Fear Mongering in Teaching: Part 2
Let's change course a little and look at how we teach. Maybe it's the musician in me and the fact that I've had private lessons on my instrument (or taught them) since I was 6, but I see two main ways of teaching (certainly there are many approaches, these are just my 2).
1) Do this task like this, because I say so, because it's good for you, because you're supposed to, because it will benefit x,y,z, etc. The same logic can be applied to Don't do that, because I say so, because you'll hurt yourself, or in the case of the 1980's movie, The Christmas Story, "you'll poke your eye out."
2) Do this task, and then you tell me what you notice. In music, you might ask a student what they hear, how they feel, what the challenges are, etc. In movement, you might ask about the quality of breath, whether things feel easy or difficult, where there are restrictions, what sensations are present. You might also just ask students to move in different ways and see how they feel, without needing their verbal responses, and just ask them to be in dialogue with themselves.
Now at any given point in a lesson or a class, you might need to draw from one of these approaches. "Step your right foot back" is a command from the first mode that might be necessary to come into a high lunge in yoga class. "Feel what happens in the left side of your body as you step the foot back" is a directive from the second mode.
In a music lesson, you might ask a student to play a piece or scale, and then ask them to focus on something either physically, sonically, and see how it affects the end product, the experience of playing, the expression, etc.
Either way, you need to draw from both approaches to get things done. If we always tell students what to do and how they should feel, they may never have a sense of what feels good in their body, or for musicians, how to develop their own creative and expressive voice. If we always draw from the second approach, we can get lost in the details so much that we may not accomplish something, which sometimes is a good thing, and other times, not so much.
For example, walking meditation is a form of mindfulness practice in many spiritual traditions. Most people practicing it walk extremely slowly (think zombies), which is great, but at a certain point in life, you have to walk (or run) and try to bring the mindfulness work in a different context. If we only practice a piece or excerpt slowly and with great care, we may never be able to play it at the tempo or with the character we wish to.
I digress a little, but I apologize, I'm still drinking coffee.
When we only draw from the first modality of teaching, do this and do it this way (or don't do that), we're not necessarily teaching the person in front of us, but we are asserting our authority as superiors to the students. For example, some people's legs and degrees of turnout are uneven between the left and right sides. The goal of a symmetrical squat (or symmetrical pilates footwork) may not be practical or possible for that person in context. For musicians, some teachers have the approach of "all my students use this sort of setup/instrument/technique/shoulder rest/lack of shoulder rest." The challenge is that a one size fits all approach doesn't account for structural variability, let alone what that student needs on an emotional and psychological level. In both cases, the student may feel inadequate, irregular, and frustrated when the solution presented to them doesn't work, may or may not cause pain, or leaves them unable to execute the task as well as they could.
Fear mongering language in teaching comes from that first approach, and it comes from a place of good intention of wanting to help the student sound better, look better, feel better, prevent injury, or do the task better. It may come as a way of reinforcing the benefits of certain poses or movements, to just assert a foundation, and may be a way to try to get a large group of people to do what you want. It may not necessarily account for the actual student in front of you, and what is or isn't possible for them.
Let's go back to a common yoga cue of "don't bend your knees past your ankles in a lunge or warrior pose- it's not good for your knees." The first time I trained with weights and kettlebells, I realized that there were moments when my knees had to go forward of my ankles, and I thought it was horrible teaching on the part of the personal trainer. Over the following months, I conversely tried squatting and deadlifting many ways and realized that it didn't hurt me to bend my knees fully. It turns out that I move in ways all the time that bend my knees past 90 degrees, and it's fine, the 90 degree bend rule was for achieving a specific shape in yoga, not for all movements, all the time. Knowing this, how might I change that original cue if I was teaching ?
"Bend your knee to a 90 degree angle. The classic form of this pose has this architecture. Now bend it a little less or a little more. Try changing something and see how it feels. If you like the variation, notice that, if you dislike the variation, notice whether it's because it's a deviation from what you've learned, or because it doesn't feel good. Feel what you feel, and know that it is valid."
That's just me, and doesn't have to be how you'd handle it. This isn't an excuse to give up on alignment, structure, or the forms of movements and disciplines, but instead permission to enter into a dialogue, a conversation with your students about what you're doing as you do it. It's essentially giving you permission to be a collaborator with your clients or students to come up with a solution, rather than have all the answers. Side note, if you give an alignment cue, make sure to reiterate that it's specific to that student at that moment in time in that movement, not that it needs to be done 24/7!
Part 3 to follow later this week, with more coffee and puppy kisses (since he makes the photos that much better).