The right answer
People tend to feel very happy when there is a clear right and wrong. A clearly-marked boundary holds safe ground on which we humans can relax. We love knowing ‘I do my trikonasana like this and its right, I do my trikonasana like this and it’s wrong’.
As a yoga teacher, you want to offer the right/wrong safety advice to your students and most students are expecting to learn what is correct and incorrect from you. But how can you know what is right and wrong for a unique human being? You can’t know.
For sure, there are basic human similarities, and a good understanding of the asana, pranayama and meditation are wise tools for any yoga teacher. Every student who walks through your classroom door is utterly unique and it will take a lifetime for them, let alone you, to really understand who they are. Perhaps, as a teacher, your job is not to tell them what is correct, rather it is to encourage them to feel comfortable with not knowing, and through that, help them to explore, find and tune their own inner knowing, so that they can really see their bodies and selves.
A teacher can begin this style of exchange by saying “I don’t know” more often. In doing this, you hand the responsibility for finding the answer back to the student. This is not an easy thing to do since you, as the teacher, are supposed to be the one with the answers.
I know myself the fear of saying “I don’t know” in front of students when asked a straightforward question. It’s hard, it used to leave me feeling small, impotent and bad at my job.
But once I made a conscious choice to celebrate saying “I don’t know”, it encouraged students to feel comfortable not knowing how to do something themselves. When previously a student would be resistant or feel unable when they were not ‘good’ at something, they can instead feel joy in being on the precipice of expanding.
I originally trained as an actor and it was enlightening to watch others, and to experience myself, battling with the unknown every time I stepped up to share my work in front of the company or director. My petrified superego would clutch at straws hoping for a clear answer to whether what I did was good or bad. If my offering was received as good, my superego would then try to create a formula for future repetition and safety.
Who is really to say whether what an actor or artist offers is good or bad? There are many reviewers and critics who try to do exactly this but in the end, it is totally subjective and unquantifiable. This unordinary, irregular, unquantifiable quality is – Human Nature – and it’s precious. The bravery of someone who embraces total abandon to share themselves entirely, despite the deep fear of getting it wrong or not being accepted, is potent. The ‘I do it anyway’ leaves an audience in awe, a student inspired, a loved one’s heart melted. We humans are incredible. And generalised correct/incorrect rules for the personal process of sadhana (spiritual path/practice) is not conducive to growing out our unique self.
If the focus of a yoga class was on what was accurate for each individual, could the teacher let go of the correct/incorrect status stick? Not knowing if something is right leaves us in the unknown, a scary place in which we have the chance to develop. But often teachers are not willing, practised or able to go there, so progress halts. Why are we so resistant to not knowing?
Our culture holds not knowing as a weakness and a sign of low status. “Don’t you know?” or “I can’t believe you didn’t know that” are common phrases. Not trying to have an answer leaves us totally open to the present moment. Naivety and not knowing are strong gifts, they enable us to see, receive and experience the whole of something without a habituated response or defence getting in the way. Similarly, when we stop trying and forcing in our asana or pranayama practice and rather feel, slow down and enquire more, it is then that the big realisations happen. The penny dropping ‘Ah-ha!’ falls in on our heads because we stepped out of our linguistic cognitive intelligence and into our sensorial body wisdom.
Happy not knowing!
Copyright © Alex Hanly 2007-2015