No offense!

Once, I offended a yoga student by adjusting her leg with my foot. I was teaching Supta Padangusthasana 1: While adjusting her raised leg, I noticed her supine leg flopping outward. Since I was standing, I used my foot to inwardly rotate and ground her thigh, while I simultaneously reminded all students to perform these actions.

I can’t recall her exact words, but she immediately requested that I not use my foot, affronted that I’d done such a thing. With a brief apology, I removed my foot from her leggings-clad thigh and resumed teaching the class. Never had I witnessed such a reaction—whether as a teacher or as a student.

While she was not new to the studio, she wasn’t a regular student of mine. In retrospect, I might have held off using my foot until we were more familiar. I also might have factored in her Indian ethnicity: If touching the feet of elders shows respect, my “stepping” on her leg might have come across as very disrespectful. But since she had experience with Iyengar yoga—and since my regular students who are Indian are unfazed by such uses of feet—I assumed that my said adjustment would be fine.

Her reaction made me contemplate not only the specific issue—using feet to adjust students—but also general protocols. When you attend an Iyengar yoga class, you enter a particular world of Sanskrit words, of step-by-step demos, of innovative prop set-ups, of targeted verbal corrections, of tactile adjustments by hands and sometimes by feet. What is your reaction to this world? Do you adapt to it? Do you expect it to adapt to you?

Adjusting students with feet

As a student, I have always appreciated a firm, well-placed manual adjustment for its visceral impact. And feet are just additional hands. Perhaps I assume that my own students will likewise appreciate their usefulness.

Adjustments by feet are ubiquitous among Iyengar yoga teachers. Here are a few examples:

  • Support student in Ardha Adho Mukha Vrksasana by placing heels under shoulders and pushing up as needed.
  • Ground student’s shoulders in Chatushpadasana by placing toes on shoulder tops and rolling them down.
  • Ground student’s legs and pelvis in Bhujangasana by standing on uppermost thighs, feet turned out, inner arches along buttock creases. (Partner exercise at an Aadil Palkhivala workshop.)
  • Deepen spinal extension in wall-facing Baddhakonasana or Upavistha Konasana by placing one forefoot against sacrum and the other forefoot against thoracic spine; gently press in and up.
  • Stabilize pelvis with forefoot while manipulating student into a deeper seated twist.

I racked my brain to recall any use of feet at RIMYI in Pune. I know that it’s bad form to step on blankets there. But what’s the attitude toward teachers’ use of feet on students? Well, during morning practice, I’d see Prashant standing over a prone student (only the locals) working one of his feet into the student’s back… Even if I can’t come up with firsthand observations from Pune, however, adjustments by feet are done liberally in the “literature” and by certified teachers.

Accepting unfamiliar protocols

Even if using feet on students is acceptable, however, it might still be offensive to some. Let’s ask the larger questions: How should a student react to the unfamiliar or the unexpected? What about the unwanted?

To me, there’s a “When in Rome” aspect to any chosen pursuit. If I choose to do something, I must more or less accept the customary protocols. If I don’t—and if there is no leeway for compromise—I can leave.

In my experience with Iyengar yoga, most protocols have resonated with me. I like the straightforward yet vivid language, the individualized correction, the rigor, the constant refinement. I’m not a big chanter, but the protocol of changing the invocation to Patanjali has grown on me. That said, I’m not a fan of removing my glasses for yoga (see my post “In defense of wearing glasses while doing yoga“). I nevertheless do remove my glasses for Savasana—as ritual, as protocol of Iyengar yoga. And if a teacher insists that I remove my glasses for another pose, I might disagree but not enough to oppose. Unless I’m at risk, I accept the circumstances of that class, that teacher, that “Rome.”

(Do you know the origin of the saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”? Aurelius Ambrosius, an important 4th century Catholic saint, believed that religious protocols should not be rigid or invariable from place to place. Thus, in traveling around Italy, he would follow the local customs. “When I am at Rome, I fast on a Saturday; when I am at Milan, I do not. Follow the custom of the church where you are.” He thus avoiding engaging in false conflicts over which particular local church had the right liturgical forms where there was no substantial divergence.)

