Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Should one practice along with one's student/s? Is an assist a prop?

Did full primary and second up to Ardha Matsyendrasana this morning. The postures themselves were respectable, but the energy level was rather low, and I had to move at a slower pace than usual. This may have something to do with what I did in my class last night. Last night, one person showed up for class. As this person is quite new to Ashtanga, I decided to demonstrate more than I usually do as I led him through the primary series. I was also inspired by sereneflavor's comment on one of my recent posts, in which she said that there is nothing like visual inspiration to get newbies to understand directly where the practice can take them. So, before I knew it, the Ashtanga spirit/demon had taken over me, and I ended up doing the practice with him, all the way to Janu Sirsasana A, with vinyasas on both sides all the way through. Although it was less than half primary, and I actually felt quite good after the class, I woke up feeling quite tired this morning. I guess I need to manage my energy better if I am going to continue to teach and do my own practice at a sustainable level. If any of you seasoned teachers out there have any advice/suggestions as to how to manage this, I'll love to hear from you. Of course, one very obvious solution is: Do not, under any circumstances, practice along with your students. Or, if one were to cast this in the form of a commandment: Thou Shalt not practice with thy student! But other than this obvious solution, if you have any other suggestions, I'll love to hear them.


Recently, Grimmly posed the question: Is an assist a prop? As always, Grimmly's interesting question has generated a lively conversation on his blog. Claudia thoughtfully commented that an assist is a prop, but at the same time "is more than that".

I think this is right. I would go further, and say that an assist is, in a sense, superior to a prop. Why? Used properly, a prop serves two functions: (1) It enables you to get into a certain modification of a particular pose that you might not be able to get into while maintaining proper alignment without the prop, (2) It enables you to feel and "get" the required opening that one needs to get to perform the posture effectively.

Let's take Kapotasana as an example. There is a tendency for many practitioners (including me) to bend too much at the lumbar spine and/or the shoulders in this posture, while not taking enough of the backbend in the thoracic spine. The effective use of a prop (say, doing a preparatory backbend with a block wedged between the shoulder blades) can function to remind the practitioner to take the backbend more into the thoracic spine.

However, in my opinion, the trouble with props is that over time and with repeated use, there is a tendency for the practitioner to come to rely too much on the prop to open the area/s of the body that needs to be opened; when this happens, the practitioner consciously or unconsciously comes to see the prop as a purely mechanistic device to be used in a mechanistic way to passively open a certain part of the body in order to "get" to a particular posture. When this happens, the energetic flow of the asana is overlooked. The same thing tends to happen when one uses blocks for forward folds or to rest the lower hand in Trikonasana: There is often a tendency to lean into the block, and in this way, neglect the energetic engagement of the bandhas that is integral to the effective performance of the posture.

Seen in this light, an assist is "superior" to a prop simply because the assistant is alive whereas a prop is "dead". A properly trained and sufficiently perceptive assistant understands that the purpose of the assist is to enable the student to feel the energetic flow of the asana while developing the strength and engagement necessary to eventually perform the posture unassisted. With this understanding, the assister can provide feedback to the practitioner consistently, reminding the practitioner to keep working on cultivating strength and engagement.

That said, I think it's possible for assistants to over-assist. For instance, sometimes people can so dependent on being assisted into a particular posture that they may not develop the strength to get into the posture themselves. Because of this, there is good reason to give assists sparingly: For instance, at her Richmond workshop in April, Kino told me that it is better to let people struggle with Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana at least a couple of times rather than just rush over and support them from the beginning. Same goes with Kapotasana: If one never had the opportunity to try and get into the posture on one's own, regardless of how deeply one gets, one might never develop the strength and muscular and energetic awareness needed to perform the posture effectively.

This, at any rate, are my two cents/rupees/yen on the topic.    


  1. Ah,no no no! Don't pin that one on me. I meant let the newbie observe YOUR practice, that way the student can aspire to one day go there...;)

  2. Hello sereneflavor, I didn't mean to pin that on you (or on anybody, for that matter). I guess what I was trying to say is that I was misguidedly inspired by your comments :-)

  3. Adjustments are props only if you regard your teacher as a prop.

  4. Hey Nobel:) I go through this practice/don't practice thing myself. Basically, I do the Suryas to make sure I'm warm incase I need to demo an asana or a transition, if I have only 1 or 2 students whom I know well(practice-wise) I might just let it be a Mysore class and stop them accordingly. If I have a full Led class, I usually do not practice along with them as I have so many students to look after, that being said, I am prepared to assist and demo if the need arises, whatever they need to learn is what I offer. Now, the next day is a different deal cos I've had my practice that morning and taught that evening, then it;s practice time again and maybe not so energized.....usually some coffee and a warm bath will do the trick or, I just back off and do what I can, I respect my body and honour it's messages. As far as a teacher being a prop....possibly but it's oh so wonderful those assists and adjustments...

  5. Hmm,... I've only taught led classes and I demo occasionally. I don't usually practice with my students but today I only had one student so I did a few poses with him, and showed him others. Generally as a new teacher I found it helpful to demo whenever I got lost. My body knew the sequence if my mind forgot where to go. The more experience I get, the less I demonstrate, and the less I demonstrate the better I get at talking at through the poses. This is still very much part of the journey for me as a teacher of vinyasa and (occasionally) led primary series classes. I find that when I'm teaching in a hot room, I'm pretty warmed up and don't seem to injure myself, but still I'm carefull and I don't do anything too crazy. I'm also very honest about my limitations, rather than trying to fake it.
    Judith Hanson Lasater wrote recently (I think) that as a new teacher she would first look at the pose, then at the student, then at her own thoughts. More experienced now, she practices the exact opposite. First she tunes into her own thoughts, then looks at the student as a whole person beneath the facade, and then at the pose. I find that fascinating, although I'm not there yet.
    I hope this helps Nobel!

  6. BTW, My teacher David Williams says "why not practice with them and show em how it's done, they can look at you and know what to do" sounds simple enough, David does not believe in strong adjustments either, although I have seen him give a few gentle assists:) You really got me thinking on this one Nobel:)

  7. Hello JayaKrishna, thanks for sharing. Yes, warm bath before practice sounds like a good idea. I'll think about that. So your teacher is David Williams? He's a great teacher. I remember at his workshop a few years ago, he did the whole practice with us :-)

    Yes, Deborah S, I can certainly see that as one teaches more and becomes more comfortable with teaching, one needs to practice and demonstrate less. I just read the Lasater interview on Yoga Dork too, and I keep thinking about it the last couple of days; I am definitely not there yet myself. But it's definitely something to work on and think about constantly :-)

  8. Nobel, I think that assists are something entirely diffferent from props. An in-animate object is never going to give you the energetic feedback the way human touch will. I suppose it depends a lot on the skill and energetic transfer that you are receiving from the adjuster, but good adjustments (like when sharath adjusts backbends) are at least for me, more of a guide than a sensation of being forced or cranked into something. The same goes for balances like sirsasana or pincha mayurasana... you can watch someone use a wall for years and never develop the ability to practice the asana alone. Guide them up and help them achieve balance by gently realigning them if they go past vertical and they pretty quickly learn where vertical actually is. It makes me think of those massage chairs that you can sit in at airports... is that the same as a massage from a real massage therapist? Not even close.
    Great blogging by the way, always presenting something insightful

  9. Thanks, Ashley. Yes, I totally agree with you that an assist gives you energetic feedback in a way that a prop cannot even approximate. An assist is very much an act of two-way communication, whereas a prop is a passive tool.