Post #8 in The Elliott Lexicon of Satisfactory Yoga Terminology
It was around 1994 and I was teaching a class on padmasana (lotus pose), a three hour workshop preparing the hips for this less than easy posture. About an hour into it a frustrated student announced “no one has ever been able to help me understand why I can’t do this pose!”
I took the bait.
I taught the class all my favorite tricks to prepare for this pose. Towards the end of the class I asked the frustrated student if she had found anything useful, assuming she would have. But she shook her head no, not really. I was stumped. Nothing helped? Then slowly I realized why no one, including me, would ever be able to help her with padmasana.
“How often do you practice this pose?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know, not very often”, she replied sheepishly.
I had made a rookie mistake in not recognizing that when she said “no one has ever been able to help me,” she truly meant no one, including herself. I felt foolish and soon developed a radar for ferreting out students who want something different but don’t want to change their habits. These days I listen intently, and when I sense someone is trying to turn their work into mine, I nod my head and say with complete sincerity, “you know, that sounds like your Personal Mystery! Spend some time with it and let me know what you figure out.”
“Your Personal Mystery” is something everyone goes through at some time or another, whether it’s an injury or pose that has not changed in years. It usually involves some soul searching and is rarely fun, yet there is always some kumbaya enthusiast who will tell you it’s “an opportunity.” The annoying thing is, it really is an opportunity, but teachers can only give guidance because the challenge is particular to you. It’s common students fall into thinking the teacher knows a “magic bullet” for their woes, stall out while looking for a non-existent short cut, and lose sight of the need to practice on their own.
Sometimes a student recognizes their Personal Mystery during class, and these flashes of understanding have turned into points of bemusement. Numerous students have tossed their heads back in that moment, laughing and saying “ah, geez, this in my Personal Mystery, isn’t it?” Then everyone nods their head in sympathetic agreement and class goes on.
“Treats” are a related concept and unlike the usual association with the word, treats are the exact opposite of something you actually want. They are places in the body that are sore, feel “off”, “funky” or “stuck,” and may indicate you are teetering on an injury, about to acquire a Personal Mystery of your very own. They are like the canary bird in the coal mine, letting you know you need to pay attention:
“By the look on your face I’d say you’ve found a treat . . . maybe slow down a bit?”
I can and do help my students try to understand their Personal Mystery, but there is a fine line between helping a student discover their meaning and telling them what I think it is. My assessment of a conundrum can be wrong, and given the power of suggestion from a teacher, set a student back for years.
I’m not a fan of blind siding students by calling them out on their Personal Mystery unsolicited. I was conducting another class around the same time as the padmasana debacle and was deconstructing Tadasana, using a student as an example. The woman was slouching as she stood, when suddenly an observing student blurted out “is she hunching because her heart is closed?” The room flinched. So did I. I managed to shrug off the OMG-ness of it all and said “well, maybe her heart is TOO open and she’s trying to protect it,” and left it at that.
I have been on the receiving end of having my perceived “problem” announced to the class without my say or input; I found it humiliating, and it reminded me of a situation I had observed as an assistant in a therapeutics class. The student having difficulty could not bend her elbows. It was the darnedest thing. Suddenly the instructor conducting the class, while snapping fingers in an “ah-ha” moment exclaimed out loud for all to hear “She’s afraid of her breasts! That’s why she can’t bend her elbows!” The student never returned to the therapeutics class.
I’ve also been the toad who has embarrassed a student in class, but I got lucky because the student had the gumption to call me on it in the moment. I say “lucky” because although embarrassing her was not my intention, I did. Instead of burying the incident, or worse yet, leaving and never returning, she gave me the “opportunity” to learn. There’s that word.
I’ll close with the following favorite Personal Mystery story although it’s not mine. It’s an email exchange between a student of mine who kept slipping on her nonslip mat and the representative of a yoga props company that makes some of the finest mats around.
I recently purchased The Most Excellent Nonslip Sticky Mat*, and was loving it until I took it to class and my hands started to sweat a bit and the mat got slippery. I’ve already wiped the mat down twice with vinegar and water–any suggestions? I don’t sweat enough to need a towel.
The email response to Heidi’s query started out reasonably with a simple solution, don’t use body lotion, but quickly went sideways with further suggestions:
“The second solution can’t be bought, because it’s “thought.” What we focus on expands. A student who continually focuses on slippage only seems to experience more and more. In the standing poses, and poses like down dog, it is common to experience a bit of slippage. Use this opportunity to keep your awareness and energy moving toward, instead of away, from your center of gravity.”
This specious babble feels like the rep is doing a “Thelma and Louise”, sizing up the cliff ahead but not yet committed to slamming the foot on the gas. Ultimately it proves irresistible and the customer service rep goes for it:
“The slippage will stop when you decide your mat is safe and stable, thus allowing you to remain firm in your pose. Chances are, you’ll notice your abdomen muscles being challenged for the first time also!”
And with that, customer service flies over the credibility cliff and explodes. Heidi ignored the diagnosis and swapped out the spiffy mat for one that was not advertised as nonslip, and the problem went away. Sometimes, profundity needs to take a lesson from a keen sense of the obvious.
*The name of the mat has been changed “to protect the innocent,” but not the name of the email writer. Thank you to Heidi for being willing to share her story.