Study for Meditation Mat

Study for Meditation Mat
Handspun Tapestry Weaving

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Actions: Finding the Right Tools for the Job

I've been teaching a number of classes the past few months, mostly substituting for teachers who are away in warmer climes (smart people).  The classes cover a wide spectrum of styles, from restorative classes to an advanced yoga class.  Substitute teaching, working with such a variety of students, is exhilarating and terrifying.  I love it-there are always new challenges and possibilities to discover.  I think of teaching this way as "adventurous play."  It's usually great fun, although sometimes, I fall off the merry-go-round and get bumped and bruised. It's tough when those bumps and bruises come from a less than warm reception to your personal style of practice and teaching. That exhilarating ride can quickly become an awful experience of feeling that warning knot build in the pit of your stomach. It's up to me to change fear to excitement and potential.

One of the challenges I've faced is convincing students that it's okay to use props.  I'm actually going for, "It's an excellent idea to use props," but the degree of resistance I've met surprises me. The resistance is across the board-I see it in very flexible people who fold and bend themselves into the deepest asana and in people who can barely lift an arm or a leg. The dictionary definition of "prop" is simply a support, but contained within that definition is "Rigid support, esp. one not forming structural part of thing supported (OED)" and therein lies the problem.  We think of props as things we use when we can't do or reach the thing we want to do.  There's stigma attached; as a result, we often use props only when we think we can't.

I usually teach in a studio full of props; I've also taught in dance studios with a minimum of props,and unused classrooms with nothing but chairs and tables for assistance.  Props are a bonus and a blessing. (I could write a paper on the yogic possibilities of the styrofoam pool noodle.) Props can take you further into a posture than you ever dreamed possible. They can support you, challenge you or help you rest. I also come from a world of textiles where it's understood that various assists and devices can help you be a better artist or craftsperson. There are amazing works of art and craft found all over the world which rely on few or no tools-Chilkat Dancing Blankets (thigh spinning), intricate brocade weaving (ground looms), cave drawings and paintings (blood, charcoal, earth pigments used with sticks and fingers)-but we also know that support media such as drawlooms, Jacquard looms and spinning wheels, acrylic paints and fancy drawing pens can expand our options.

Because of this, I've been puzzling over ways to communicate the advantages of using props to yoga students, to remove the stigma of "propage," as we sometimes call the practice, to convince students that props open us up to possibilities, rather than hold us back.

One of the things I learned was that, if you ask students to use props in a class where props are not usually considered, people may be insulted.  They take it as a suggestion that you think they can't do deep postures. (Chairs are a big issue.  Asking people to use chairs seems to trigger a negative reaction more often than asking students to use any other prop.)  It may not help to explain that you use chairs in all your classes or that the use of props has nothing to do with whether or not the teacher thinks you can do the pose. In addition to explaining the advantage of props, it's important to show students what props can and cannot do for a yoga practitioner. Use unsupported poses to show students where they are and then use the props to take them deeper into the poses.

The most physically flexible students may be surprised at how much more deeply they can stretch and release when they use chairs to challenge themselves.  Those who face many physical, emotional and psychological challenges (and they may not be the students you think) can expand their options with props.  If everyone is using props, no one feels excluded, which can be especially important to yoga neophytes and people facing specific challenges such as cancer.

I've been inviting students to listen to their bodies and explore the idea of "yoga as play."  It seems to me that yoga and meditation so often become more items to add to our "To Do List." Yoga can quickly become work. We have quite enough work in our lives, even if we don't have "jobs."  What we lack is a sense of play and the opportunity to explore "adventurous play."  We begin slowly, by providing options for poses, supported and unsupported, and then offering students 5 minutes or so to pick a pose (or poses) they would like to explore and play with it.  The first time I offered this, there was a general "deer in the headlights" look on students' faces, but I can see that people are opening to the idea of having "recess" in the middle of a yoga class. "Yoga recess" challenges the idea that everyone has to be doing the same poses by instruction and rote.  It's quite a delight to see bodies moving in so many different ways.  Yoga recess also introduces a bit of flow to my classes, which tend towards Restorative yoga and often involve longer holds. (I adapted the idea of students doing a variety of poses in the same class from Sarah Garden's Yoga for Backs classes. Thank, Sarah!)

Another factor in the equation is yoga language.  Alyson, a fellow teacher and friend, introduced our training group to a wonderful book, "Overcoming Trauma through Yoga."  I've been exploring the authors' advice on care and attention to language.  The result so far is that I'm shifting away from speaking about asana modifications and substituting the word, options. Modifications suggest, "This is what you do when you can't do that," while options suggest personal choice and freedom.  I'm rethinking the word, prop, altogether and introducing the concept of props as tools.  Props may suggest a deficiency to some students, but tools are a sign of higher intelligence on our planet.  (There are very few creatures who can make, use and adapt tools.)  My current mantra to students is, "Props are not designed to hold you back.  Props are tools to take you deeper."

As a neophyte teacher, it's natural for me to want to reinvent the yoga wheel and to tell the world about my discoveries. There's nothing new in the ideas of right thoughts, right words, right actions, but I believe the challenge of exploring these ideas through observation, through practice, through play, can only make me a better teacher.  I have a long, long way to go in that direction, but I've been asking many questions, rethinking most of my assumptions and testing theories in practical ways.  Living has become one big scientific exploration of play and its benefits.  That's where I want to be.  I'm hoping to convince others to come along for the ride.  You may fall off the merry-go-round once in a while, but it's sure a lot of fun when you're on it.

This room is sometimes a fibre studio; currently it's a yoga room and these are some of my preferred tools.


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