Friday, 8 July 2011

Classes or solitary practice?

The other day, I was practising yoga by myself.  A short while before, I had been talking to someone who had tried going to a yoga class, but was put off because she was a beginner and the class seemed too advanced for her.  I started thinking about some of the issues that people have when they consider whether to practice in a class.

I think some of the problems are nicely expressed in this image from the Anna K Tarot.  Being in a class setting, while it affords the chance to have a teacher to answer questions and to see what you're doing, so as to suggest ways that may be more helpful, also has all the negatives of group situations. 

For beginners, a class may be off-putting either because the person feels they can't do anything and everyone else seems to know what they should be doing.  Sometimes, too, if someone is naturally very flexible, they may be singled out (which I think is very bad practice on the teacher's part, but it can happen) as an example for others.  Despite being praised, this can be an embarrassing experience that puts people off going to classes.  The element of being in the gaze of others, in both these instances, can negatively affect the enjoyment of the class.

However, it's also true that for more advanced practitioners, a class setting can still have its downsides.  The feeling that others are looking at you you can make people push themselves too hard, trying to perform for the imagined gaze of others or trying to compete.  I have seen people in class trembling and straining in exertion.  I remember in particular an active older gentleman, who felt he had to prove something.  Despite my cues that people should find their own level within a pose, and shouldn't go further if they couldn't do something, he insisted on trying to do the hardest version of every pose, though he should probably have stayed at the first level to get the most benefit.  I tried speaking to him individually after class, but to no avail, and I was afraid every class that he would do himself an injury.

Even with teachers there can be trouble with a class setting.  One teacher friend of mine never took classes where she worked, though she did go to other centres to take classes.  She felt too on-the-spot in a class with some of her students, feeling she had to try to be perfect to uphold her teacher image, rather than focusing on enjoying the class and finding her way into her own practice and meditation.

Nevertheless, classes do have a lot to recommend them.  The individual attention of someone with more experience, who can guide you visually, by voice, and sometimes with hands-on adjustments, can help a lot with learning and improving, no matter your level of practice.  And the energy of the class, the heat and flow generated, can help carry you through a practice if your own energy is flagging.  It's not just if your energy is low that the class can give you a boost: there is one pose that I have only managed to practice twice in my life, both times in a class setting - the energy of the class just seemed to draw me into it.

The joy of solitary practice is that it can be a lot more meditative, you can tailor it to how you feel on the day, and there is no need to compete or perform (though some people may still compete with themselves - how long can I hold a pose?  Is this my hardest practice ever?)  Obviously, though, self-practice requires either a certain level of knowledge, a good DVD/book, and discipline or enthusiasm. 

My personal feeling is that both class and solitary practice have their place for practitioners of any level.  What do you think?  What have your experiences been?


Illustration: Two of Pentacles from the Anna K Tarot.

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