I have been practicing yoga for well over half of my life now. At one point, I even started teacher training (but I decided that, since I teach all day long for my job, I probably shouldn’t teach during my yoga practice as well). With all these years of practice and training behind me, when I come to my yoga mat, I’m empowered to customize my practice to meet my needs. Right now, for example, I have an issue with my shoulder that makes it almost impossible to follow a standard practice–I can’t hold my right arm up or wrap it behind my back or put any weight on it. Despite this, I can be very independent during my yoga class and adapt poses for myself because I have the tools, the knowledge, and the background to make the experience my own.
A few months ago, I took a yoga class where there was a student in the class who could not stand up without the use of two crutches. I couldn’t use my right arm but, as I said before, I’m able to adapt my own practice. The other student, however, could not. As I listened to the teacher, with the best of intentions, try to make the class work for him by directing him and asking questions and helping him up and helping him down, I was reminded of the power of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). If this student had had more tools and more experience, what would the class experience have been like for him? Could he have made his own adaptations to the various moves? Used different poses? Could he have stood out less as someone not able to do what was being expected?
Knowing our Students
Part of what I was thinking about was whether I would have any idea about how to help this student, if I had been teaching the class. I don’t know if he can stand up for any amount of time or bend over from the waist. I don’t know if he can balance against the wall or hold on to a bar. But I do wonder what he could have done given different tools. And I wonder what he could have done for himself given more information about what was coming or an opportunity to preview or an opportunity to share his experience and his capacities in a way that would allow the teacher to use her expert knowledge to suggest appropriate modifications to the poses. How could the teacher have rearranged the practice so that all students would have been on their feet for a certain part and all students would have been on the floor for another part rather than having this one student have to be hauling himself up and down throughout the practice, which meant he never got to experience the yoga as a flow?
Above all else, I was most struck by the fact that the student was helpless. He was, possibly out of politeness or possibly out of not knowing how to do it for himself, fully dependent on waiting for the teacher to suggest adaptations for him. When we do not give our students tools and when we do not give them opportunities to let their experiences guide the practice, we create students (or learners or practitioners) who are dependent and helpless, both in life and in school.