Are We Ruining Our Students’ Intuition? – Empowering vs. Disempowering Teaching in Our Yoga Classes
“Listen to your intuition!”
We see this on shirts, memes on IG and hear Yoga teachers spew it in class constantly. What does it mean? And, as teachers, are we truly helping our students connect to their intuition or making that connection worse through the way that we are teaching?
In Yoga we often discuss connecting to our intuition as an essential part of the Yoga philosophy. Yoga teaches us that we are all one, that we ourselves are divine beings having a human experience, thus we are connected to the Universe and that we have unlimited access to this infinite knowledge and wisdom through our Third Eye Chakra, Ajna.
Through the Yoga practice, we aim to deepen our connection to our divine intuition. And as teachers, many of us hope to guide our students on the same path. Although our intentions are positive, we might create more damage. Let’s have a look together to see if this is the case and what to do about it:
1. What does intuition actually mean?
2. Your immense responsibility as the perceived authority in class.
3. Are you doing this? An example of disempowering teaching.
4. 8 powerful strategies to empower your students.
5. How to genuinely trust our students’ inner wisdom.
1. What does intuition actually mean?
Oxford Languages defines intuition as “a thing that one knows or considers likely from instinctive feeling rather than conscious reasoning”. Intuition is also known as instinct, gut feeling, sixth sense or clairvoyance.
From a Yoga perspective, as divine beings, we have unlimited access to the universal knowledge and wisdom. We may call it our inner teacher, our pure white light, or Purusha.
What a beautiful gift!
By slowing down through the various practices of Yoga, like meditation, Asana, and Pranayama, we can tap into our own intuition. And, of course, as teachers, we would love to help our students connect to the Third Eye Chakra, Ajna, thus their intuition more.
However, is it possible we might be impairing our students’ intuition?
2. Your responsibility as the perceived authority in class
Recent research has demonstrated that “expert” advice suppresses areas of the brain that involve judgement. Gregory Berns noted: "The study indicates that the brain relinquishes responsibility when a trusted authority provides expertise." (Reference book ‘New Self, New world)
When in a Yoga class, the Yoga teacher is often perceived as the “expert”. This automatically gives us power and authority over the student, whether we want it or not.
Because of this, students will often look to us for solutions or answers, instead of connecting to their own intuition. They often think we know more than them, which we absolutely do not, and thus they will defer their decisions and choices to what we say.
Not only is this completely contradictory to the Yoga philosophy, it isn’t helpful for our students in any way.
Since students will natural do this, we must not only increase our sense of responsibility, but become mindful and aware of what underlying messages we are giving them through our words and actions.
3. Are you doing this? An example of disempowering teaching
If we value our students’ ability to make wise choices for themselves based on their knowledge and intuition, then we must observe ourselves, making sure that our intention of helping them to access their inner knowledge is supported by all that we do… In other words, that we aren’t hypocrites.
The following example will illustrate what this means.
Many teachers say at the beginning of class: “Listen to your own body”, but then they tell you exact, militant and non-alternative cues, such as the very common “Point your toes forward in Tadasana.”
For some people, toes pointing forward in Tadasana leads to pain and discomfort in the knee, as they naturally have rotation built into the knee joint. People who have this skeletal variation (it is very common), will ignore the feelings of pain and discomfort in the knee, because the authority figure, the teacher, told them to do something else.
Students give up their autonomy and power to us, the authority figure, because they think we know more than they do. They think we know more than their own body and intuition.
So teachers say “listen to your body’ but then ‘correct’ people to make them do the exact alignment. Thus the teacher’s actions don’t align with their words, they are being hypocrites. This is irresponsible of the teacher and is detrimental to the student.
In this case, the teacher’s cue comes in direct contradiction to the student’s innate intuition, teaching the student to ignore it over the teacher’s instructions. This leads to a disconnection from the intuition and which is the exact opposite of the Yoga philosophy.
Additionally, Groupthink and group pressure both play into this dynamic and influences students to conform to the teacher’s cues, irrespective if they are aligned with their intuition or not.
