Self Inquiry-Based Yoga Instruction

Why do you practice yoga? What function does it serve in your life? Does it relax you? Does it bring you back to center? Does it help you see yourself more clearly? 

The highest function of yoga is to know one’s self more deeply. Yet traditional yoga instruction, with its introductory sermons, emotional projections, and micromanaged biomechanics, goes out of its way to remove every opportunity for genuine self-inquiry. Instead of making room for individual curiosities; mainstream yoga teachers inject the space with their sanitized, one-size-fits all, ideologies. Ideologies which, all too often, they have never been invited to investigate within themselves to begin with. 

This is not meant to be a criticism of yoga teachers or of mainstream yoga. We know know it because we’ve done it. And if we’re not careful, we default back to continuing to do it. This is meant to be an exploration of the benefits of inquiry-based teaching in yoga.

If we’ve learned anything over the course of twenty years teaching these practices, it is this: without genuine self-inquiry, there is no chance of self-discovery. 

That’s why we strive to differentiated a self-inquiry approach from the more traditional, authority-based approach to teaching yoga. 

Inquiry-based instruction is a student-centered approach where the instructor guides the students through questions posed, methods designed, and data interpreted by the students. Through inquiry, students learn how to discover information to support their investigations. The axiom for this style is: “I don’t know, let’s try it and find out.”

Authority-based instruction is a teacher-centered approach where the instructor manipulates the actions of their students through commands, dictates, should’s, shouldn’t’s; otherwise interpreting the experience for their students and translating back the meaning to them. By the power of their alleged authority, teachers interrupt the natural process of their student’s investigations, replace them with their own assertions. The axiom for this style of instruction is “because the system says so.”

This simple differentiation: self-inquiry based teaching vs. authority-based teaching is possibly the most influential distinction a teacher can make when evaluating their own teaching style. And for students, asking yourself “am I in the presence of an inquiry-based teacher or an authority-based teacher,” is perhaps the best way to determine the efficacy of your teacher’s instructions.

We are all born with an inherent love for learning. As movement teachers, we understand this exploratory instinct as the primary force moving us down our personal evolutionary paths. It’s our curiosity that compels us to investigate the world around us; and in so doing, we discover ourselves. 

Our ability to lift our heads is motivated by our desire to sense the room around us. This is what builds the strength and range of motion required to lift our big heavy heads for the rest of our lives. Our ability to crawl is motivated by a desire to reach out and touch the glossy green plant over in the corner of the room. This is what initiates the collaboration between left and right brain processes. Our ability to walk is motivated by our desire to bathe in the intriguing light of the room next door. This is what makes migration possible for a lifetime.

Without these curiosities, we would remain inept butterballs, writhing on the floor, with only our ability to fuss as a means to attempt to satisfy our human desires. 

Yet all too often, our colonizing systems of eduction do interrupt the natural process of human development, robbing students of the very fuel required to continue along the process of their growth. It’s no wonder our education system has been breeding generations of detached and inept adult children who suffer from anxiety, nihilism, and a lack of desire to grow up or to do much of anything at all! Though it’s not usually intended, this soul sucking system ends up taking all the wind out of the student’s sails. It leaves them them all too often marooned – lost and confused about what they’re supposed to be doing, or even why it matters that they do anything in the first place. 

Plenty of well meaning teachers fail to understand the difference between inquiry-based instruction and authority-based instruction. Instead of taking a backseat and letting student’s determine their own course of education, they steal the wheel, pushing students into the backseat themselves, where in essence they’re told to “sit down, watch and learn.” When a teacher interrupts this natural learning process, students are forced to engage in someone else’s adventure, one no longer of their choosing. Either way, over time their interest is lost and with it, their desire to learn, develop, grow, and evolve. 

Eventually, a student may forget altogether what it felt like be engaged in a meaningful pursuit of their genuine interests.  

The lessons they go on to learn then, are alienated from their own personal interests. If they’re agreeable, they’ll try to comply and do their best to try to engage in a learning process that takes them further and further away from the natural wonder that serves as the optimal guide for their learning. They may become so detached from the natural sense of wonder they felt as a child, that they become chronically hyper or despondent. If they’re disagreeable, they’ll rebel by spacing out or acting out.  In most instances, instructors don’t know any better, they’re simply teaching as they themselves were taught. But unfortunately, that way of teaching begins by removing the students from their own naturally self-guided process of learning. Fortunately, there is a better way and it’s called inquiry-based teaching.

Dr. Rudolf Steiner, inventor and founder of the Waldorf system of education, understood that a child was born with all the desire needed to perpetuate their learning process over the course of a lifetime. He conceived of a child’s natural sense of wonder and curiosity as that of an angel. As such, it was the job of the teacher, first and foremost, to obtain the consent of the child’s “angel,” meaning before going on to teach lessons, a Waldorf educator had to ensure that they met the approval of the child’s interest. Granting student’s a choice, rather than force-feeding them information was paramount.

We are born explorers. As we develop our body’s capacity to navigate the terrain of our environment, we learn to navigate the machinery of our physical bodies themselves. Without inquiry-based learning, we become disconnected from our inherently inquisitive nature. 

Curiosity leads the way. Until we’re in the fire of a burning question, we’re simply not going to have the desire and motivation necessary to move our developmental processes forward. If our path isn’t your own, if we’re wrapped up other people’s beliefs about what we should or shouldn’t do, instead of what our soul burn, then we’re simply going to loose interest or burn out. 

As inquiry-based teachers, we invite students to invest in the wonder of their world. This can seem overwhelming at first. 

For example: 

Start by closing your eyes and ask yourself, “what energies are alive within me in this moment?” Sense into those feelings. Can you get curious about what’s moving there? What’s attempting to animate you back to your natural state of wonder? How do you need to let your body move in order to pursue those most prominent and primordial of sensations? From here we can learn to follow them, as a hunter stocks his prey. We can learn to trust their tracks and the places they lead. To the point where we recognize, with no uncertainty, that they are leading us back to our more authentic, wonderful, childlike self. A self that’s living from their genuine curiosities about the world and their place in it. A child that doesn’t take themself too seriously or get bogged down in these adult ideologies. The child within, who chooses to invest their attention into the fresh new, direct experiences presenting themselves in every moment, than it does in proving itself right and repeating the same ol’ same ol’. The child within the adult that’s quick to laughter and slow to judgement. 

Remember this simple formula: questions – observations – answers

Built your capacity to live inside the question. Built your capacity to be in the question.

Inquiry-based teaching leads to better memory and retention of information, as well as more reliable, more individuated information. In addition, it’s less susceptible to the kinds of dogma, charlatanism, and spiritual zealotry that have become all to commonplace in yoga land.

The power of inquiry is in your hands. May you find the curiosity to use it.

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