Building Relationships in the Practice

“Come to a Tabletop position on your hands and knees. Tuck your toes, lift your hips up and back, and come into Downward Facing Dog.”

We do lots of these in yoga classes, and I tell you, there is probably no other pose that I get more “should I do X” questions on as Downdog.

I really like to pick apart yoga poses, and teach things from the ground up. It’s so nice to be organized and learn fundamental things and how shapes fit together.

And yet.

Today I’m thinking about how we learn and how we get context and how we get to know people in relationship, and how we get to know the yoga practice. 

I teach a LOT of mixed-level classes. In fact, ALL of my classes are mixed level, pretty much. Students who have been practicing for 10 years are next to students who are coming into this strange new world of yoga and are trying to get through their first class.

We are all trying to get to know each other. Me with the students, the students with each other, the students with themselves.

In friendships, we usually get to know people slowly. We jump into their lives when we meet them at the park, at the school meeting, at the coffee shop or the yoga studio or the running group. Over time, we hear their backstory when we get there, as it comes up.

Often we’ll say to a friend, “I never knew that about you” when they share some little tidbit about themselves from the past. Such a fun phrase.

We’re in a Netflix culture now and a curriculum culture – we can “go back to the beginning” and build a foundation in any storyline or any subject of learning we want.

And we see progress this way. Which is great. I like progress. And I think students really like progress. Almost every day, someone says to me, “wow, I couldn’t do X before and now I can! Yay!”

It’s nice to know that there’s a path and that you’ve seen things as you’re supposed to see them – learned them in the “right” order.

But we are also a podcast culture. With podcasts, unless it’s a series, I just jump in and listen to the latest episode. So I wind up listening to many people speak about what they are doing IN THE MOMENT, with the knowledge they have at the time.

And knowledge and beliefs change. They are fluid.

We don’t get all of the backstory, maybe just a little introduction. And I actually love that, to hear how people are evolving and to witness it happening.

We jump in where we are and we don’t really try to catch up. 

This is how the mixed public yoga class is. We jump in as we are, where we can, and we breathe, we move, we discover. 

Of course, in the mixed-level class, there has to be an accessibility there and a repeatable rhythm of some sort so that students can relax, knowing that you’re going to get to Leg Day or Handstand Day at SOME point, etc.

But we, as teachers, have to do a little to catch new people up. There is, at the very least, a vocabulary that we throw about and we need to teach them this and some basic background stories.

We are making them comfortable.

Like we’re the host of a dinner where everyone knows each other and old stories come up and we have to pause and say over the laughter of an inside joke, “Oh, let me explain. This story is all about X, Y, and Z.”

Hopefully, if we do it in an inclusionary way, the newbies feel like they get the joke, they can laugh along, and they’re more and more a part of the group.

This relationship with students in classes unfolds over time, just like friendship.

Yesterday in class we were working with the balance of an open heart with holding our own boundaries with a little bit of armor around the navel (shield). That was the focus of the class…can we bring the bottom ribs in and down a little to create some containment while ALSO opening up through the chest? So we were playing with that in all kinds of shapes.

After some flow, we took some time to get together in pairs so everyone could look at someone else’s Downdog and Dophin (like Downdog, just with forearms on the floor instead of hands) and help them out.

That was all good. It got very chatty. I love this. This is relationship.

The question came up from 2 separate pairs about whether the heels “should be down” on the ground in Downdog. Here we go…the point of this email, right??

There was a sense of frustration from people who just couldn’t get the heels down and also stay in a long enough stance to come forward into Plank without moving their feet around.

They said, “I’ve been practicing yoga for years, and still, my heels are up! They should be down by now, right? What gives?”

2 things (okay, 4 things, I changed my mind):

(1) take the word “should” out of it.

(2) we have to understand that there is a lot to this. Yes, it might be hamstrings or upper back. Or asking the heels to be on the ground might be more about ankle flexion than anything else. Or it might be the size of your foot or the length of your legs and torso or any number of other factors in the way your body is built. In my view, Downdog is a spine-lengthening posture, but it’s also about building strength in the wrists and arms and shoulders, and about balancing the effort of keeping the ribs contained with the broadening of the chest and the center of the heart space (as we say in yoga sometimes) opening up. And more.

(3) one student, Abra, astutely said that since it’s her habit to let the ribs collapse out (and she is a smart student who is actively working on this compensation pattern), when SHE grounds her heels, she gets more engagement in the torso and more ribs-in action, which she really likes. That’s her experience, and might not be someone else’s, but I think this level of attention is very awesome on her part.

(4) isn’t it cool that we can use this question to build relationship among students???

#4 is the best one, to me.

The fact that we all come into an empty room to move and breathe together is, by itself, pretty great for coming together.

But we often miss the opportunity to actually create relationships at the yoga studio because it can be such a solitary practice. Even though we’re all together. 

So when we can break into pairs, tell each other our names, have a dialogue, try some stuff, play around – that is awesome.

Like about “heels down or not”?

It’s kind of like having a chance to break apart from the dinner party with just one person and get to know them just a little bit.

That’s how relationships are built. Little stories, little exchanges, little shared experiences, little moments of attention over a long period of time.

So maybe we just jump in where are to the practice. We explore, we ask questions, we talk before and after class and even during. We have a conversation. 

Speaking of evolving conversations, I’ve just started to put some content up on a very cool platform called Patreon. There is some good foundational material up there now, and I will add to it actively over time. Tiered membership structures make it easy for you to support the work that I do so I can create MORE of it, if you so desire, for as little as $1/month. Isn’t it great to support the arts??

I will try to keep it organized. AND, I encourage you to jump in where you are, to ask questions, to explore, and to play around!

Be that newbie at the dinner party. Ask about the backstory. Join the group, relax, and make yourself at home. That’s how it goes. 

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