On the Responsibilities of Students

Yesterday, a student of mine accosted me in the studio’s washroom to share the following observation: I attended a yoga class at another shala yesterday, and some of the things the teacher told me contradicted some of the things you say in class.

I smiled at her and said: That’s perfectly alright, especially since most of the things I say in class come from the very teacher you visited yesterday.

Coincidentally convenient responses aside, my student’s observation points to a question that most serious yoga practitioners eventually pose: how does one reconcile the often divergent and downright conflicting instructions offered by different yoga teachers and different yoga traditions?

The answer, as always, is simple in principle and complex in performance. At the end of the day, the practitioner herself is the final arbiter of the appropriate execution of a pose. I use the word “appropriate” rather than the word “correct” because there is no correct way to perform an asana. There are general guidelines to be followed based on the physiology shared by all human beings—and subsets of less general guidelines based on commonly encountered divergences from the aforementioned physiology—and these guidelines are what yoga teachers should be conveying, BUT, the rest have to be discovered through the practitioner’s mindful self-exploration and skillful self-experimentation. This is why yoga places so much emphasis on attentiveness: there is enormous wisdom to be found in the instruction of teachers, but obedience to these instructions is a profoundly interpretative task with the other partner in the dialogue being one’s own body. Very often, I remind novice students: Turn your attention inward and focus on doing what feels good rather than what looks right.

Of course, none of this absolves yoga teachers of their enormous responsibility to their students—it just aims to distribute the obligation more equitably among all the parties involved. And while it means students will have to work much harder in paying more attention to what’s going on inside their bodies versus coasting along on the cues of their teachers, well, what is yoga anyway if not paying a whole LOT of attention?

The good news is, as with all things in yoga, practice—plain, old, routine and repetitive practice—eventually makes everything easier.

NOTE: Of course, not all yoga teachers and yoga traditions will follow such a democratic philosophy. There are teachers and traditions that will insist that their methodology alone is correct and that students must meticulously obey every single directive. Even in these cases, I insist that students still have a choice: follow a monolithic tradition, or, follow a more libertarian one. In either case, remain attentive to the consequences and assume responsibility for them.


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