Teaching without Labeling, by Aadil Palkhivala

Advice from Aadil Palkhivala, a Master Yoga Teacher, Co-founder of Purna Yoga and Alive and Shine Center, Bellevue, WA

As teachers, we should encourage our students to understand themselves based on their internal reference points rather than those of the external world. This practice will inflect our teaching in both practical and subtle ways.

To guide others is an art of infinite subtlety, although it is rarely appreciated as such. As our understanding and command of the art of teaching develops, so will the well-being of our students. Deepening that understanding means recognizing that all of our instruction and guidance must rest on a particular foundation: to help our students become “internally referential.”

We understand who we are based on our perceptions of the world around us. We learn to compare ourselves with others and value ourselves in accordance with how we stack up with them. Through this process, we become “externally referential”—we make sense of ourselves by referring to outer standards. By the time we become adults, our self-conceptions are largely borrowed from what we have been told by our parents, family members, friends, teachers, and the commercial media. We do things to look good or be popular, not necessarily because they are our soul’s desire or our life’s true purpose. Compounding the problem, advertisers incessantly bombard us with messages saying, at root, “You are falling short when compared to others. You had better buy your way out of this embarrassing situation.”

Defining ourselves in terms of external references is a dead end because it means ignoring the desires of the soul. As yoga teachers, we must work to help our students understand this. In fact, one of our main jobs is to shift the paradigm of external reference to one of internal reference. Our work is to help our students—particularly beginners—become aware of who they are as distinct from what they have been told they are. One way to do this is by defying common practice and not telling our students what they are. Instead of placing them in categories and destroying their uniqueness with labels, we can tell our students what they can do to change, grow, and find themselves.

Here is an example of this philosophy in action: commonly, teachers tell students, “You are very stiff, so don’t do this pose or you could hurt yourself.” Instead say to the student, “I would rather you do this variation of the pose for now.” In this case, the student does not have a label pinned on him by the teacher and is not bound by the teacher’s perception of who he is. The role of the teacher is to know the difference between someone who is stiff and someone who is supple and how to help both students become more balanced. We must find ways to do this without creating or reinforcing a negative, diminishing belief.

As another example, I regularly see students who cannot do certain poses because of illness or stiffness. I say, “I want you to prepare to do the pose that the others are doing by using the wall, or by using a belt. And after you practice it for a short time, your body will blossom and you will not need the prop anymore.” I give them a method by which they can remove the stiffness without reinforcing the fact that they are stiff and unable. Most students already feel unable, so confirming it aloud only makes it more of an obstacle. In some cases, they will be condemned to fight the stiffness in both their bodies and minds for the rest of their lives.

© 2008-2017 Aadil Palkhivala