You can do it.

Last summer, Mark and I, in an attempt to find some kind of exercise we enjoyed and would therefore be more likely to stick with, tried out Tai Chi.   I liked the idea of a martial art that was non-aggressive, I liked the focus on body-awareness, balance, the mind-body connection, I liked that it challenged me physically without being stereotypical “exercise”. 

What we didn’t like, and what led us to discontinue after a few weeks, were two things:  one, our being very detail-oriented and interested in doing it right, all of it, conflicted with the instructor’s emphasis on getting the big picture.  Where Mark and I would have preferred to spend a lot of time building a solid foundation by learning isolated and minute parts of a movement, with tons of repetition, before attempting to put it all together, the instructor taught and expected us to go through the entire movement immediately without “worrying” about the details.  

The other thing that bothered us was the instructor’s personality (separate from the fact that his teaching style conflicted with our learning style):  while he seemed perfectly nice, there was something intrusive about him; he always stood a couple of inches too close, I always felt like backing off, I felt un-safe.  And then there was the rather subtle impression that deep down, in his heart, he was still a karate martial artist who for some reason had given up karate in favor of tai chi:  he kept stressing how useful tai chi was for self-defense, and his demonstrations of attack and defense seemed not only showy but were very unsettling to me.

After taking some time to think about where to go next, we decided to explore yoga.  One of Mark’s colleagues recommended a teacher, and after looking at her website and exchanging a few emails, we signed up for the class.  Unfortunately, we are now again in a situation where we are expected to do way too much way too soon. 

The instructor is a wonderful young woman, she comes across as sweet and sensitive, and there is no doubt that she most definitely knows her stuff.  But perhaps because we are in a class with other people who, unlike us, are not beginners, we are, again, being led through poses and movements that are beyond what we can do.  And while at the beginning of each class the instructor emphasizes the importance of doing only as much as one can do, never feeling pressure to do more than what feels comfortable, what happens during class is different. 

Perhaps because her class format does not allow for a short individual consultation or interview before the first class, Mark only told her, very briefly, during our first two-minute greeting (we didn’t want to take any more time away from class time) that he has arthritis in his lower back which means two things:  he’s looking for ways to strengthen his back but also needs to be cautious not to aggravate it.  He didn’t tell her that because of an elbow injury many years ago, he cannot straighten his right arm; and I didn’t tell her that I was born with hip dysplasia which, although it was treated when I was a baby, not only limits my range of motion (I was never able to do the proper pre-natal exercises because of this; however, childbirth was completely unproblematic) but also makes certain “normal” movements painful.  We figured that we’d take her suggestion and simply do as much as we could and leave the rest.

Taking any kind of class is always interesting for me.  Not only because I learn something about something I didn’t know before, but also because I experience a teacher.  It allows me to reflect on my own teaching. 

One of the things I learned early on, perhaps more from personal experience than from being taught, was to never, ever, tell a student, “You can do it.”  I know, I know, it’s the standard American cheerleader slogan.  But it’s the wrong thing for a teacher to say.  Here’s why:  for one thing, how do you know your student can do it?  What if, for some completely stupid or unknown reason, your student can not do it?  Not only will you have lied to your student (not the best thing to establish trust), but worse, you made the student feel like he failed (because you believed in him and he let you down).  Hypersensitive?  Perhaps.  But that’s what students are.

Unfortunately, during yoga last night, Mark had to experience firsthand – and I, as his lover, vicariously, secondhand but no less immediate – the sensation of failure.  We are in our forties, pretty established personality-wise, not easily shaken these days, but fragile in this new learning experience.  Our instructor was leading us through a pose and saw that Mark was struggling.  She came up to him, knelt beside him and cheered him on, “you can do it!”  I immediately knew, and Mark told her in a voice that probably sent chills down everyone’s spine, in a voice that left no doubt, that, no, he could not do it.  There are physical limitations which make certain poses impossible, no matter how hard we try, or how long we practice, or how much we are being cheered on.  I was furious at this discrepancy between “do only as much as you can” and then the expectation that if we only try harder we can do more.  Mark told me later that he had felt shamed by her.  We both know that there is no way that she would ever intentionally do that.  But it happened.  With just four words.