Continued from Teaching the Art of Discovery Part 1 .
Continuing with the topic of how to keep your classes fresh and interesting—to nurture your students’ spirit of discovery rather than merely teaching a constant stream of new poses—I’ll now focus on strategies for teaching more-advanced asanas. (In the next part of this series, I’m going to suggest a change in the way some of us teach. Later I’ll write on how to help your students move toward meditation, and how best to bring yoga philosophy into your classes.)
When Are Students Ready?
The reasons for teaching more-advanced asanas go beyond a desire for variety:
- These poses can help students open and/or strengthen new areas of the body.
- Many offer very powerful energetic and spiritual benefits.
- Students gain a sense of accomplishment and selfconfidence from meeting a challenge.
- It’s fun to learn new poses! Remember, however, not to teach them in a way that merely feeds restlessness.
- You’ll deepen your own practice and teaching by rising to the challenge of teaching these poses.
But when are students truly ready? When they have perfected the simpler poses? Who wants to wait that long? After more than 20 years, I’m still working on chandrasana!
Your students should, however, have a solid foundation for the more-advanced poses that you intend to teach: sufficient strength, flexibility, and body awareness. Equally important is that they understand the subtler aspects of asana. More-advanced poses often require greater effort, which tends to distract a person from the subtler aspects. If students have not already developed a sensitive inner awareness through easier poses, then more-advanced poses become mere exercise.
So, for students who have all this, how can you select and teach asanas from an Ananda Yoga perspective? For that matter, what is an Ananda Yoga perspective? That’s easy: inward and upward! I’ll say more about that shortly.
Choosing New Asanas
My favorite source for asanas beyond those in Level 1 AYTT is The Art and Science of Raja Yoga (ASRY). In fact, I urge you to read all the “Postures” sections in ASRY, even the Level 1 poses. You won’t find much on asana mechanics in ASRY—Swami’s focus is the inner essence of the poses— but you will find many helpful insights.
You’ll also find more-advanced versions of some Level 1 poses, such as trikonasana. Instead of going directly to the side, Swami instructs the student to go slightly forward as well. This version helps bring even more awareness to the spine by adding a twist to the pose. Although it requires more inner hamstring and spinal flexibility—and one must take extra care not to strain the back when exiting—it’s marvelous for those who can stay open (and breathing!) in the pose. (Those who cannot stay open should do the easier, Level 1 version.)
Another example is the version of bhujangasana taught in ASRY. It’s the reverse of the Level 1 AYTT bhujangasana: instead of having active back muscles and relaxed arms throughout the pose, its final phase calls for relaxed back muscles and active arms. Although that’s easy, physically, still it’s only for those with considerable body awareness and openness in the fronts of the hips—intermediate students at least. Otherwise, one tends to over-compress the lumbar discs as well as miss the energetic point of the pose. Those who are ready for this version, however, will find it even more effective in lifting energy up the spine than is the Level 1 version—provided they practice it with the energetic focal points described in ASRY.
Also, if you have have students who are complaining that the basic asanas are too easy, have them try the no-hands variation of dhanurasana (Step 10). Yow! It will end their whining—and perhaps begin another kind of whining if you ask them to hold it for more than a few breaths.
Of course, there are numerous asanas besides those in ASRY. While some are merely gymnastic, others can indeed fit into Ananda Yoga because they help bring energy into the spine and up to the brain. Let’s talk about how to begin teaching such an asana.
Tuning in to the Asana
To teach a new asana—or even decide whether to teach it—you must first understand it yourself. This begins with the physical doing of the pose.
Yes, you could teach a pose that you’ve never done, but I feel that you can’t teach it deeply and effectively unless you can do it (or something close to it). Otherwise, you won’t be able to give proper guidance on the issues of alignment, focus, balance, energy flow, etc. You’ll even be in doubt about sequencing. In addition, you won’t be able to convey the vibration of the pose.
It may take time to develop the strength and/or flexibility to do the pose. That’s fine. We need to model in our own practice the patient, conscious approach that we’d like our students to adopt. In fact, why not guide students in preparing for the asana even as you prepare yourself. Many simple flexibility- and strength-building exercises can be done in such a way as to feel like asanas, even though they’re not. Everyone can enjoy the process, not just the goal!
