In my teacher training I learned principles of alignment, to which I adhered with razor-like attention. I practiced, memorized, and studied. I even taught this way for a while at the beginning. I still love alignment, but not for the same reason. Early on it was taught, I believe, to help develop a discipline, to give us a framework for practice, and to encourage us to experience each posture in a safe way. We learned modifications, but nothing like what I have learned through my own personal practice and work with students over the years. I began to see alignment as a growing, changing, and evolving part of a practice.
I teach multiple Kids Yoga classes a week. Children are used to highly competitive environments where there is a clear win or lose, pass or fail, and everyone is trying to be the best. It seems to throw them off if something is challenging for them and I offer encouragement, especially if I tell them it’s ok if they don’t look like me or the other students in a posture. I recently observed a student pushing herself to the point of frustration because she wanted to do the “full” expression of every posture. In some cases her body wasn’t ready. Our children have unbelievably high expectations for themselves and get discouraged easily, just like we do. In post-class discussion about her experience, she told me she wanted to do things but wasn’t able to do them like I was. That hit me like a ton of bricks. I teach this all the time with my adults but not as much with children—the idea of inner alignment vs. outer shape. I have no trouble encouraging my adult students to listen to their bodies, offering modifications, and encouraging them to find the expression of each posture which best serves their unique body.
Unloading my gear onto the floor, I decided to teach this young yogi about inner alignment right there. I showed her what my forward fold looked like when I first started doing yoga. I told her how my teacher made me modify and taught me why I needed to stop where I was, and though my forward fold was only a half-forward fold, it was the fullest expression of the posture for my body. We talked about keeping the body safe, about flexibility, about how practice creates opening and space in the body, which sometimes allows a person to rest their belly on the thighs (like I had done in class). I told her how someone looked on the outside mattered much less than what was happening on the inside.
Then I told her something I think even I needed to hear: there’s no right or wrong way to do yoga; only safe and unsafe. We are all different, and that’s perfectly okay. I encouraged her to show up and do the best she could each time, and that’s what mattered most.
My job as an instructor is to educate the students who practice with me well enough they know how to cultivate a safe, needed physical experience based on my cues, and to be content with the uniqueness of the outer expression of their inner experience. So no competition will be found in any of my classes—children are tested enough. It is important to have the one safe container (i.e. the yoga mat) where it is truly acceptable to freely express their own inherent joy. A valuable lesson to teach children early is to love the uniqueness of their personal experience in all aspects of life, not only on the yoga mat. This translates to parents as well since we often compare and strive to be like others who appear to “have it all” or who are “the best.” When we compare and strive to be anything other than who we are in each moment (personal growth efforts aside), we send a message to our children that says “Who you are is not who you should be. Try harder and then you’ll be happy. Look like her and you’ll be perfect. Dress like them and you’ll be popular.” The list is endless.
They are listening. It starts with a choice to show up on the mat (literally and figuratively), do your very best, and be your unique and perfect self with each breath, each movement. That’s the right way to do yoga.