on the other hand, teaches that there are many different paths towards success – the path, and the nature of success itself, different for everyone. This dynamic has been on my mind recently, as I’ve begun working with an upper-middle-class, female, middle-aged client in private yoga lessons. I’ll call her Lacey (for confidentiality purposes).
She is a very dedicated and hard-working student, with a level of committed focus that I truly appreciate. At points, however, she expresses a lack of confidence in her own abilities and an attitude of “just tell me how to do it right”. At one point, she even expressed outright that she is frustrated because “I feel like I’m not doing it right…because you keep correcting me and adjusting me”. I tried, I think successfully, to take a deep breath and overcome a rising judgmental view (“what?” was an initial, more primal thought in my head). I explained to her that I’m not doing those things because she’s doing anything “wrong”, but only to help her deepen her yoga practice experience as well as ensure that she avoids injury.
At other times when she has insisted that I tell her how to do it “right”, I’ve come back with a variation of “Well, how does it feel for you?”. I’m trying to help her to get closer to the point when she can listen to her own body’s wisdom, rather than needing my reassurance. I can see that this frustrates her a bit further, but those types of feelings are part of personal growth. Despite that frustration, she showers me with thanks and joy at the end of our practices. Perhaps part of her knows that she is undergoing important personal growth through yoga.
One other time she described a belief something like (I’m paraphrasing, as I don’t remember her exact statement) that there must be a right and a wrong way to do a posture. I first told her, perhaps a bit of my own frustration kicking in, that she likely thinks that way because she grew up in a culture that puts forth that type of black-and-white view. Feeling more composed, I then described the yogic idea that rather than correct and incorrect, there are different things that are right for separate individuals (yes, with certain universal guidelines for safety and practice effectiveness).
Apart from my own feelings as an instructor, I wish to see her grow closer towards that view so that she can more fully experience everything that yoga has to offer. When our students are always looking to us for answers, it’s often because they don’t believe that they have those answers inside of themselves – or, they don’t trust their inner voices. If they never listen to their inner voices, or trust what they hear those voices say, they won’t be able to learn a key lesson of yoga – as I described, that our own answers are right inside of ourselves.
We know ourselves – our histories, our dreams, our strengths, our growth areas – better than any certified instructor ever could. In the larger scope of our lives, listening to our inner knowledge can lead us to make choices that will lead us to fulfilling our dharma, our life’s true purpose. With that reached, true happiness and fulfillment (Samadhi, in yogic terms) is possible. At the level of instructor and student relationships within yoga classes, students need to listen to their inner knowledge so that they can collaborate with us – rather than just follow our instructions.
There’s always another side to the story, and there is something to be said for having a healthy respect for one’s limitations as a practitioner. For instance, beginners who over-confidently believe that they can “handle” an advanced inversions and arm balances class would likely only feel frustrated and limited, not to mention risk seriously injuring themselves! When instructors offer advanced variations in classes, it often keeps practitioners safe and settled to objectively acknowledge that they’re not at that level in practice just quite yet – and thus take different variations.
To do just that, however - to know what is accessible to oneself as a practitioner - takes confidence in itself. That comes right along with the mature inner knowing that tells practitioners what would not benefit them to attempt, just at this stage of their individual yoga journeys. Yoga helps us to detach from the limiting emotional ties that we have to ourselves, to put ourselves in perspective, with all of our strengths and growth areas. Please stay tuned for the second part of this series, in which I’ll describe further implications of boosting student confidence and helping them listen to themselves more consistently. I’ll also offer tips for how to go about doing that. Until then, Namaste!