I teach classes, workshops, and retreats. I see private clients. I sometimes help out friends and family with pains or movement-related questions. People come to me with a wide range of abilities and limitations. Some folks are trying to run a marathon but getting stalled at 16 miles due to some seemingly new joint issue. At the other end of the spectrum, I work with people with chronic diseases or conditions who are struggling to stand without pain or build strength without exhausting themselves. If I don't pay attention to the particular person in front of me, they could get hurt. Alternately, if the student/client isn't clear about their limits or honest about their pain, they could get hurt. Either way, the only one at risk of injury in these settings is the person I'm trying to help.
For the long-distance runners, I'm looking at their gait, learning about old injuries or chronic issues, and discovering what isn't moving well. The new pain is probably due to an imbalance that could withstand a certain amount of use, but reared its head when asked to do more. Once I figure out the imbalance, the athlete and I can figure out what movement patterns are creating or exacerbating the problem. Then I help them create new movement patterns, using weight-resistance or introducing other ways to rebuild strength or mobility. The goal is to move better with less chance of injury.
My client who is housebound and easily exhausted (disease-related), I remind to look up. Lifting her eyes to the horizon brings her torso upright without the same effort as telling her to "sit up tall." Maybe we add wiggling toes or moving fingers. The goal is figuring out how to keep more of her moving and keep her energy up. Too much will deplete her.
With both of the above scenarios, it's one-to-one time. I'm checking in, seeing what's too much, what helps. I am ensuring, to the best of my ability, that no one gets hurt in pursuit of healing.
In a class situation, I can only do so much checking in or asking. I do try to attend to everyone, but there numerous people in a class and I can't see everyone at all times (though I'm quite good at recognizing who needs attention when after getting to know my classes).
It is the students' job to listen to their limits and stop or modify as needed. That can be hard when you're new and trying to figure out what the heck I'm teaching. You may not even be aware of pain signals in your body if you've been dealing with pain for any length of time. (Thank you, Nervous System, for numbing some of those nerve endings so we can function when we've been experiencing chronic pain.)
Another challenge inhibiting self-awareness is group dynamics. People really want to do what the rest of the class is doing. We don't always want to come out of a pose early or do a modification. We don't want to appear as though we can't keep up. If I teach a pose, that's the pose everyone assumes they should do. If I offer a modification to the group, very few will actually take me up on it. But many of us should be doing the modified version. As a result, I often teach the modification to the entire group. Last weekend, I suggested sitting up on blankets or bolsters at the start of a workshop. The people who most needed the added support wouldn't take the suggestion. Rather than call anyone out by name (which I have also been known to do), I changed the instruction. I made everyone get a bolster. The relief on the faces of those who needed it and wouldn't do it earlier was visible once they were seated in a better position. So much resistance to what's good for us.
I get it. Our whole culture teaches us to "Just do it," or to "push through it." Who doesn't know the phrase "No pain, no gain?" In yoga, teachers talk about working at your edge. Lately, this has come to mean working at the most extreme sensation. But working at your edge isn't pushing yourself to the point of pain. It's working at the beginning of instability or unfamiliarity. Stepping a toe outside of your comfort zone is a far cry from jumping off a cliff.
I often see students grimacing through a pose even as I have just told them, "If it hurts, stop." In my opinion, getting on a mat, on your own or in a class setting, but ESPECIALLY in a class setting, you need to be your own teacher, checking in and asking if this is truly okay, aware of your personal needs and issues. As a student, you need to own your shit. And if that means you don't hold a pose as long, then don't. If your arm doesn't go over your head due to a shoulder injury, don't put it there. even if I just told the entire class to lift your arms overhead. I work almost exclusively with grown ups. You don't need my permission to not hurt yourselves.
Following my general instructions when they don't apply to you personally could lead to injury. As much as possible, I teach to who is present. I try very hard to watch everyone closely. But with a wide range of experiences in the room, I can only do so much. I can't always tell if you've pushed yourself too far. Soooo I will offer modifications. I will give you permission you don't actually need to come out of poses early. If I don't offer any modification and you realize you need one, you can and should ask for one. It doesn't help me in any way if you override your own body's signals to stop. It does, however, have potential to harm you.
You have to go home in your body. I don't.
Deep, and not so deep, thoughts on bodies, movement, yoga, art, shoes, parenting, dogs. You know, life.