Teacher’s intent, student’s intent

The student in my opening story did return to my class. She wasn’t so offended that she rejected my teaching or Iyengar yoga altogether. That was a relief. But some students don’t recover from a perceived offense. My friend Bill used to attend classes taught by a well-known teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area. After several years in beginner classes, he started doing Sirsasana and gathered the courage to switch to a more-advanced class. For him, it was a big deal.

“But, one day, when we were in headstand,” Bill told me, “he said I look like a banana! I never went back.”

I was incredulous. “Bill, he wasn’t insulting you,” I said. “Teachers always refer to a banana shape when someone is too arched.”

“Did you tell him how you felt?” I asked.

“Nah,” he said, with a gesture indicating that he was done with yoga.

“You should tell him,” I said. “He’s probably wondering why you disappeared.”

I was surprised at Bill’s sensitivity. On one hand, the teacher might have realized that Bill was nervous in a new class and corrected him more discreetly. On the other hand, Bill might have known that his teacher wasn’t belittling him as a person. Verbal corrections—out loud, audible by the whole class—are standard, after all, in Iyengar yoga.

Ultimately Bill (and the student offended by my foot and all of us as students) must consider the teacher’s intent. If one is singled out and disrespected, that’s one thing. If not, a student must avoid being easily offended and reacting to perceived slights. If a teacher’s actions don’t quite jibe with your expectations, you might question the teacher’s intent, judgment, and even competence. But you might also question your own.

Images: “Seven Studies of a Foot,” John Engleheart, Victoria & Albert Museum; banana, The Velvet Underground & Nico cover by Andy Warhol, Billboard

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8 thoughts on “No offense!

  1. Always love your posts, Luci. Even though I have done yoga all of about twice and looked like a banana, pretzel, or pile of mush each time. It’s the musings that make it interesting and this is a compelling read. Thanks!!

    1. Thanks, Ray. Happy to hear that my blog appeals to non yoga folks (and to such an ace writer). Yoga ultimately reflects “who we are,” and I’m curious about the stories behind the poses. Like you, I love to read about other worlds (sports, politics, etc) for the underlying stories about people and the human condition. Will our paths ever cross again? Lonely Planet author meetings are ancient history under the new regime!

    1. I was adjusted by Geeta’s foot putting my feet in alignment while in Savasana. Way back in 1986, in Pune. 🙂

  2. Any and all adjustments are welcome as far as I’m concerned. My teachers including you, Luci, do them in respectful and intelligent manner. Great post – “telling on yourself” 😊.

  3. The biggest myth from Iyengar yoga is that there is something such as “correct posture” for certain poses that you are going to lead a student to with all that verbiage. Not only does it create an extremely mental approach to the body and block anything deeper from unfolding, much of the time the actions in Iyengar yoga, such as jamming the shoulder blades in the back to open the chest, or spreading the toes out harshly is downright taxing to nervous system and internal organs. Many of the instructions given in these classes should only be used judiciously in therapeutic contexts, if at all, and if you don’t understand this you know next to nothing about yoga, prana, or the human body and how traditional hatha yoga works so make sure you stick to the “Iyengar” label for whatever it is your doing.

  4. This may be backlash from groups like Diane Bruni’s “Yoga and Movement Research” FB page. It is a closed group where they routinely post Iyengar teacher’s photos and videos and then pick them apart. I find it unethical, but any contrary comments are shot down with the mob mentality of the many disturbed and triggered people in that group. I never post in the group but keep tabs on what I might expect from a student who subscribes to that group’s theory. The internet yoga community is far from kind, I’m afraid.

  5. Thank you for sharing your post. Just a few days ago I had asked my husband (who is white) to stop touching me with his feet intentionally. It happened as he sat on the couch and I was on the floor building ikea furniture. He used his feet to get my attention and I asked him to stop almost instinctively. He had the same confused reaction as you initially did.

    I am in the category of your student when it comes to being touched with feet. I am Indian and growing up, even if someone accidentally touched me with their feet, they would immediately apologize (do a quick namaskar to “counteract” the foot intrusion). Grandmothers especially were quick to do this. Even if I was unaware that I was accidentally touching someone with my foot (especially upper body area), even my mom across the room would yell at me to watch my feet and apologize. Culturally (marathi to be exact) it is inappropriate. I think the real question is exported yoga observes Indian cultural customs.

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