How to Refuse Alignment Cues
A question often arises in my teacher training courses, after we have discussed the wide range of human variation and the reality that not all alignment cues will work for every body: “What do we do when a teacher wants us to change our alignment but the suggestion doesn’t work? What do we say to the teacher?” (Note: this is different than when a teacher physically adjusts a student, which is related. Here we are addressing offered verbal cues only.)
It is easy to suggest, “Just say, ‘no thanks’ ” but social pressure and insecurities are real and may lead us into ignoring our own inner wisdom and try to conform to the teacher’s commands. So, what to do?
Many points of view
Seeking stories of what students do when faced with this dilemma I turned to the Facebook group, Yoga and Movement Research Community. This group is very active, has almost 30,000 members with teachers and students equally willing to share their experiences. The post generated over 200 comments, which generally fell into two categories: 1) responses of what students did/should do when confronted with an unwanted adjustment (either verbal or physical), and 2) comments on what teachers do/should do when offering directions. This latter group of comments was not strictly addressing my question but it raised an important issue.
How should teachers guide a student?
One flavour of response from the teacher’s perspective was that the student should be open to the teacher’s direction because this is the way the student can learn. Some students described how their teacher helped them greatly and only by being open to doing what the teacher asked were they able to benefit from the teacher’s experience. While this is undoubtedly true, this was not the question I was raising. I would agree that a student may well be served by testing out suggestions from their teachers, but the challenge I was posing was – what happens if the student knows that the suggestion will not be good? How can the student respond in a way that is authentic and safe?
My question does not deny that many teachers have helped students through either physical adjustments or succinct and detailed verbal cues. This is a reality. I am not claiming that teachers should never try to guide students. But, how should a teacher empower the student to be a full participant in the practice? A student should never feel coerced into an action that she knows is not good for her.
The student should be made aware of the obvious risks and options, including the most important option: if something is not working, don’t do it! Teachers must be aware of the power imbalance and social pressure inherent in a class setting. Students may feel unable to refuse direction even when it is detrimental. The best way around this, as suggested numerous times in the responses from the Facebook group, is for the teacher to consistently remind the student to pay attention to what is happening within and to stop if something is not working.
This is not easy. Often the students are unwilling to accept self-responsibility. As Donna Farhi wrote, “…no matter how often I give [the students] explicit permission to take back custody of their bodies and minds, they persistently hand it back to me. Over many days, I will see individuals who will try to hand it to me, I hand it back, they hand it to me I hand it back…” In Donna’s view, some students have become “infantilised”. She explains, “They can’t so much as cross their legs without asking exactly how it’s to be done and in what way and for how long.” These are not students learning to be independent.
One of the greatest gifts a teacher can give to her student is the ability for that student to become her own teacher. Like a good parent, the good teacher guides the student to become self-sufficient and responsible for her own life and body. She does not perpetuate dependency. She teaches the student how to attend, to develop interoception, to become aware of what is happening within and based on that, decide how to proceed or not proceed with the movements and postures.
How should a student respond to an unwanted cue or adjustment?
A public class can create an intimidating environment, especially if the teacher is well known. This occurs even if the teacher does not intend to be demanding or intimidating. Matthew Remski believes this subtle yet powerful coercion occurs as soon as a student walks into the studio. Simply being in the presence of pictures of yogis in advanced, contorted postures, seeing the teacher and other students standing or sitting tall and erect, watching other students defer to the teacher, all these subliminal cues make it very difficult to stand your own ground and resist the social pressure to conform. What to do then? Do you simply give in and adopt the requested alignment, suffering in silence?
No matter what yoga class you are attending, you are not there for the teacher’s benefit. Rather, the teacher is there for your benefit. If a class or a pose is not serving you, you have the right and the obligation to protect yourself first and foremost. You are “flying the plane!”
To explain, let me cite Bruce Lipton who once asked: “What is the difference between your doctor and an airplane pilot?” By law, a pilot has to go through a large checklist of items before she can taxi the plane away from the airport terminal. Your doctor likewise is expected to go over a standard list of questions and procedures when you come to see her, but since she has only about 10 minutes allocated to your visit, there isn’t time to actually do the full job. What’s the real difference between the doctor and the pilot? The pilot is on the plane with you. This bears repeating: the pilot is on the plane with you! It is in the pilot’s best interests to go through the full checklist. Your doctor is not on the plane with you.
Lipton’s comment is not meant to disparage doctors, and it also applies to dentists, accountants, lawyers and yoga teachers. You may be surrounded by bright, educated and well-intentioned people, but you are the one flying your plane. Doctors obviously know more about anatomy, physiology, sickness and healing than you and experts can be part of your advisory council, but you have to take the final responsibility for your life, for your health, for your yoga practice.
