When Nothing Is Black or White: The Yoga of Discernment Part 2

I’m just gonna say it:

I don’t think asanas are magical shapes that have the power to transform a normal human into an enlightened one. I don’t think there is a PERFECT form in asana that we should desperately ASPIRE TO. I don’t think there is some better version of ourselves on the other side of our physical edge.

I know some people do believe those things, and I totally respect your right to disagree with me. In fact, I encourage it. Our planet needs all kinds of teachings and all kinds of teachers. Since I can only do what I can do, we REALLY need each of you to do what it is YOU are able to do, in exactly the way you want to do it. Diversity in our teachings is what keeps us alive.

BUT…Because I do not think there is any magic in an ideal form of yoga asanas, that means that I think that every person will find benefit in a slightly different variation of the pose. And as teachers we are charged with helping our students find the version of the pose that is ideal for them right now.

I believe the transformational magic people experience in asana practice is made possible by two things:

One: Attention.

When we place our attention on our bodies in a special way {“to place in a special way” is one of the definitions of vinyasa} we wake up to a new way of engaging with the world. We are able to have more embodied experience of presence, and many people experience this as transformational. {Beautiful.}

Two: New Shapes!

Our poor modern human bodies are basically stuck in a chair shape for a large percentage of our waking hours. When we practice asana we make all kinds of non-chair shapes, and this can do amazing things for a human body! {And maybe an excuse to cut Utkatasana from our teaching?? Just Kidding!}

If though, there is no magic in perfecting a pose to look just like BKS, than what are we working towards? How do we teach our students in a way that helps them receive the most benefit from the practice?

If nothing is black or white, how do you know if you’re doing it right???

A Quick Story:

I was 18 when I began a serious practice of yoga {mostly Primary Series, with a little Bikram every now and then for good measure… ;-p } and by then I had already had my first devastating, crippling injury. For this reason, I never EVER practiced yoga under the guru model. Because of the limitations and delicacy of my body, I never took a teacher’s word as gospel.

I would listen to the teacher’s instructions and then ask myself,

“What do I think the purpose of that instruction is?”

I would carefully try to do what they were asking me, and then I would ask myself,

“How does that feel? Does that feel useful in any way? Am I experiencing the benefit that I think the teacher intends for me to receive in this pose?”

In every single class, in every single pose, with every single instruction…I would try to discern,

“If this is uncomfortable, is that discomfort beneficial or not?”

I have never practiced any other way. And I have never taught any other way either.

In my teaching I talk to my students about some of the physical sensations that might occur in any given pose and we will discuss whether the sensation is beneficial or dangerous. I make sure they know the benefit I intend for them to receive, but even more importantly I give them freedom to explore the pose for themselves and decide what variation of the pose has the most benefit to them RIGHT NOW.

Beyond just telling them to do “whatever feels good”, I’ll share anatomical and biomechanical information that INFORMS their understanding of what might be of benefit to their body. I do this in almost every pose we spend any length of time in, and especially in any new pose. I don’t think people find this overwhelming, because there is no instruction that limits them to doing it “right” or doing it “wrong”. The anatomical instructions are interwoven seamlessly as part of the dharmic themes of presence and awareness.

Here is a super simplified list of some things to keep in mind in teaching this way, based on questions from Part 1 of this blog:

  • For people who are naturally flexible or hypermobile, I suggest they go NOWHERE near the edge of their range of motion. I would focus on strength and stability with them and avoid ANY sense of “stretch”. {The word “stretch” is in quotes for reasons that will require many many more blog posts.}
  • Sensation near the joints is rarely useful. If a student feels a sensation of “stretch” or a sensation of their muscles working, I make sure they feel that sensation near the belly of the muscle, not at the joint.
  • If a student is disconnected from their body I would not encourage them to push into that area. I may suggest quieting down and breathing for a moment, before offering some very gentle movement around the area that is harder to contact. Waking up an area of the body that is asleep is a VERY slow and sometimes tenuous process. Give it the time and space it deserves.
  • Active range of motion is often much more useful than passive range of motion. If a student can put their body into a shape, but can’t hold it there, what benefit does that serve? {Even that super common thing we all do where we move our leg up higher on our thigh in tree pose…I’ve been practicing just putting my leg where it can go on it’s own…without moving it with my hand… 🙂 }
  • Pulling, pinching or compressing at the SI joints has no benefit that I know of. I do have about 1,000 modifications and variations I can suggest for people who have pain at their SI joints. Ask me here.
  • While this is highly over simplified, sensation is best felt when covering broad surface area. When the area of sensation is tiny and can be easily pinpointed, I suggest making some shifts until the sensation is more diffuse.

There are so many physical and emotional benefits possible for every single pose. In my opinion, there is no resource that could explain them all to do. The best thing you can do as a teacher is go into your classes armed with as much anatomy and biomechanics knowledge as possible, and practice as much as you can with your own constantly changing body.

When you are practicing and teaching, put these questions at the center of the physical practice:

What do I think the purpose of that instruction is?

How does that feel? Does that feel useful in any way?

Am I experiencing the benefit that I think the teacher intends for me to receive in this pose?

If this is uncomfortable, is that discomfort beneficial or not?

Then when your student asks you a question, or has pain and you don’t know how to help them, come ask me and my super smart PT friends right here.

Now over to you:: What are some of the ways you teach the Yoga of Discernment to your students? How do you teach your students to take care of their bodies? How do you explain the possible benefits or dangers of asana practice to your students?

4 Responses to “When Nothing Is Black or White: The Yoga of Discernment Part 2”

  1. Parrish Wilson

    Love this. After a major injury, it took me years to get back into classes because I found I would often leave in pain. Once I committed to a home practice for almost 2 years I was able to go to classes with the confidence that I knew my body well and was able to discern what was right and wrong for it. I think this is an aspect in yoga that needs to be discussed more openly – it truly is meant to be a personal practice not one more place where we’re pressured to “keep up with the Jones'”.

    • Francesca Cervero

      Thank you so much Parrish! You are so not alone in your struggle, and I am happy to hear you found a way to practice that was helpful. This is something I want all of us to be talking about more and more…in what ways can my practice be most useful in this moment? <3

  2. Armanda

    Hi Francesca!
    I like your Yoga philosophy! I believe there are as many asana modifications as there are students.
    Your blog gives me confidence to be authentic and intuitive..listening to my body and guiding
    my students to respect and listen with an awareness to their body wisdom. Thank you for sharing!!!
    Love your blog! Namaste


    • Francesca Cervero

      That is so lovely to hear Armanda! Thank you so much for sharing, and for being here with us. I like the way you phrase this, “there are as many asana modifications as there are students” YES. That couldn’t be more true! <3


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