Build strength and flexibility slowly and methodically; rushing into new poses can invite injury. (Shoulders and necks that are deconditioned or tight are particularly vulnerable.) Seek to strengthen or open up the relevant areas of the body enough that smooth breathing, joint safety, relaxationin- the-midst-of-effort, and inner awareness won’t be compromised when you and your students finally get to the pose.
Alignment is another issue. Most asanas merely involve variations on the basic alignment principles covered in Level 1 AYTT. However, some asanas involve principles that we don’t explore much in Level 1: e.g., the finer points of shoulder alignment. So realize that there’s always more to know. It may take careful exploration of an asana—and a continuing study of functional anatomy—to figure out the alignment principles that insure safety and promote a deep experience. The more we understand from our own experience the physical and energetic aspects of the poses, the more effectively we can teach our students.
Once you have become able to do the pose, you’ll be able to judge whether the pose really works in Ananda Yoga: i.e., does it help bring energy up the spine to the brain? If so, your vibrational understanding will help draw your students into that same experience. If not, then it’s mere exercise—and while there’s nothing wrong with exercise, isn’t it better to direct your students’ valuable time and effort toward asanas that offer both exercise and “inward and upward”?
Next, you need to work out your teaching instructions for the asana. Clear, careful teaching can make all the difference between an asana experience that is powerful and one that is “ho hum”—or even unpleasant or injurious. The more advanced the asana, the more clarity is essential. Tape-record your teaching, then adopt beginner’s mind and follow your own instructions. Are they clear and complete? How can you say it better? It’s a great way to improve your instructions for the new pose before springing it on your students.
No Affirmation? No Problem.
Okay, you’ve prepared your body and worked out the alignment principles. You’ve done the pose and experienced that it does indeed help bring energy into and up the spine. You’ve even worked out crystal clear instructions. But Ananda Yoga has no affirmation for the asana. What to do?
Well, you could make up your own. It’s harder than it may seem, however, to come up with one that truly resonates with the inner experience—and with your students.
A better approach, in my opinion, is to borrow an affirmation from a pose that is energetically similar. After all, not every asana needs to have its own unique affirmation, as though its effects were utterly different from those of any other asana. For example, I’ve found that padahastasana’s “Nothing on earth can hold me!” works well with a variety of standing forward bends.
Here’s a further thought, however. Although I hope that Swami will someday give affirmations to more poses, I see no need to have an affirmation for every asana. This reminds us to rely upon our inner resources, to cultivate our own personal experience of the asana. To me, an affirmation is a means, not an end—a springboard that helps us dive deeper into the asana. We shouldn’t confuse the springboard with the diving, nor forget that the diving is more important.
Besides, any student who is truly ready for more-advanced asanas understands the inner practice well enough that the absence of an affirmation will be no hindrance. In fact, it may even stimulate a more personal sense of discovery in the pose. Yes, affirmations are helpful, but there comes a time when the little bird (that’s us!) has to fly on its own—even for poses that have affirmations.
At the same time, we must remember that one purpose of the affirmations is to help us focus on a pose’s effect on energy and consciousness. When there is no affirmation, we must be extravigilant, not allowing physical effort to disrupt a calm, sensitive, inward focus.
Here again the teacher can help: even experienced students can benefit from your setting up the (nonexistent) affirmation. By “setting up” an affirmation, I mean what you could say to prepare students to receive the affirmation. These words are intended to lead them seamlessly from the physical doing of the asana to the psycho-spiritual experience of the pose, which would normally be reinforced by the asana affirmation. With or without an affirmation, this setup will help students direct and maintain their inward focus, aiding their voyage of discovery in the pose.
Your own experience with the pose (or a similar pose) is invaluable for this. The more you know what’s happening in the asana, the better you can guide students into this inner experience. So use your knowledge and tape-record your setup of the (perhaps-nonexistent) affirmation; then play it back and do the asana yourself to see whether your setup works. Test-drive a number of different setups. It’s tedious but illuminating, and you’ll see the benefit in your teaching.
So in a nutshell: when students are truly ready for more-advanced asanas, first you go for it, and then help them go for it!
Continued: Teaching the Art of Discovery – Part 3: Discovery via Challenges