Indeed, there is self-responsibility on the part of the student, but taking all of the above into consideration: giving away responsibility to the perceived “expert”, Groupthink and group pressure, we need to find effective ways to empower our students to follow their intuition.
4. 8 powerful strategies to empower your students
How do we mitigate this as teachers? How do we support our students to tap into their intuition and trust their innate knowledge?
Here are some potential strategies:
1. Use the word “maybe”:
Try to be very mindful that your words and actions support your intention of supporting their intuition. Try to align your actions with your words.
For example: “Maybe your toes point forward, if that feels comfortable and supportive for you, with no negative sensation”.
2. Offer lots of options and ask them to explore their own experience.
For example: in Vrksasana (Tree Pose), you might offer a few different arm options and say: “Try this, or maybe try this.” Ask them to be open to the experience and encourage them to choose the option that feels good for them.
3. Remind them to make wise choices for themselves, for their own practice, body, mind, and spirit.
4. Remind them often that you do not know their body or their experience. Only they know that and are the expert of their own life. Now that is empowering!
5. Don’t be a dictator. Avoid being militant with your cues! Please appreciate the great importance of this!
For example: Having the back foot parallel to the back edge of the mat in Virabhadrasana (Warrior) II is not accessible for most people (due to range of motion in the joints). However, many teachers say this so students will automatically oblige, even if it feels horrible in either knee. Offer instead: “Back foot at an angle, that is comfortable for you”… or don’t say the angle at all! It isn’t your job to control their every movement, but to create a safe space for them to explore their own body and their intuition along the way. This is the art of teaching Yoga!
6. Don’t ‘correct’ often. You may ask them questions, so they can check in with their sensations.
For example: I’ll walk around and ask:
a. “How does your back knee feel?” If it doesn’t feel good, offer: “Maybe try turning your toes in or out a bit.”
b. “How does it feel now?” Ask them to choose the option that feels the most appropriate for them.
7. To keep them safe, describe sensations to avoid.
For example: “If you feel pain in the back of the knee, rather than in the middle of the hamstring, try bending your knee slightly.”
8. Remind them that everything you say is an offering. Many teachers contradict this when getting into class. If the teacher says that everything is a suggestion, yet ‘corrects’ everyone’s back foot in Virabhadrasana (Warrior) II, when it isn’t parallel to the back edge of the mat then… it wasn’t really a suggestion, was it? :)
5. How to genuinely trust our students’ inner wisdom
Buddha said: “Do not believe anything I say, always check it out first”.
In every teacher training and workshop that I provide, I always encourage the participants to never blindly believe anything I say.
I always give my teachers the reason why I say or recommend something. Then I ask them to do their own research, within themselves and by checking other sources, such as other teachers.
Doing this as a teacher requires humility and the acceptance that we cannot and will never know everything… and, as we start to know more, we actually realize we know less. This is why we want to expand, instead of limit, our students’ horizons.
Trust in your students’ innate wisdom! It will serve them on the Yoga mat and in life, and it will serve you in your teaching, as well.
We have NO idea what a person’s alignment is and what is safe for their body. This is why there are so many problems with a teacher being rigid and militant about alignment cues.
If, as Yoga teachers, we are not enabling but hindering a student from finding their unique shape of a pose, then we are doing them a huge disservice.
It is the same as telling them:
· To NOT trust their instinct.
· That the external look of the pose is more important than how they feel internally.
· To ignore their internal environment, so that they look a certain way.
These are not things that we want to perpetuate in our culture or teach our students, who are putting their trust in us as their teachers.
The last thing we need is more Yoga teachers telling people to ignore their intuition, to give their power over to the authority figure and to trust that the ‘teacher’ knows more about themselves then they do.
Knowing all of this, how will you change your teaching in order to empower your students to tap into their wonderful innate gift called intuition?
 Groupthink is a phenomenon that occurs when a group of well-intentioned people make irrational or non-optimal decisions spurred by the urge to conform or the believe that dissent is impossible (Psychology Today)
In love and light,