by Jen Whinnen
A significant part of my work is spent teaching my teacher trainees how to “see” better, meaning how to look at each class as a real time event that needs to be tended to in the present moment. Classes need to be organized around our understanding of what is going on around us, but to do that effectively, we need to cultivate better vision. Part of cultivating better vision is simply learning what goes where and how. This is the grossest form of teaching. Beyond that a teacher must become competent at discerning if what I say either improves or compromises the class. To do that we first look for misalignment, for grunts and groans, for caught breathing, for lags and peaks in the classroom energy, then modify our teaching from there.
To refine our teaching even further, we can work towards cultivating awareness by observing the world around us and creating classes that take into consideration the experience of our students in the world. To do this well, it’s best to start with the basics. Remember that human beings are both organic and social creatures. As such, two of the biggest contributing factors in our lives, either consciously or unconsciously, will be the seasons and culturally significant events. It has been my experience that these two things are the greatest classroom temperament gauges. The season and culturally significant events influence how we function together. One dictates our biological response to the world the other significantly influences our interactions with each other.
Let’s take our current season, winter, and its correlating holidays. In the winter, the days are shorter and the nights are longer. In many places, the ground freezes and growing stops. For some plants and animals, this season is required for them to reproduce or gestate. The “death” of winter is often a necessary period of respite that allows for rejuvenation. The body, being bound to the earth, often wants to obey this rhythm. When the days are shorter and colder, the body metabolizes slower because it is striving to conserve energy and stay warm. Additionally, because there is less light, people may find that they feel blue or crave more sleep. This is a natural response to winter. No matter how modern we are, how completely turned into electronics we may be, when winter is upon us we feel the effects of it, especially when we are in a group environment. This, when approached with understanding and acceptance, is the boon of being born in a body, of being a part of the natural world and part of community. When we attend well to the effects of the seasons on us we will be comfortable and successful. We will be embodied.
Additionally, it is no coincidence that one of our most significant holidays is connected to the lessening and lengthening of daylight. Winter rituals at their heart reflect our desire to be close and cuddle. They represent our need to become more reflective and introspective. They represent our hope that we will move through darkness and back out into light. And, because Christmas in particular tends to be one of the most hyped holidays, expectations high, the push for spending is high, and over indulgence is expected, it is also one of the most stressful times of year for many.
Our classes should take these factors into consideration. Winter practices should be forward bending practices. Forward bending is a turning in, a folding and refolding. It’s the image of the earth during its death. It’s introspective and restorative.
Does this mean we take 3 – 4 months of only forward bending? No, that is silly. It means we create balanced classes with an emphasis on those practices that enhance our relationship to what’s going on around us. This is a tantric practice, an entering into the world to work through the world. In the Iyengar system classes are taught in a series. Each week has a different focus. One of the weeks is back bending. The back bending week would not be skipped over in the winter, however, the backbends are going to be different in the winter then they are in the summer. This is a good example of conscientious sequencing.
I recently attended a series of classes at a studio where their December “practice of the month” was back bending. Deep, intensive back bending and a month of deep, intensive back bending is not a winter practice. Of all the pose categories, back bending tends to be the most allusive to people because it is the least natural of all our body’s movements. In order to backbend well all the other parts need to be prepared. You need good vertical extension, a very open front body and the spine must be protected and strong. Additionally, there needs to be an understanding of the basic mechanics of the spine to back bend well lest the student take the brunt of the work in the lumbar. Back bending must be worked up to and warmed up to and therefore we need the long daylight hours, the open warmth of summer to bring us into the open mindedness of continuous, deep back bending. When we are in a season of conservation, when the body is “hibernating” asking it to work against that is counter-intuitive.
Of course, the counter argument may be, “but back bending is enlivening! It opens your heart and wakes you up! It gets you out of that funk of winter!” Who says winter is a funk? It’s a funk when we identify too closely with summer. That attachment, like all attachments, creates suffering. The practice teaches us to accept life as it is, to be receptive to things rather than working to bend it to our will. Asking students to back bend aggressively during the winter season is too much of a “good” thing. It stresses out the nervous system and causes injuries. In fact, one of the teacher’s at the above mentioned studio commented that she’d noticed decline in class size as the month went on. Her rational was that it was because people are afraid of back bending and so they were avoiding it. This is a common teacher mistake. The student must be doing something wrong. It’s not them. It’s us. A decline in a class size during a “pose of the month” means we are not paying attention. We have missed the cues that our students are giving us and failed to modify our classes accordingly.
When students come to your class they come to be in community. They come to be seen. One of the surest ways of guaranteeing that students know we see them is to acknowledge the greater influences around them. As teachers it’s important that we are mindful of that. In your on-going efforts to learn and grow, try and remember that life is playing a part in how your students arrive in class. There is a teaming mass of activity going on outside the doors of our yoga space and although we want to be able to put that aside for the hour or so, class doesn’t exist in a bubble. Our students are organic, social creatures who pulse with life around them. Work to see this, respond to this and you will be pleasantly surprised at how your students respond to you.