The use of props and assisting students

The most common mistake I have seen as a practitioner and aspiring yoga teacher is assuming that we are all cut out equally. Many people believe they are simply not as flexible to practice yoga, it is my believe they are probably either comparing themselves to others or thinking this is some kind of sport and that they somehow have to be knowledgeable or and experienced gymnast to start this practice. Because of these beliefs, some people, including myself, would view the use of props as a cookie given for those who are just not good enough for the world of yoga. How wrong were we! This essay will touch a couple of ideas that I wish I would have known in the pass, when I started this practice. 

For starters, we are not anatomically the same, our bone structure is different and that gives us a different range of motion, let that sink a little bit and repeat that phrase as many times as it takes for you to get it. As an athlete I am not used to quit, many of you might relate with me on that same way. Because of that, I believed that the reason I could not get as far as others was because I was not trying hard enough, so that led me to stay focused and committed to simply train harder. Sounds like a good idea right? Wrong, a teacher needs to know how “limited” he or she is, and it took years before I could understand that for myself. I knew we all had limits and that we should let go of the ego by trying to listen to our body when we were pushing a little too hard. What I did not know was the huge role of my anatomic shape, some things were simple never going to happen for me unless I were to use a prop. That felt very liberating, I thought I was doing something wrong, but then it also made me better understand the problems with mobility that other people had, and I felt a commitment to understand profoundly how to help people with different range of motion. So the first thing I want for you to take from this essay is that using props is no quitting or cheating, especially for those of you with an athletic background. Let go of control! Your body will grow as long as you keep your practice consistent and you have a good teacher to assist you.

Props are also good for helping your practice get deeper step by step. Suppose that you are not limited by compression and that’s not the reason why you can’t get further, and all you need is simply more practice. When you are a beginner it would probably be beneficial for you to use some tools to help you get as far as your body can go. Props will help you do that in a comfortable and safe manner, and with time and little by little, you would be able to kiss that prop goodbye and watch yourself do it on your own. But you have to remember that a prop’s purpose is not only to help you, when for different reasons you are not there yet, you could also use a prop for therapeutic reasons. Some days you will need it. There is something about using pillows and reclining on top of them in an assisted child pose, for example, when you have a lower back pain. You would know when to use them, you will feel it, and your body will tell you. Sometimes it would be because that day in particular your body needs a little help or maybe you are sore, whatever it is, props are not the enemy, use them, no matter if you are a beginner or an advanced practitioner, props are a smart choice, and that is the second thing I want you to take from this essay.

You remember I used the word compression before? Well compression is part of a duo (although there are more than two concepts in yoga anatomy, but these two are basic), the compression and tension duet. Are you limited by muscles or bones? One goes away with practice and the other one will never go away. The former is a rather simple explanation, we can extend on the concepts but the essence of them are on those lines, restriction by muscle tissue that you need to work on (tension), and restriction by hitting a bone (compression). You may have not noticed it, but I have been talking about those two since the beginning of this essay. You may not be able to do a pose quite exactly as you see your teacher do it because you are restricted by compression, your teacher in that case will let you know of that information and will offer an alternative way to do it by modifying  the pose or by giving you props. Same thing about tension. The role of a teacher in those cases is to help you understand your body so you can move with awareness.

It is very important for you as a student to know your restrictions so you know how to push yourself and it’s very important for a teacher to know how to distinguish them so they correct students based on that. Sometimes you will correct the same student on and on again before you realize that the student is not ignoring your indications, his or her body, just won’t move that way. As a teacher you should be aware of that, pay attention to your students, talk to them, study them, if you do that you will be able to help them feel good about themselves and not inadequate because you are correcting them so much. So, tension and compression are the third thing I want you to get from this essay.

There are, however, other scenarios that you have to consider, yoga is a very social experience and at the same time it’s a very individual one. In a yoga studio or wherever you are practicing along with other people, you will be close to each other, you will hear each other’s breathing, you will feel each other’s smell, and everybody will be barefoot. My point is that your personal space will be reduced, will still be there, but it will be a tiny one. And this information is important for you as student because you might rush through your poses and do them wrong because you feel anxious to be so close to each other or it might be weird for you that a teacher is touching you. As a student you need to know that this is part of a normal (average) environment and that it’s not meant to disturb you rather to help you, if in any case being too close to other people makes you uncomfortable you might consider joining a private group class or an individual one. As a teacher you should help people feel at ease about how close they are to each other, especially in mixed gender classes, and also educating people about why you need to touch them.

You don’t have to force anyone to be touched by you, but it is recommended that you explain at the beginning of a class that you are either going to have to touch them to correct their alignment or to assist them in a pose so they can go deeper. Remember that touching is a very personal experience, you have to be very professional and explain how you are going to touch them so they don´t feel like they are being disrespected. There are some ways that you as a teacher can use your body to help assist or correct a student, you can be very creative, but again, the main thing here is to be transparent with this information and to proceed as your student indicates you. It really makes a difference to be assisted by a conscious teacher, it makes your physical practice better, and the human touch and closeness is food for our social needs, all an all it’s a therapeutic experience, and that is the fourth thing I want you to take away from this essay.

We can probably figure out more points to touch but I’m going to close with this one. There are certain guidelines that you have to follow in order for you to do an asana correctly. If you don’t follow them you can put yourself in a misaligned position and that can potentially hurt or injure yourself. The tricky thing here is that you have to sometimes battle your own body. When your body senses that you have lost balance or that you are on an uncomfortable position, it will accommodate itself to correct those factors, and because of that it will for example make you round your back, collapse in your shoulders, flex your legs and thus taking you out of the correct way of doing an asana. A teacher needs to help students develop body awareness so they can learn how a misaligned pose feels like.

If you are a beginner doing and advanced pose easily it probably is because you are doing it wrong, of course there are exceptions to this rule, but for the most part, you are probably compensating. So if you are doing it unconsciously, try to look yourself in a mirror when you practice, and with that tool and the help of a teacher supervising your body alignment, your practice will not only be done safely but it will actually help you grow faster. That last thing is important to mention because a lot of the times we compensate to feel like we somehow became more flexible overnight and that our progress is faster. Sometimes we don’t like to do alternative poses that corrects our alignment because it makes us feel like we are too slow, that we are not good at this. We kind of hate our teacher when he or she corrects us because we don’t like it when we are confronted with our own expectations about our performance. But that is the thing about yoga, it’s a metaphor, it teaches you to release control in your own life by releasing control of expectations in a yoga class. And that is the last thing I want you to take from this essay. Good alignment, use of props, and a good teacher to help you along the way, remember that next time you are in a classroom either as a student or as a teacher.

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