Inner Navigator

Whenever I start a new course at a yoga center or a gym, most students are startled by the fact that I don’t demonstrate any posture.

Some are outright pissed off.

Whatever kind of teacher you are, you need to be prepared to piss someone off at some point. Short term gratification doesn’t usually lead to long term benefits, so you’ll always have to fight against your student’s primal instinct to get the candy from you, sometimes to disappoint them and outrage them in the perspective of a greater benefit.

This is when you have strong and motivated beliefs in what you do.

There are three main reasons why I believe offering demonstrations during regular classes is not such a good idea.

  1. DON’T PUT UP A SHOW: my postures are not nice. I am genetically at the stiff end of the spectrum. I’m affected since childhood by heavy lumbar lordosis, which makes it risky and painful for me to bend back even slightly without great caution. My demonstration would be nothing impressive. Possibly half of my students have a physical potential that I don’t have, and showing off my prowess on that stage would mean to engage in a competition that I can’t win. Why would I? Only because I or they feel like I need to proof something. To me, that attitude conveys a feeling of insecurity. It means teaching weakness disguised by force. While yoga is about finding force in vulnerability.
  2. RESPECT YOUR OWN BODY: Even the postures I know I do ‘well’, I avoid demonstrating. Especially those that I am tempted to show off, I keep concealed. It’s just the wrong message going through. Practicing well doesn’t mean to do elegant, big postures, but facing yoga with respect, presence, breath, so that your practice always feels so good that it becomes irrelevant whether il looks good. When I’m leading a class, these conditions would be impossible to reach. I am focusing on something else – you! – and the result would be performing some impressive postures with so little internal awareness that I would certainly micro-injure myself over and over and, in time, that would force me to quit or suspend teaching, which I don’t want to do. Believe me, I have been hanging out in the teacher’s locker room long enough: all the teachers that demonstrate big postures suffer terrible aches. They don’t even associate it with class demonstration. They refuse to acknowledge it because they like it so much. Which I understand. But I also suspect many teachers like it because it’s easier. Of course it’s a lot easier in many ways to cut it short and perform some feat, than to give proper instruction in clear language and with sustained speech flow, and find the guts to confront dumbfounded faces of those who are just too used to be mouth-fed to accept it’s now time to pick up the damn spoon from the table and learn to feed themselves.
  3. AWAKEN INNER NAVIGATOR: All of the above may be irrelevant, debatable, but here is the one solid reason to avoid demonstration. I happen to belong to that generation who took their driver’s licence long before any GPS navigation system was introduced. We didn’t have mobiles, and we moved around equipped with maps the size of a bed-sheet, which were very fun to use while you were driving. Of course, most of the time you wouldn’t have the required map with you, and you had to rely on the directions your dear friend you were visiting had previously handed to you – drive about 50 miles on Route 66, then turn left at that Mojo Gas Pump, take the first right at the Overlook Hotel, etc. – preferably note them down on paper, read them a couple of times, then hand over the battered sheet to your journey pal and hope they wouldn’t doze off on the way… Though this sounds incredibly more demanding than following a real time arrow moving on a line, it all provided for a whole different travel experience, that I dare to claim with no shame or doubt: was of much better quality. But that’s my subjective view and it’s not the main point at all; I also use GPS now all the time of course, as I’m drawn to instant gratification like everyone else. The really disarming fact about it is not the journey quality: it’s the whole brain process behind it. If understanding and memorizing oral, descriptive instructions was a bit of a task, one thing was assured: if you had to visit the same friend again years later, you would still remember the way! Nowadays it’s exactly the opposite: after 20 times I’ve taken the same route following real time GPS directions, I still wouldn’t be able to find my way back if they took the damn device away from me. This is no detail, no trivial coincidence. The reason behind this issue is serious: different parts of your brain are involved in the two methods of navigation. And the fact that with GPS navigation you can’t remember the route you’ve been riding again and again, means that some parts of your brain simply remained dormant, asleep, completely shut down all the fucking time! Now this may be no big deal when pursuing wine trails, but when engaging in an activity which is specifically designed to awaken your awareness of the inner wirings of your body, it turns into a blatant paradox. Some say demonstration can inspire the students, motivate them and show them the correct external form, from which to explore the internal dynamics of the posture. No teacher I’ve studied with has ever demonstrated any posture at class. And if I think of the stature of these people, it certainly wasn’t out of pride or laziness. My main teacher Ramaswami was possibly even stiffer than me. Who cares? He taught some ultra flexible dancers to perform like gods. As he often says, his physical limitations were the best aid to understand how to make other people improve efficiently, no matter how flexible they are. Pattabhi Joys, Krishnamacharya, never seen them demo at class. BKS Iyengar was very famous for his public demonstrations, some held in stadiums or theatre halls. But you see that’s the point: if you are gifted with a high performance body, demonstrating outside the class can be a great way to share that gift with the world, and very useful too. In that case the students are not physically practicing, they are sitting quiet and their entire attention is focused in visual observation. It’s a different kind of practice. Few things are as informative and productive as watching with unbroken focus an advanced yogi practicing. All athletes watch videos of other athletes performing athletic gestures, it’s scientifically proven to re-wire your brain and improve your own performance. When you get into that reflexive sport trance, you can actually feel what’s going on in the athlete’s or the yogi’s body. So I’m not against demonstration per se. Demonstration is a fantastic tool when experienced at a workshop or in a video. The same, we could say, you may well watch your GPS navigator tracing the route off line before you hit the road – a bit boring perhaps, but then you could probably keep it off the whole time while you’re driving. It’s when the two streams of information – the visual and conceptual – converge, that the magic appears. These two distinct flows of experience will end up craving an ultra-detailed 3D sensomotoric map into your mind-body. That’s the Inner Navigator. A true gift of yoga indeed.

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