A couple of weeks ago, I put on my Yoga Geek hat and wrote a guide to finding a good teacher. This week my inner nerd turns towards the qualities of a good student.
If I could write one Sutra for students in today’s yoga environment it would read “Be Open and Discriminate.” This is consistent with Patanjali’s Sutras about asana that give guidance using the interplay of opposites. Asana should be “steady and comfortable.” And, posture should be attained “by the relaxation of effort and the absorption in the infinite.”*
When you walk into a class it is important to be open to whatever experience awaits. At the same time, to get the most out of the class you should also have done some research. Talk to other students or search the internet. What kind of yoga does the teacher teach and how much experience does she have? What level is he teaching to? What do internet reviews of the studio say? This preliminary knowledge can give you a foundation for a positive experience. After all, there is nothing worse…or more preventable…then going to an “advanced” class when you are a “beginner” and asked to take postures that could hurt you because your body is not ready for them.
You can learn a lot about a studio just by walking in the door. How are you handled at the front desk? What questions are you asked? If you are new to a studio, chances are you’ll get a quick sales pitch about packages and discounts. Don’t just say no because sometimes those deals are very efficient and for the cost of what you would pay for a regular class you might get three or five. Always ask if you can make your decision AFTER your first class. Sometimes the answer will be no but more and more frequently studios are understanding that you need to be able to experience a class before making a financial commitment.
Assuming you’ve gotten to the class on time (it’s a really bad habit to get to class, especially one that you have never gone to, late), take a seat on your mat and look around. Observe the room and take a moment to sync up your own energy. This is not always possible but if you are in a lunch-time class many of the students will have just come from a morning of intense work and need to stretch and move. Later in the day the students may need more relaxation. A good teacher will be able to read the room, a good student can too. Whatever you do DON’T have your cell phone on your mat. Turn it completely off at the door. Having it next to you…even if it is on silent…is both a sign of disrespect to the teacher and your practice.
While the teacher is instructing it is important to pay attention to your own body. While a good teacher can see certain features of your alignment…the position of your torso over your hips, the relative height of each shoulder, the width of your stance and sometimes see tense muscles or facial expressions you are responsible for understanding your own pain and discomfort. Frequently a posture or instruction will make you uncomfortable but if you feel pain (sharpness…ouchness) it is up to you to come out of the pose and let the teacher know. Despite the promise of special powers, teachers are not mind readers, only by alerting a teacher to your pain can something be done about it.
At the same time a teacher may ask you to come out of your comfort zone and take a handstand or backbend. These poses can illicit fear and a teacher may ask you to try the pose even if you are not 100% sure of your ability. Know that getting into these postures can open up new pathways of understanding and be exhilarating but if you are so fearful that you freeze they will do little good. Being receptive is as important as discernment.
In class there will be some students who can create shapes you can’t and some who can’t create the ones you can. What is important is to not hope to be someone you’re not and not try something you are not ready for. Yoga is a process of micro-changes and with practice you may, or may not, surprise yourself with what you can accomplish. The biggest lesson in yoga class is to not compare yourself to other students and be unattached to the results of your actions.
After class observe how you feel and reflect on any concepts or emotions that came up during class. You might want to write down a series of poses or a teaching idea that you can work with on your own. Self practice is a very important component of being a good student and your classes provide nourishment for this process. Even if you had a negative reaction to the class you can learn something from the experience. In many cases things what makes me feel unaccomplished and clumsy in class are perfect fuel for my own self practice.
Being a good student is both acknowledging that a teacher may see something in you that you don’t and being in touch with your own gut. So getting the most out of class is a constant pull between two opposites…be open to the novel and different and confidently discriminate with your own deep knowledge and wisdom.