A one to one yoga teaching lesson has the potential of being a profound experience. On the face of it, an exchange of knowledge between student and teacher. Look more in-depth, and we see it celebrates a deep-rooted need to inform, teach and cultivate wisdom. Helping humankind to prosper in a perpetual process honouring all our teachers and ourselves.
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Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
One to One Yoga teaching
I have an enduring memory of my original one to one yoga lesson. It was with Barbara Gordan, who became my first influential yoga teacher. December 1997, on my first yoga retreat in Dahab, Egypt. Barbara used to run yoga retreats from a hotel in the hippyish Red Sea resort.
Bikram to Sivananda
I was 33 and had started attending Hot Yoga classes with a friend the year before. Although I knew there was more to yoga than the sweaty, dictatorial form, I practised. I did not realise yoga’s potential until someone lent me a copy of “The Book of Yoga” by the Sivananda Centre. Practising from this book, I had a moment of insightful bliss in savasana (the corpse pose) that changed the course of my life. By the end of that year, it also brought me to Barbara’s Yoga Retreat.
Barbara had a yoga studio on the roof, “Red Sea Divers”, an Egyptian owned hotel in downtown Dahab. They built a windowed Yoga room with sweeping views of the south Sinai mountains, the Red Sea, and Saudi Arabia’s shimmering coast. The construction was rustic, the mounting sea breeze whistling through any gaps, bringing nature into the class. I liked the ambience immediately.
One to One Yoga teacher
I arrived early, anticipating meeting other students, but there were no other yogis that day. Barbara greeted me warmly, explaining the others would be delayed for a day or two, but to never mind, let us make a start anyway. I had the teacher all to myself. And so I had a one to one yoga lesson with one of the 1968 co-founders of the Sivananda Yoga Centre in London. Although a little awestruck & nervous, I knew I was in the right place, at the right time.
What followed in the exchange from teacher to student is pertinent to me, I realise. Barbara guided me through breath-work (pranayama), asana (yoga poses), bandhas (inner awareness) and mudras (external awareness). I had her full attention, and she freely gave it to me. During this commutation, she received something from me too, (respect & love) because, from that auspicious moment, Barbara and I became great friends. We are still.
A Yogic tradition
Within the context of yoga philosophy, guru-shishya (master-disciple) is an ancient tradition. The Upanishads (Vedic treatises dealing with broad philosophical problems) describe how the aspirant seeks out a spiritual life through the guru’s guidance. The disciple serves his guru with devotion and obedience for years, and in return, the guru gives his knowledge back without restraint. One day the disciple will leave, himself now a master.
As a yoga teacher, I sometimes wonder why I enjoy the experience of teaching (online) one to one yoga as much as I do. Within the complexities of human relationships, exchanging knowledge is more or less fundamental. There is a beautiful account of a young B.K.S Iyengar, who in 1948 met for the first time the legendary Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. Iyengar had no idea who Krishnamurti was at the time. Upon meeting him and demonstrating yoga asana to him, Krishnamurti requested that Iyengar witness his own yoga asana proficiency. According to Iyengar, Krishnamurti claimed that whilst watching Iyengar practice, he “saw freedom in action” for the first time after assisting his asana practice. (ref 1)
Iyengar would go on to teach Krishnamurti at various times in various locations over the next twenty years. Through their relationship, Vanda Scaravelli, the namesake of the modern Hatha Yoga I teach, had her first one to one yoga lessons.
Perception, the essence of yoga practice
Tell me, I will forget.
Show me, I will remember.
Involve me, and I will understand.
I often ponder these inspirational words. They’re written on a note on my wall, near my work desk. I’m lucky, as I’m am a Scarvelli inspired yoga teacher. I teach an embodied practice. At the core of my teaching practice is perception. As a one to one yoga teacher, I remind myself that it is always my responsibility to meet my students’ needs. To do my job, I need my students to feel relaxed, open and mentally focused throughout our sessions. Am I conscious of my emotions in our practice? As human movement is a neurological event, how I feel, my emotional state when I practice is part of the whole experience.
Evidence strongly supports what may seem obvious: we learn better when we’re in a positive emotional state. The learning environment and the relationship we have to it, including the teacher, play a significant role in the outcome. Treat us well, and we’ll respond accordingly, no more so than in a classroom.
Academic emotions refer to the emotional experience of learning (and teaching), including enjoyment, hopelessness, boredom, anxiety, and anger (Pekrun et al., 2002), which can affect students’ learning outcomes (Dong and Yu, 2007). Researchers have generally divided academic emotions into positive academic emotions (PAEs) and negative academic emotions (NAEs). (ref 2)
Studies have shown that students with more teacher support have higher PAEs or lower NAEs. Specifically, students with more teacher support have more enjoyment, interest, hope, pride, or relief (PAEs); or less anxiety, depression, shame, anger, worry, boredom, or hopelessness (NAEs) (Ahmed et al., 2010; King et al., 2012; Tian et al., 2013). (ref 2)
Within a one-to-one yoga teaching structure, a key element to success is teacher support or attention. I had Barbara’s full attention in 1997, on my first lesson. To her merit, I felt secure, attended to, even cherished. The onus of learning is on the student, and I wanted to learn. The nature of Yoga practice: embodied movements, breath awareness, tension and bodily sensations is experiential. The student’s involvement has to be pretty total. Focusing the mind and concentrating, being free of distraction are expounded in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Pratyahara (withdrawal of the sense), Dharana (concentration) and Dhyana (absorption). Do we need to practice Yoga for a lifetime before we experience this? Just a slight tilt of awareness, and we know it’s what our practice is.
