When is a triangle a teacher? The hidden magic of a physical posture practice.

yoga-tasmanian triangle-sm

Cherise in Triangle Pose, Maria Island, Tasmania

Last week I was working with a yoga student as she came into Triangle Pose – Trikonasana. This young woman has been coming to my class for a few years, and is currently undertaking her studies to become a yoga teacher. As she came into the pose I could see a deep bend through her side waist, which seemed to be stemming from her attempts to get her hand to the floor by her front foot. I asked her to come up so that she could commence the pose again. I gave her a few suggestions for accessing this lovely pose, and asked her to focus on keeping both sides of her waist long and open as well as her spinal column elongated, and exploring not going so deeply into the pose. To focus her energy on bending through the front hip socket. To be aware of the support of her legs and feet. As she went into the pose again, her waist automatically curved into a deep side bend and she came into the same position as the first time around. I realised then that her body has so learned the habit of rounding to the side that she couldn’t stop doing that action.

She pointed out that her front hip (in the direction she was doing the pose) was very stiff, had some scar tissue and restricted her movement in that direction. Yet – she was still determined to get her hand down to her ankle, compromising the position of her spine to get there.

I asked her to come up out of the pose again, a couple of times actually. Each time her body reverted to the habit of movement it’s familiar with, and the deep bend through the waist resulted.

She became frustrated, saying to me in some exasperation – “No one has ever asked me to do Triangle pose this way before!”

I had to get back to the rest of the class by then, and decided to demonstrate the physical alignment cues of Triangle pose for the whole class, so everyone could have a go. I noticed this student was not meeting my gaze and seemed disconnected for the rest of class, perhaps annoyed with me? Frustrated?

At times like this, I can doubt myself, wondering if I’ve pushed the point too far, if I’m stuck on some fixed idea myself.

I found it interesting that even though I was giving guidance with my hands and demonstrating the points I was making with this student, it was as if she couldn’t see it, couldn’t feel it for herself. Had I failed as a teacher? Where were the right words? Was was the best way to demonstrate this? How could I ‘make’ her see the light??

So, my own mind became focused on something it didn’t need to. Here before me was a living demonstration of how fixed we can become on an idea of something, and how difficult it is to explore something that feels different.

In my student’s case, I believe it was her fixed idea of how triangle pose should be completed – ie. one hand near the floor, one reaching towards the sky – and her desire to achieve that ‘shape’ even against the willingness or actual ability of her body to accommodate that idea.

In my case, it was my determination to show her the way. And my limitation in being able to do that was evidenced by no real progress on her part. Only frustration.

A big part of the value of a physical posture practice is the exploration and  opening of our physical bodies, for sure. Finding optimal alignment so that the body can open in the safest and deepest way possible for each individual is an art of mastery. But the bigger part for me is creating space for a flexible mind as well – how open can I be to new suggestion that challenges the way I’ve been doing something, perhaps for years? How fixated do I become on doing things a certain way, even at the cost of my wellbeing? How alert can I keep my awareness as I come into a posture to notice when the body is actually opening up, as opposed to just placing or forcing my body into a particular shape so it looks like whatever my mental image of it is?

Our physical posture practice is a gateway on so many levels. Gateway to greater flexibility and strength. Gateway for physical mastery. And an expansive, ever-widening gateway to the workings of mind and heart, releasing habits, staying curious, ever mindful, and honing sensitivity.

It’s never too late to open up on any level, but I recognise that sometimes deeply ingrained and unconscious habits may take a long time to shift. The wise teacher wants, in these cases, to find another way to impart the lesson. This for me is the ‘yoga’ of teaching another – I love the learning that happens through this practice.

Watch out for a few triangle poses in upcoming classes!

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