Turning down the silence in a yoga room

It’s 1:30 a.m. and I can’t sleep, despite taking four Benadryls over the course of the evening to fight off what I’m hoping is pet dander allergies (as opposed to the onset of a cold). If it weren’t for this little space heater next to me, the only sound here on the second floor of my future in-laws’ house would be the sporadic clicking of this MacBook keyboard.

Observing this near-silence has brought me to a topic I’ve been wanting to blog about: the words that fill the space of a yoga studio. It’s hard not to think at least a little bit about verbal instruction as a yoga student, since some teachers are so gifted at it and some really are not. But I sure have thought quite a bit about verbal instruction since the very first time I had to get up, during yoga teacher training, to lead a class through a sequence.

As a journalist, I learned it’s much harder to say less than to say more. One of my journalism instructors liked to tell us, “Drown your kittens.” When you first start writing, you get attached to your words, and when you look at an article, you can’t see anything that can be cut. You’ve got to do it though, even if it feels like drowning your kittens. In print journalism, you’ve got to do it for space considerations, for one. But more important, you produce higher quality work — better writing — when you’ve carefully considered the need for each phrase, each word.

I think it can be a very strong impulse for yoga teachers who don’t teach in the silent Mysore method to use words to do it all: explicate proper alignment in poses, keep students safe, talk students through challenges, and inspire them along the way. There’s nothing wrong with that, in my opinion. The key is striking a balance. I’ve been in yoga classes where the instructor didn’t seem to say enough to be clear, and I’ve been in classes where the instructor suffered from verbal diarrhea. Yoga classes taught in a stream of consciousness narrative fashion are the most distracting ones for me, because once I latch on to the steady flow of words, the more I dissect what’s being said rather than turning my brain off so that I can be present on the mat.

The longer I teach, the less I try to say with my words and the more I try to say with my hands. In an Ashtanga class, I try to be a steady drumbeat with the Sanskrit counts and the counts of five breaths in each pose. It’s definitely an acquired skill that takes experience and keen awareness, and — like a yoga practice — it’s something to be continually refined.

In short, it’s not easy.

Angela Jamison wrote a thought-provoking post on the AY:A2 blog about the poverty of verban instruction:

Pattabhi Jois started out saying that ashtanga method was 5% theory, 95% practice. He later scaled that back to 1% theory. Perhaps the 5% was getting abused.

Talking about experience tends to insulate us from a moment’s raw intensity, from subtle layers of experience, and from the transience of pain and pleasure.

I wonder how we’re really using words in yoga class. Do we know how to use language to set ourselves free in our bodies… or do we more often use it to solidify difficulties and obstacles? Do words come up due to anxiety about impermanence or attempts to pin things down, a need to prove something, or maybe unwillingness to just be quiet and do the technique? I wonder, too, if talking in practice—including my own verbal instruction—increases an egoic sense that we know what it’s is all about.

Read the entire post here.

This reminds me of something striking that New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar said during one of the Wesleyan Writers Conference panels I attended in 2004. I found a written synopsis online of the same thought. Larissa talks about how interviewing is “not a normal conversation”:

You want them to talk. One of the ways that you can do that is by training yourself not to do what you would usually do. Say a silence falls; you might try to fill it. Silences are awkward and hard to take, especially if you don’t know a person very well. I first thought about this when I heard a story about Joan Didion, a very famous journalist who has written for the New Yorker in the past. She is incredibly, paralyzing shy. She’s also very tiny. And when she meets a stranger, she is just struck dumb and totally terrified. And apparently, the effect this has on her subjects is that, because she is so nervous, they will blurt out just anything, just to fill the silence. And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ And it’s true. It’s almost as though there’s a sort of equilibrium that has to be found. If you shut up, they have to speak. Otherwise, it’s unbearable, it’s too uncomfortable. And I really began to learn this when I started to read transcripts of my interviews. I heard myself making the most idiotic mistakes. They would say: ‘And then I took the ax and was about to —‘ and I would break in with, ‘What’s your favorite color’ because I wasn’t listening to what they where saying. I was just thinking of something else. I wasn’t shutting up.

Whether it’s writing, interviewing or teaching yoga, it’s an important process to examine our proclivity to turn down the silence by turning up the volume (both decibel and quantity) of words.

What do you think about words that fill the space of a yoga studio?

(Photo credit: “Q is for Quieted” via bmhkim’s Flickr photostream)

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