• Christina Raskin

Life isn’t Black or White, so let’s Embrace the Grey

“I just want to know the answer, tell me what is right.”

I wish I could count how many times a yoga teacher in training asked me this in regards to how to do a pose. Hell, I myself have asked this many, many times. I remember when I took my first teacher training and I just wanted to know the right way. I would get so frustrated when my teacher would look me in the eyes and say with infinite patience and kindness: “There is no right way, Christina”.

The years have passed and now I am the teacher giving this same answer to my students. When students ask me questions, I often say: “maybe” or “it depends”.

There is no one, right way.

For example, when placing the back foot on an angle in Warrior I or Pyramid pose, many teachers say to do a 45 degree angle. However, this isn’t the case for everyone. When I teach this in teacher training students ask, “how many degrees should the foot turn out?” The frustrating answer is, it depends. It depends on the individual’s body and their hip and ankle joint. Students think the 45 degrees is the right answer and when they find out it isn’t the right way then they want to know what the right answer is. For some people it will be 45 degrees while for others it will be 30 degrees.

The thing is, there is no one, right way.

For sure, there is black and white in the world, but then there are all of the shades of grey in between. As yoga teachers and students of life, I believe it is healthy and healing to not only acknowledge this grey, but also to embrace it.

Conversely, seeing the world in black and white only, can lead to a lot of suffering, because it is not an accurate perception. When this is our perception of the world, we want to control it and we tend to become self-righteous and rigid in our beliefs of how the world should be and what is “right”.

Yoga teaches us that we are part of nature, we are part of this manifested world. We have only to look at nature to see that there is no one way. Look at all of the variety in flowers! Some flowers have no petals, while others have upwards of 16 petals and then there is everything in-between, that’s the grey!

In the example above, asking how much to turn the foot out in Warrior I or Pyramid is like asking how many petals a flower should have.

The need for control

The need to know the right answer might be rooted in a need for control. And the need for control is rooted in fear and self-doubt. If the need for control is abundant, it is likely that we feel unstable and unsupported. This can be an imbalance in the root Chakra. Thus, we try to control our environment, including other people, to feel secure.

However, seeing the world in black and white isn’t always a sign of a controlling personality. Sometimes it is just what we’ve been taught, it is our learned way of seeing the world. If this is the case, maybe all that we need is simply the realization that there are many shades of grey in between. Setting our intention and focus on embracing these variations can be a big enough shift to adjust our perception.

How can we tell the difference, you ask?

Here are a few tell-tale signs of a controlling personality, which leads to suffering:

  • Perfectionism: The belief that perfectionism is necessary for success and the lack of flexibility. When we are perfectionists we have the need to always be the “best”.

  • Judgement: The inability to accept the imperfect parts of oneself, leading to projecting unreasonable demands onto others in the form of excessive criticism.

  • Only accepting the “best”: The ‘best’ doesn’t exist. This is a dead giveaway of the fact that one sees the world in this right/wrong or black/white dichotomy that is a mere construct of our mind.

How does all of this apply to our teaching?

Let’s come back to my student, the yoga teacher in training.

When we, as yoga teachers, see the world as black and white, when we think there is only one way, we:

  • Try to control our students, taking away their decision power over their own practice.

  • Get rigid in our cues, disconnecting our students from their bodies and inner wisdom.

  • Try to fit the person to the pose [link], to make everyone look the “right” way like the picture in the book, potentially leading to injuries.

  • Get overly critical of our students and ourselves, perpetuating the feeling of “not being good enough,” thus robbing us of peace and contentment.

This rigidity in teaching can be very detrimental to our students. By not embracing their uniqueness, we perpetuate the belief that one must conform to a certain way of being in order to be “good” at yoga or fit in. I think it’s obvious how this is harmful to the psyche of our students.

What can we do as yoga teachers?

Personally, I believe that our society as a whole is way too driven by perfectionism, control and the black and white thinking. This becomes evident, just by looking at the popularity of the self-help genre and the pervasively low self-esteem of people that are always trying to be “better”. Why bring this in the yoga studio, as well? Why perpetuate these feelings of lack and discontentment?

The inability to be flexible with ourselves, each other and our environment, leads to suffering, so why not teach our students, along with flexibility in the body, also the flexibility of the mind? Let the yoga studio be a space of acceptance, non-judgement and forgiveness.

Here are some ways in which we can do that:

  • Remind your students that there are no right or wrong emotions or sensations in their body, even if they are less than positive; they are just information that guides their actions or adjustments in the body

  • Remove words like should, best, and level from our language. Instead talk about acceptance, peace, and presence.

  • Encourage your students to find their own expression of a pose, based on the way it feels, rather than on how it looks like in a photo or in another student’s body

  • Teach them that their practice is going to look and feel different from day to day and that it’s ok to have less than perfect days, e.g. when their balance is off or when they don’t feel like doing a Chaturanga.

  • Invite them to be open to possibilities, be playful and explore new modifications of a pose or a new transition, even if the novelty feels uncomfortable

  • Stop trying to control your students! Let’s lead by example by letting go of the need to control our students with militant cues.

By showing your students that there is no one right way to practice, you help them to let go of perfectionism and judgement. They can learn that the need to control and the desire to be the “best” doesn’t give us peace. You help them alleviate what might be bringing them suffering so that they can find more peace. Thus impacting not only their experience on their mat, but of their life, as well. This is very powerful.

That being said, what resonated most with you? What will you start applying in your yoga classes?

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