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.