Saturday, August 14, 2010

Learning Yoga

I had my third beginning yoga class this morning, and yes, it was still fun.

But it got me thinking. Unfortunately, my mind races around thinking when we're supposed to be doing the relaxing, focus on the way your feet root into the ground sort of thing.

I was thinking about my anxiety about the last pose, or more specifically, my anxiety about getting the last pose (or any pose) "right." On one hand, the teacher talks about doing what feels right for one's own body, and that makes sense. On the other hand, there's also an emphasis on specific aspects of the pose.

Take something as "basic" as downward dog. The goal seems to be mostly about having a sort of neutrally straight back; you want your normal lumbar curve but also want your back sort of stretched. And you want your head in line. And your arms. But also you want your knees tending toward straightness, your hips raised, and your heels nearing the ground. But also, the goal is to not hurt yourself and challenge yourself at the same time.

I can't tell how "well" I'm doing the pose. But I'm trying to do it "well." That goes for all the poses.

What makes a pose "right"? I'm guessing some combination of physically possible without injury and tradition. And both of those seem to be things I'm anxious about. I don't think I'm unusual in wanting my body to do what I ask it, whether that's biking up a hill or tying my shoe. And at the same time, if there are other people around, I want to seem somewhat successful and capable. That seems to be one of my sources of anxiety.

Then I started wondering about my anxiety. Why am I anxious about this stuff? It's not like the instructor is going to be mean to me about not doing a pose well. This isn't army boot camp.

So I started thinking about the other things I've done that require practices that are taught specifically. Biking, for example, wasn't taught that way to me. It was more, just keep the bike moving. Okay, get back up and do it again. But no one was worried about my specific hand position or cadence. So that's not what I mean about specific movements being taught specifically. In contrast, when I learned fencing, I was taught specifically how to hold a foil, how to put my legs, how to step, reach, where to put my off-hand and on and on. The specifics were important in terms of safety, but also very much because of tradition.

We spent a few minutes in the resting pose, and my mind settled on two specific sorts of practices that are taught specifically, and for which tradition is really important, more important than practicality sometimes.

The first is learning to use a spoon or fork to eat. I was taught to form my hand very specifically to hold each implement, and any time I didn't, I was reminded, again and again. The hand form wasn't at all "natural" to me until I learned it pretty well, and now, of course, it feels like I've been doing it all my life.

But I wasn't taught to hold my spoon and fork that way because it was the most practical, but because that was how "polite" people in the US hold theirs, and people do judge others on their eating practices.

The second is learning to hold a crayon, pencil, or eventually a pen. Again, it's not necessarily the most "natural" way, but the teaching was enforced over and over again. And in school, that enforcement was public and sometimes probably humiliating. I'd been taught the "right way" to hold a pencil before school, but I remember other kids getting publicly corrected again and again.

Both of these practices indicate a level of educational or class status, and thus there's a fair bit of social pressure applied, and for me, at least, that provokes some anxiety. There's definitely a "right way" to do these things that's not quite the same as the yoga poses, which seem more adaptable to people's bodies.

It seems to me that one of the best things about my mind running wild when I'm supposed to be focused on stuff (if there's a positive in it) is that it gets me thinking about how much anxiety people (including my students) have about learning, especially public learning when someone might correct them.

It's okay to be anxious when you're learning something, even helpful. But it's not helpful to be too anxious.

When I'm standing in front of a class of 20-30 students, how do I challenge them all to feel a bit anxious without making anyone too anxious?


  1. 1. I still hold a pencil wrong.

    2. I hated yoga! Too slow for me! I almost died during one class when I realized that it was going to be an hour and a half, not an hour. I got soooo bored!

  2. I don't have an answer to your last question, but about the jumpy-mind thing: it took me 10 years of yoga before I could meditate. Seriously. Before that, any time I focused on my breathing I'd hyperventilate. Yoga's all about process. Early in the process, your mind *will* be all over the place. Just watch the thoughts.

  3. I love your connection from learning yoga to your students...

    When I first started yoga, I remember looking at an instructor in downward dog, and I knew I was nowhere close. But it's OK if you get the alignment pretty much right, and gradually you stretch into the rest.
    As for "monkey mind", I try to notice and then focus back on my breath or a mantra, or whatever... which lasts about 10 seconds before monkey mind takes over again.

  4. One thing I've enjoyed about having had three or four different yoga instructors is that they all explain the poses, but in different ways. One will say "You're doing this because it stretches X set of muscles," and one will say "This is meant to stimulate your fourth chakra," and one will say "This will help your digestion." (with a little more explanation for each, of course.) They all made sense from different perspectives, and it helped me get a sense of the "rightness" of the pose if I knew what the purpose of it was.

    And I enjoyed your comment about student anxiety, because I think about that a lot when I try to explain what things I care about (in grading assignments) and what things don't matter. It makes sense to me that I would say "I don't really care if you get the commas and periods right in a footnote, but I really do care that you italicize book titles and put article titles in quotation marks." I understand the rationale behind that, and I try to make it clear to them, but it's still easy to imagine that for them the "right" version must seem awfully arbitrary.

  5. I often wish I could go back and do classes again (particularly maths) with the realisation that it's okay to let on when you are confused, or to not get something right the first time. I spent so much time and energy trying to pretend I understood everything, and then going home and trying to catch up on my own, when it would have been easier (and I probably would have learned more) to ask questions, or to try and fail and gradually improve.

  6. Anonymous11:07 AM

    Down dog is a staple of yoga. It’s important especially for newbies to utilize key positioning skills. I found that Leeann Carey has a great free yoga video on this very thing. Your readers might want to check it out: