Ashtanga, Expectation, and Possibility

One of the greatest challenges I face as a teacher (either of writing or of yoga—both apply here) is to avoid categorizing my students. It’s a constant temptation.

It’s a temptation because it makes teaching seem easier. It’s a time-saver. And to some extent, it’s also necessary to apply the right solution to the right problem—being able to diagnose a problem is an opportunity for me to apply my experience and find a solution.

But sometimes “diagnosis” becomes “assumption” and the “solution” misfires. You can just as easily fall into a kind of teacher torpor and just abstract the individual student into a type so your can easily apply an equally abstracted solution. You get a range of results from this: Nothing happens, and you both continue on this road in a horizontal way, going no where. Or something happens, but not what either one of you expected, and that’s not always good. Or the student gets worse; or worse yet, discouraged. The student may give up. Sometimes the teacher gives up. Sometimes (rarely) the student transcends the teacher, and improves in spite of it.

I’ve known teachers both on the mat and behind the desk that operate their entire careers this way. The sheer numbers of students they take on can hide the results, because just enough of them either stagnate or transcend that it looks like…Well, not success exactly. More like “okayness.” Mediocrity. Meh.

There actually is scientific data that not only supports this phenomenon, but points a way out of that behavioral maze. The teacher behavior I’m describing is called the “expectancy effect,” demonstrated first by psychologist Robert Rosenthal (nice summary here). NPR’s radio magazine, “Invisibilia,” recently did a show on the role our expectations have in the performance of those around us. It’s worth a listen, but to summarize Rosenthal’s core experiment:

If you give a person a lab rat, and you tell that person that the rat is not very bright—dumb, in fact—and then tell them to put that rat into a maze, the rat will have some serious problems getting through the maze.

But if you give the same rat to a different person and you tell them that rat is exceptionally bright, and to put that rat into the same maze, the rat will perform exceptionally well.

What makes the difference?

The people who thought the rat was dumb handled their rats, well, like a dumb rat, and the rat performed poorly. If they thought their rat was bright, they were more careful and responsive to the rat, so the rat blew through the maze.

Replace “rat” with “student” and you see where I’m going with this.

Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck (also interviewed on “Invisibilia,” but her TED talk on the topic is here), took this further than rats, to people, and found that in humans, our expectations translate immediately to our behavior toward others, and that in turn changes the behavior of the people we interact with.

Of course, this made me think about my own teaching, and the little tricks I have to play on myself so I don’t formulate negative expectations about my students based on assumption. I change the material frequently. I use universally difficult poems so all writers, no matter their abilities, must rise to the occasion. I only teach a few students at a time so I don’t “conveyor belt” my feedback.

But then that got me thinking about Ashtanga, where the material never changes, the difficulty depends on the students’ abilities when they start (an ex-gymnast will find the practice easier than say, someone who’s sat in an office chair the last ten years), and nobody can survive as a career yoga teacher with just a few students.

I realized I’m a beneficiary of teachers who managed to keep their perspective on their students fresh, even after years of teaching and many, many bodies. (Steve’s recent post quoting Tim Miller’s impressions of Guruji reflect his admiration as a teacher to handle a full Mysore room, one that only got bigger as the years passed.) There is absolutely no reason why I should still be doing Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, much less working on Third Series: when I started, I had advancing joint degeneration, arthritis, asthma, a range of illnesses, and so much pain. But my best teachers, like Tim Miller, never assumed I couldn’t do a pose, and always found a way to get me there.

But perhaps I also benefited from positive assumptions. I’m sort of evenly distributed when it comes to size and weight. I’m a woman, and “women are more flexible than men” (I hear this all the time). I disguise pain very well. I’d never done anything athletic at all before I started Ashtanga, so I really didn’t know any better myself. Since I’d never tried a headstand before, I didn’t really know if I could do it until I tried, and because my teachers never thought I couldn’t do it, I could.

So I worry about Steve, and students like him—the stiff guy, the guy who has been told he’s impaired for so long, it seems like fate. The people for whom “stability” and “ease” in the asana are ever-elusive qualities—they’re in an eternal state of tapas. And I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that—Walter Pater believed “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” But that’s not all there is to Ashtanga, and those students are not only limited by their teachers, but also by themselves in a kind of invisible conspiracy.

So you might consider this post an open letter to both teachers and students, to occupy yourselves with not what is, but with what might be. As Emily Dickinson put it:

I dwell in Possibility –

A fairer House than Prose –

More numerous of Windows –

Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –

Impregnable of eye –

And for an everlasting Roof

The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –

For Occupation – This –

The spreading wide my narrow Hands

To gather Paradise –

Posted by Bobbie

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

2 thoughts on “Ashtanga, Expectation, and Possibility”

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