Stumped by instructions: What to do when 5 different teachers give you 10 different cues

We’ve all been there. This one tells you to KEEP YOUR LEG STRAIGHT at all costs and hold your toe. This one tells you to bend your knee and hold your toe. This one tells you to keep your leg straight and use a block (we are in California after all). And this one tells you not to worry about your alignment, but just to breathe. It seems like a game that yoga teachers play with their students: just how confused can we make you?  

Very, as it turns out. What, for the love of Ganesha, is the “right” way to do this posture, I often hear students ask me in tones of kindhearted exasperation? And so, here is my answer to you:

There is no one, monolithic, right way to do a posture.

The reason for this evasive statement is that, first and foremost, yoga teaches us to savor our human experiences of relativity by not allowing us to take the easy path and grasp on to a black and white answer—“THIS is the right way to do this posture and any other way is WRONG.” Instead, we (joyously) take the middle path and practice our morning Mysore in infinite shades of grey. That is to say, every practitioner’s body approaches a posture from a singular and uncharted place, in accordance with the unique confluence of psychological and physical factors that have determined their corporeal situations. I think of this like a type of physical contextualization: when we practice our postures, we each weave our different histories and backgrounds into the framework of our asanas. This background information shifts slightly from day-to-day and year-to-year so that we find our experiences of postures transform as well, most especially if we practice them while focusing our attention on different aspects of the poses. Even if we can agree on a basic set of alignment and breath-based guidelines for the postures, I imagine that we will still find infinite expressions of the same asana. This is the beauty of absolute relativity.

But…you may ask, what happens if we can’t even agree to basic guidelines? I am sure we have all had the experience of being told two diametrically opposed instructions by two different teachers, both of whom we respect. Teachers, like students, come from their own unique backgrounds, and their instructions often must be contextualized as well. Just like in any conversation or dialogue, when we listen to our interlocutors it is often crucial to understand where our friends are coming from when they speak. This does not mean that their instructions are wrong—it means that they are coming from a specific experience or tradition or theory and their words should be heard in that light.

What does this all translate to? Most Buddhist and Yogic traditions distinguish between inner and outer gurus. In day to day life, we practice with our teachers with the goal of attuning ourselves to the guru within, the central channel along which the possibility of transcendence dwells. In short, as conduits of our practice, we are our own teachers. We listen respectfully and openly to any and all advice, we try to contextualize the instructions as we hear them, and we synthesize it all into our experience, most importantly sensing our way center to the source of knowledge within.