Fit the Pose to the Person, Not the Other Way Around
An appeal to yoga teachers to stop trying to fit students in a box
We are all so unique and different, thank goodness! We have different personalities, different backgrounds, different motivations, different skeletons, different physical and mental strengths and weaknesses, and the list goes on and on.
Unfortunately, in the yoga studio, many teachers seem to have forgotten this. We try to get everyone to look the same, we give the same cues to everyone in the room.
Since all humans are unique, trying to get everyone to fit into the same shape and in to the same box, is detrimental in so many ways. Let’s see why and what to do about it.
Why is “fitting the person to the pose” dangerous?
First off, fitting the person to the pose can lead to injury by not accommodating everyone’s unique structure.
For example, asking a student with tight hips to do pigeon with the front shin parallel to the front edge of the mat will damage their knee over time.
Conversely, encouraging a more flexible student to come deeper into a pose by using an external force or body weight to perform an Instagram-like shape, can lead to long-term joint issues.
Fitting the person to the pose also breeds attachment to our body and how we look, which is the complete opposite of the yoga philosophy and leads to pitfalls.
Where does “fitting the person to the pose” come from?
I believe one of the many causes of this is that many yoga teachers are ex-dancers and gymnasts. I was a professional dancer for 12 years and was trained to always move my body the exact same way, to look exactly like the other dancers I was sharing the stage with and to be a perfectionist.
It took a lot of un-learning to adjust to the philosophy of yoga, in the sense that I am not identified by my body or my ability to “perform”, and that I don’t have to be perfect.
Unfortunately, many ex-dancers and gymnasts bring these “performer” principles with them into the yoga studio and impose them onto their students.
Many teachers are extremely militant in their cues, without leaving room for variations. For example, in Virabhadrasana II many teachers say ‘back foot parallel to the back edge of the mat.” This cue is directive and limiting, eliminating other variations that are present in the yoga space.
Cues like this might work for at most 40% of the people in the room… But what about everyone else?
Most of the teachers who give militant cues have been taught to do so in their yoga teacher training programs. These programs have the same systemic issues woven into them: they are often taught by ex-gymnasts or dancers.
Most of the time, the need to control everyone and get them to look the same is presented as a way to keep people safe. I call BS ☺. Embracing our students’ unique body and personality is healthy and safe. Forcing them to try to do the pose like a fabricated ‘perfect’ body is not.
Like the example above, with Warrior II. For the other 60% of the people in the class that don’t do the back foot parallel to the short edge of the mat (because that is safer and more appropriate for them based on the external rotation they have in their front hip joint), the teacher will come around and ‘correct’ them. However, by forcing someone to do that alignment when it isn’t right for their body can be more detrimental. We actually want them to turn their back toes in slightly so that they are embracing their own unique alignment and not just trying to look like the picture in a book.
If a teacher says things like “the pose is on point” or gives militant cues without allowing for variations, I would say they are suffering from a misunderstanding of how unique each of us is and they are lacking the ability to adjust their teaching in order to embrace these differences.
So how can we embrace everyone’s uniqueness?
The best way to serve our students is to honor each person’s unique body and to guide them into honoring it themselves.
Here are some ways in which we can embrace everyone’s uniqueness:
Encourage exploration: Give some parameters for the pose and then encourage the students to explore. For example, in Tadasana the parameters would be that you are standing upright in a sustainable, supportive, strong shape, just like a mountain, and then encourage them to explore what that feels like for them: “What feels better for your knee, having the toes pointing forward or slightly out?”
Don’t overly control, avoiding words like “should” or “most”
Use the word “maybe” a lot!
Give lots of options in a supportive, non-judgmental way, without using the word “level” or making them feel less than for taking a certain option. Invite them to try to point toes this way or that way and encourage them to be guided by their own body and inner guide.
Demonstrate the several options for a pose and then do the “easier” option yourself, to make people feel comfortable if they choose that option.
Embrace the grey: Remember that things aren’t black and white, there is a lot of grey in the middle ;).
Instead of fitting your students to the pose, fitting the pose to the student serves your students. Besides it being healthy and safe, it connects them to their bodies, teaches them to listen to their inner guide and gives them responsibility for their own practice. This is a great gift we can give the students in our classes.
Which cues are you using that are militant, limitative and leave no room for exploration? How will you rephrase them?