The Challenge of an Accomplished Student

by K. Kris Loomis in Yoga

pexels-photo-12346In the yoga world, teachers often don’t know what to do with a student that swims into class being able to do sophisticated arm balances in a sea where the rest of the yogi fish are just trying to breathe. So what is a teacher supposed to do with one of these “accomplished students?” While some teachers get a little flustered, I take another route. I choose to learn from them. Here are two examples from my own teaching experience and what I learned dealing with two very different accomplished students.

Accomplished Student #1

Years ago I was getting ready for my mixed level yoga class at a small YMCA in South Carolina. Now a mixed level class is just that, a class where abilities and backgrounds can be diverse, so one of the challenges as a teacher is to address everyone at his or her level. Having said that, a Mixed Level class is not an advanced one, and most students range from beginner to intermediate.

Among the regulars that filtered into the class that day was a striking young woman I had never seen before. She looked like she could be a prima ballerina with the Royal Ballet company. She arrived early and was poised and graceful as she quietly rolled out her mat near the back of the room. No one had any doubt whatsoever that this chick would be able to touch her toes. Heck, she might even be able to reach China.

Curious eyes were glued to this woman as she slowly lifted herself up into a glorious Downdog for a few moments before lowering into a quiet Hero pose, where she waited patiently for class to begin. I went over to greet her, as I always do with new students so that I could find out if she had any physical issues or illnesses I needed to be aware of before starting class. Come to find out, she had indeed been a dancer, but suffered some lingering effects from that strenuous profession and had come to yoga to slow down and to relearn as a “civilian” how to keep her body flexible and strong as she aged. I welcomed her and started class.

As I began guiding the class through some introductory postures I noticed that the other students couldn’t stop glancing in the dancer’s direction. Understandable, really, because she was beautiful to watch, even in the most basic of postures. She was very deliberate in her approach to the poses we went over that day, and I soon realized that I had the perfect opportunity to use this beautiful specimen to point out some things in a three dimensional way to my other students.

You see, during the course of a class, I often stop to physically demonstrate things I believe can help my students as they are trying to learn a posture. But sometimes I wish I had a blackboard (and drawing skills) because it is difficult to point out something on the back side of your body! Luckily, this young woman was willing to be my model and I was able to hone in on some of the intricacies of a forward bend, as well as some of the things that people need to keep in mind as their flexibility improves. And while she was fantastic with everything on two feet that day, she struggled with balance postures due to an ear infection. Seeing that lovely creature flail in Tree was a great lesson for the class because it demonstrated that you really do have a different body every day!

This accomplished student just came to that one class because she was only in town for a weekend visiting relatives. But because of her giving attitude and willingness to be part of a community, we all learned something that day. My students learned that even former ballerinas have bad balance days and that everyone has to work at maintaining their body. I learned from her the importance of staying with a posture all the way through the release and began right away incorporating that nugget into my own practice and my teaching. And she was gracious enough to send me a nice email a few days later saying how much she enjoyed the class and told me of a couple of areas where I was able to help her.

Accomplished Student #2

Fast-forward several years. I was now teaching yoga in a lovely city in South America where expats tend to come and go a lot. Of course, I would have regulars, but they were inclined toward travel and adventure in their retirement, so the mix of attendees was in constant flux.

I was well into my class one afternoon when in waltzed a beautiful young woman who proceeded to throw her belongings against the back wall before unfurling her mat with a loud whip on the front row. She then went about her own business, never once following along with the rest of the class, not interested in the least in what I was teaching. The class was a beginner’s class and here she was on the front row doing advanced standing postures, arm balances, splits, and headstands. Her body control was impressive and some of her postures would make a gymnast jealous; however, not once did I consider using her as an example for the rest of the class. Her inconsideration of the class setting was baffling and I wondered why she had bothered coming to class in the first place if she was just going to proceed with her own practice. I had even had a couple of emails with her earlier that week about what type of class it would be, time, etc., and she assured me that she was fine with a slower paced class.

But I learned something from that young woman that day. I learned that even when one’s posture is over-the-moon gorgeous if it is not practiced with humility it can quickly turn disruptive and ugly.

Learning is about gaining knowledge and insight, not showing off what you already know. That is what performances are for, and yoga is a PRACTICE, not a performance. Fortunately, if you have the right mindset you will learn something in every situation, as I did in both examples above. I value both of those experiences equally (even though one was more pleasant than the other) because I was able to learn from each accomplished student something that I could take forward with me as a student, and as a teacher.

K. Kris Loomis is the author of the humorous travel memoir, Thirty Days In Quito: Two Gringos and a Three-Legged Cat Move to Ecuador. She also writes adult parables and short stories as well as books about yoga and meditation. Kris is a determined chess player, an origami enthusiast, a classically trained pianist, and a playwright. She lives in South Carolina with her husband and two cats.

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