On paying attention

The classic Iyengar method of teaching asana is what I’ll call the “demo” method:  teacher demonstrates and then students do. This contrasts with the common “follow the leader” method, in which teachers do practically the whole sequence along with students.

So, many students who attend my classes aren’t used to the “demo” method. Often, they’re hesitant to venture too far from their mats, unlike longtime Iyengar students who want ringside seats for demos. Sometimes, I demonstrate a forward bend with my head facing downward only to find students already doing the pose when I rise. Waitaminute, folks! I want to watch students enter the pose. If I’m doing the pose, I’m not watching them. And isn’t my job? To watch my students?

If they’re used to constant activity, however, some tend to be impatient. While I’m demonstrating, they can’t help but to ready their stance or to arrange their props. The instant they recognize the pose I’m teaching, their minds jump to expectations. I know this pose. I don’t need to watch. Let me do it.

This amuses me. Where are their minds during class?

I, for one, never tire of watching my own teachers demonstrate. I love to watch the details, from the spreading of the toes to the symmetry of a backbend. Once, my current main teacher told me that watching her own teachers was invaluable to her practice. It was only through visual observation that she learned to do the most-challenging asanas.

Close observation of teachers’ demos or words doesn’t mean agreeing with them. Heck, I’ve attended classes where I learned how not to do a pose! All classes are not created equal. Regardless, you’re physically there in class; you might as well be mentally there, too.

The yoga mind. If the whole point of yoga, including asana, is really to develop the mind, who has a better practice: The adept student who relies on ease and habit? Or the inept novice who pays close attention?

Image: Cliff & Olivia


  1. I had to laugh at this because it’s so true! I also find it amusing when the vinyasa students show up and can’t seem to quiet themselves down enough to take a moment to watch a demo. Or they watch and then proceed to do the pose the way the always do it. *sigh* I think the inept novice who pays attention will quickly surpass the so-called ‘adept’ students in no time! Without the focus of the mind, there is no yoga.
    Try telling your students about mirror neurons. Sometimes that gets a few lightbulbs turned on for them!


  2. Ah, so that’s what it’s called – mirror neurons!
    I remember my first teacher, Wende Davis, explaining that even if your brain didn’t think you were learning something new while watching yet another demonstration of Trikonasana, your eyes could transmit information directly to your body, without you having to be conscious of it happening.
    That would have been back in the ’80s, before the discovery of mirror neurons.
    I took it as just another example of how yoga asks us to put aside the mind that “knows” and instead be willing to honor body knowledge.
    Thanks for the Cliff and Olivia picture – although I’m afraid it led me into wanting to see more of Cliff and Olivia, a slippery path.


  3. I love to watch bodies in demos, too. I wonder if the hesitation to stop and observe for some has to do with thinking of yoga as an exercise class and not wanting to stop that sort of heated up momentum?


  4. I like to watch cats move & stretch, and balance. And sunbathe.

    I had to adjust to the Iyengar ‘watch first’ method. The flow of the class seemed interrupted at first. But the benefits come after class when you realise how much you learned, and can apply to home practice.


  5. This is a great post. I struggle with the same thing in my classes. I get a lot of people from other traditions and many of them simple refuse to budge…standing far away on their mats with almost hostility being lobbed at me.

    I study with a very senior Iyengar teacher – demos are precious and like you said long-time Iyengar students are right there to observe the demo.

    I have learned to be more firm about asking students to come closer and also explaining the benefits of this kind of watching. Good studentship is part of the yoga and that is getting lost in many of today’s feel good classes.


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