A lineage of teaching
The most important question I ask myself before I teach one to one yoga classes or workshops is my intention? If I have clarity, the outcome is determined. In this regard, am I different from any other yoga teacher?
When asked what makes his father’s Yoga so unique, T.K.V. Desikachar replied that he (Śrī T. Krishnamacharya) insisted on attending to each individual and their uniqueness. In his 1995 book The Heart of Yoga, he says further; (ref 3)
The starting point is never the teacher’s needs but those of the student. This requires many different approaches; there is not just one approach for everybody. The way Yoga is taught nowadays often gives the impression that there is one solution to everyone’s problems and one treatment for every illness.T.K.V. Desikachar
Consider this; human beings are organisms; we have evolved in a relationship with our environment over millennia. We do this through our nervous system,
and it is this constant interplay that shapes us throughout our lives. We form musculoskeletal /neurological patterns that are like our individual blueprints. These patterns determine how well our spines can move us; therefore, determining an individual student’s unique body map informs how I can help them.
Old Yoga – New Yoga
Today, the term we use for a yoga posture is asana. But the word in Sanskrit means “seat.” harkening back more than a thousand years to the days when postural yoga referred to nothing more complicated than sitting in a relaxed position for meditation. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (the medieval yoga text) does not mention standing postures or fluid body movements popular in today’s yoga classes. The emphasis is on sitting postures to add pressure to the perineum by redirecting libidinal energy to make enlightenment happen. Medival Hath Yoga focused on the miraculous, cultivating supra-human powers named siddhis. A far cry from the standing postures and flowing sequences so prevalent in contemporary yoga classes.
Respecting the individual
Respecting students’ individual needs can get a little lost when most yoga pose instructions are, in fact, applied anatomy: “heel-to-arch alignment” is an example of applied anatomy, or what is referred to as alignment in Yoga. (ref 4)
“Yoga teachers often associate mechanics with joint position (e.g.” knee over ankle”) or limb position (e.g.” arms alongside the ears”) because that is what yoga teachers are typically taught.”Jules Mitchell
But if we teach Yoga with the focus on the individual’s needs, as we do in Scaravelli inspired Yoga, what shape you make or how well you perform any asana becomes less relative. To fully benefit from yoga’s transformative healing power, it may be necessary not to do yoga but stop to listen to what the body/mind is telling us.
Yoga can help reveal these patterns if we can approach our yoga practice mindfully and intelligently. One principal I work with is that yoga Asana or posture should not be a form over function. Do the poses resemble normal human functions? If not, you have to ask yourself, why do we practice them?
Functional movements, like bending down or standing, walking, reaching up, running, are habituated through repetition. As we grow up from childhood to adulthood, we continuously repeat them until we can perform the task at hand. Later in life, if we are less active, complications can arise.
One to One Yoga can help:
- If we practice Yoga, intending to re-habituate these movements resembling human functions.
- We should not experience discomfort in Yoga; if it hurts, you must ask why!
- What we practice is not an extreme movement.
- Build confidence to move pain-free
- Evaluate how compliant your spine is in the four major movement patterns.
- Assess what movements (yoga poses) you should practice.
- Clarify breathing and patterns we develop that inhibit optimal breathing.
- Put it all together in a Holistic whole-body/mind accessible format.
We can immensely benefit from Yoga if our practice complements the movements we do in our everyday lives. If you would like to work with me one to one online, in-person, online classes or workshops, I’d love to hear from you.
Honouring our yoga teachers.
Krishnamacharya’s legacy (he was Iyengar’s teacher) according to his son T.K.V. Desikachar “it is not that the person needs to accommodate him- or herself to yoga, but rather the yoga practice must be tailored to fit each person”. Both B.K.S. Iyengar and T.K.V. Desikachar went on to teach Vanda Scaravelli. It is such an honour to teach Yoga; all my teachers have influenced my knowledge and understanding. No more so than Pete Blackaby and Marc Aquaviva, who have brought to life the sacred embodied practice in Modern Yoga. My gratitude is boundless.
The Guest House by Rumi
This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness. Some momentary awareness comes As an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, Who violently sweep your house Empty of its furniture, Still, treat each guest honourably, He may be clearing you out For some new delight. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, Meet them at the door laughing, And invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, Because each has been sent As a guide from beyond.
1.The Path of Modern Yoga; Elliott Goldberg
2..The Relationship between Teacher Support and Students’ Academic Emotions, (NCBI)
3. The Heart of Yoga; T.K.V. Desikachar
4. Yoga Biomechanics Stretching Redefined; Jules Mitchell