Don’t take anything a yoga teacher tells you as gospel: check it out. The teacher’s advice is no doubt well intentioned, but you are flying your plane. If the advice doesn’t suit you, don’t follow it. You are unique. Your teacher will never know you as well as you know yourself. Her advice is guidance, but it is not a commandment from God! How will you know whether the advice doesn’t work for you? Consider it, maybe even try it, but pay attention: pain is often a great signal that something isn’t right. If it isn’t right for you, ask for options or stick with what you know works for you.
The teacher is there for your benefit
Saying “no” doesn’t have to be confrontational; it can be done with a smile. It can be accompanied by a few qualifiers such as “That doesn’t work for my body” or “I would rather not and I can explain why after class.” Another response that has seemed to work is to say, “Not today, thanks.”
Several suggestions where made to let the teacher know before class starts that you know what you body can and cannot do so you may not be following all the cues offered. This works but it does require a level of extroversion that many students are not comfortable with and it is not always possible to talk to the teacher in private before class begins.
Many students admitted that refusing the teacher was too uncomfortable, so they would adopt the cue, at least until the teacher’s attention moved elsewhere, then they would go back to their own method.
A few responses followed the theme that, regardless of what the student feels is right, she should at least try the suggested cue or allow the adjustment because only through being open to new experience will growth happen. One student claimed that she was healed of a significant injury by trusting her teacher, even though the suggestion was painful and challenging. I don’t deny that this particular student did obtain benefit, and often therapists will encourage their clients to work through pain, but therapy is done in one-on-one sessions where the therapist can work in depth with an individual. A drop-in yoga class is not a therapy session. As a counterpoint to this comment, many students reported severe adverse effects from ignoring their pain and doing what the teacher wanted.
I would agree that being open to trying new ideas can be valuable, but this again misses the original question. What if you already know the suggestion will be harmful? If you are not sure, then by all means, be cautiously curious. But if you are sure that it will be bad for you, then do not allow the pressure of the room, fellow students or teacher overrule your inner wisdom.
It’s your body. No one in the world knows you better than you do. Others may have vast knowledge of anatomy, yoga, health sciences, but none of these people are on the plane with you. They may care greatly about you, but you are flying the plane. Over time, by practicing with both intention and attention, you will learn more and more about your airplane and how it works best. Listen to guidance, sure, but you are the one to make the final decision.
You have the right and the power to choose, and to say “no” if you want.
(For a full view of all the comments on this topic, and to add your own, visit the Facebook posting here.)
After finalizing the above essay, I happened to listen to the November 11, 2019 podcast chat between J. Brown and Donna Farhi. They went over this topic at length and I highly recommend everyone listen to Donna’s well articulated thoughts. As J. wrote on his website, “They discuss the difference between pedagogy and ‘heutagogy’ or self-determined learning, when quiet authority is given by students [heutagogy] or authoritarianism is asserted by teachers [pedagogy], educating people about what is between the lines and understanding the invisible matrix so we can make change, and the inquiry and shared humanity that makes for a lifelong sustainable yoga career.” Listen to the podcast here (you may have to scroll down to Nov 11, 2019.)
 Here is Matthew Remski’s comment: “Just wanted to say that while I don’t know of anyone else who’s used the term, my ideas on [somatic dominance] are surely not original and have been informed by years of conversations with people like Donna Farhi and Theodora Wildcroft.
I just want to add to your OP that for me, somatic dominance begins at the threshold of any room under at least two overlapping circumstances: 1) where informed consent around touch is lacking, and 2) where the student already unconsciously feels compliant in relation to the teacher’s body. #2 may take the form of mirroring, trying to please, knowing implicitly that one’s body can be either approved of or surveilled for correction, etc. In other words it starts way *before* the moment where there’s an actual verbal exchange around consent, which is why “just saying no” is really complicated, and why suddenly the student has to be worried about “manners”, instead of the fact that their autonomy has been contested from the outset.
With #2, I know I’m setting the bar for teachers pretty high. After all, so much of MPY pedagogy for the past 100 years has been based on performing or modelling uprightness and alignment as implicit signs of spiritual or moral virtue. But I also think it’s exciting that the issue of informed consent is a gateway for considering the subtler yet no less profound ways in which bodies with more power influence bodies with less power.”
 Bruce Lipton is a professor of genetics, speaker and author of the book The Biology of Belief.
 I can’t help but feel that she was lucky. There is no proof that her suffering helped to cure her. She may have healed even without the teacher’s ministrations, and maybe even more quickly. With anecdotes like these, it is easy to attribute a causal connection but it may be simply coincidence. However, there is no denying that she did heal and that she credits her teacher with being the source of her healing.