The Touch of Teaching

SEVERAL years ago, I practiced with an Indian teacher whose name had a regal ring to it, a princely air as handsome as his face. His name and face eludes me now, but what has stayed with me is the way he had peered so earnestly into my face as he asked for my name, while I was in a pose that needed a little tweak here and there.

Whatever it was that I had to adjust, he had conveyed it all to me in words. No palms, no fingers, no forearms, no soft padding of the sole, none of those pressing or pulling, pointing or twisting, or that legendary finger-shoving à la Iyengar; just voice.

Let the words do the adjustment was his pedagogical style, and let them be prefaced by the music and melody of one’s own name, and the cast of the many other names in class: “Nate, sit lower,” and “Yian, bring your right shoulder more forward.” 

At every change of asana, names and exclusive adjustment cues kept bobbing up amid the broader melodic line upon which the class was built.

I loved that he was meticulous, and sometimes found value in a prompt meant for someone else in class, but always, some quiet unease would creep in, rattling that claustrophobic side of me: the class would soon feel warmer, more crowded, for not only were there humans, but also a traffic of words—as if the barest basic of words one needed to tune in to wasn’t already enough.

I may be taking issue with the quantity of his words, but I’m after something else bigger: how far can language take us to that space in our bodies, those magical places where we couldn’t possibly get to on our own without the knowing, skilled hands of a teacher?

“Experience is always larger than language,” wrote American poet Adrienne Rich.

In the same way, aren’t sensations in the body larger than language too? We could certainly turn to adjectives like calmer or stronger or lighter, but how well can we nail down language that gets us to those very same sensations in the first place? Grow taller, twist deeper, add a whole host of other imperatives: tuck, sink, hug, squeeze, feel, think of. They can only go so far, not as far as a solid, practiced adjustment.

Take a supine twist, for instance. My hips have been yanked off the mat before by an Anusara teacher some years back so she could set my spine straight before the twist—a relatively simple maneuver to nudge not only the body, but also the ears and brains which probably hadn’t figured out that the bum had to shift right a little for the spine to grow tall and spacious, before the knees could fall snugly to the left.

But that’s not all. A generous, giving teacher could take this adjustment even further. It starts as she comes striding to your mat, towering over you like a formidable giant. Her feet come down silently on either side of your torso, so that the insides of her shins squeeze you still and steady, as her fingers steal under the back of your lower left ribs, coaxing loose the flesh from the ribs. It is as if she were pulling off a blanket that had somehow snuck its way under her sleeping toddler, and now that she had freed most of it, she’d press it down on the ribs with both hands, exerting more pressure on the right side, peeling and pulling it anew, rightward, before tucking it under the back of the right ribs, just where it should be. And oh, what slumber comes!

Now, how does one turn this series of actions into tangible, workable voice cues? Is it even possible to get there unassisted in the first place?

It’s true that public classes make such adjustments feel like both luck and luxury, but that very act of aligning and re-aligning makes worlds of difference to a student, worlds that are kissed by larger-than-language sensations and liberating revelations to both mind and body.

Any teacher worth her salt must surely then embrace the ethic and art of adjustment. Ethic comes first because it’s the very wind that would carry the confidence to cool those voices that growl, Don’t touch me! Then art steps in to give shape and style to that alchemy of intuitive touch and technical mastery, producing the kind of adjustments one could go ooh and aah for.

The salt of any five-star teacher has a taste of good sense and good judgment. The firmness of their hands and conviction of touch could silence snarling cynics, who would suddenly realize they have, within their hearts, those twin virtues of trust and respect.

I was one such adjustment-leery student in my tenderer, more vulnerable days when those first excruciating pangs in the lower lumbar would haunt my days and devour my hours, making me imagine that any maneuver, however kindly meant, would break my poor stricken bones—until the day this baby-faced, chubby-in-the-belly teacher tugged at my feet hey ho, whoa! just before savasana, as if they had been the reins of an exuberant horse.

What hit me at first was the reflex of pain, mind-induced, for hypochondriacs are poor bearers of good news, any kind of news, until it struck me at savasana that the trouble-radiating spot had tamed somehow as the locked lower vertebrae released, so that the butt cheeks too would yield sweetly to the earth, as did that initial sense of horror and outrage at the teacher with the cheeks of a cherub, but the mettle and nerve of a man.

I suppose this is what makes a great teacher—experience that defies argument and deplores timidity. They don’t go pussyfooting around, asking questions like, “Can I push your hips down?”—words delivered from behind a derrière that can’t quite glue down onto the heels in a child’s pose. What does one say to that? Yes, you may or okay? I don’t remember exactly how I had conveyed my yes, but hopefully I had uttered the fun and right thing to a gray, dark wall of rubber: “Sure, why not? Go for it!”

Which is the kind of thing you wouldn’t ever dream of saying, especially to the mother hen figures, whose worldview is colored only by sweet possibilities and optimism. How hell-bent they can be if they find you’re only half an octopus, unable to slither yourself into a bind! They’d tug and pull and yank and holler excitedly, “Upper arm lower, yes, lower, some more, more!” Thank goodness, hard work gets rewarded and so there I was, finally, in my bound twisted crescent lunge, on one side at least, all purple in the face and flesh, looking only half as cool as Dave the Octopus.

But I whine too much. One must whine about bigger, nobler things. And the one thing that troubled me deeply this year was a conversation I had with a brand new acquaintance concerning adjustments—one that would lurk so persistently that it nudged me awake at three in the morning, barely twelve hours after we spoke.

Having just emerged from a class whose highlight was a mat-by-mat adjustment that had visibly impressed me, it seemed only natural our subject rolled in that direction when we ran into each other.

A rather chilling response, however, would greet me: “But would you have been able to get there on your own?” It didn’t have to take that arch of her eyebrow for me to get her message: what students need is not adjustment dependence, but the will to work at their asanas till they got to newer, higher, and better places on their own. Besides, the there isn’t within their muscular radar anyway.

I was silenced. Was she even suggesting that there was some aspect of adjustment that was hedonistic? I didn’t ask, couldn’t ask.

What disturbed me most was not so much her logic, but the very soul of her thinking. It seems arrogant that a teacher—a newly minted one at that—should think her voice and words were good enough. The miserliness of it all just kills me.

The finest teachers I have known and admired honor their craft with a spirit of generosity. If a teacher’s place and mission in life is not to help students get to newer, higher, and better places, then I don’t know what is. It’s true that words are what we all cleave to in our practice, but they aren’t everything. I’ve come to realize that sentences are mere guides, but touch is the true teacher.



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