Long time yoga practitioner, writer extraordinaire and all around hip feminist Libby Lowe recently interviewed me for the blog SheKnows. See what I had to say to some dire questions from an avid student below:
What is your yoga teacher really thinking when you sneak in late? What about when she explains, again, where your foot should be in Warrior I? A teacher tells all.
A student of yoga herself since 1999 and a teacher since 2004, Sara Strother is a full-time instructor in Chicago. For the last four years or so, I have been a regular student of Sara’s. I go to her classes to be challenged and to learn — Sara doesn’t just lead students through yoga moves, she teaches yoga.
Because of her straightforward teaching style, I turned to Sara for honest answers to some of the questions that we all have as students.
SheKnows: Can you see through people’s pants, and do you want to tell them?
Sara Strother: I can see through pants and down shorts, but I don’t look. I wonder if I should tell students. If someone has a rip in their pants, I usually tell them after class, to avoid making them self-conscious. And, chances are, I’m the only one who noticed because I am the only one really paying attention to the bodies in the room. I see a lot of floppy shorts without underwear — that’s a lot of information, but to each their own. I just don’t look.
SK: So. Farting. It happens. What’s the best way to handle an in-class fart?
SS: Mula Bandha! Sometimes stuff sneaks out and you’re surprised. It’s best not to freak out. Usually, by the time class is over, everyone has forgotten. You know the people around you know it was you, but half an hour later no one cares.
SK: What are your biggest peeves about yoga etiquette — or lack thereof? Late people? Cell phones? Basically, how are we driving you crazy?
SS: Honestly, I don’t mind people coming late. You made it to class, and that can be really hard sometimes. I respect that you’re showing up to do something difficult. If you are really late and just join the class in progress, it may not be safe. But, you’re an adult and I have to trust you to get warm.
Similarly, I don’t mind people leaving early if they need to. You have to work with your schedule and the studio’s schedule, and you made it — that’s awesome. It’s how people leave. Leaving in the middle of Shavasana is rude to other students. Leave when you need to, but be gracious about it.
In general, it’s hard for me to see people not being kind to each other. When people won’t make room — when the class is moving to the wall for inversions or when people act like it’s a big deal to move their mat two inches to make space for someone who arrives late — that’s hard. I guess those students just need to come and do more yoga, and it will click that it’s not all about them!
SK: As students, we hear the same cues a lot. Sometimes we think we get it, sometimes we tune out and just do what we always do. Can we ask if we don’t get what you mean?
SS: I don’t think people should interrupt class if they don’t get the cues, but I do ask if people have questions — and that’s the time to say something. I also give direct cues to people when I see they just aren’t getting it. I try verbally first, but I will adjust people if I need to. If 75 percent of the people in the room aren’t onboard, I stop and do a demo.
Cues can be repetitive, but I want people to explore and have their own experience. I want people to be empowered, so I try to be really observant to how students are responding to what I am saying. If people don’t seem to be getting it, I try to find a different way to explain what I am saying. I’m not just leading a free dance experience, so the cues are important.
Photo credit: Scott Shigley
SK: How do you feel about adjusting people? If we’re sweaty, is it gross?
SS: I am more grossed out when I step in a pool of sweat by mistake than I am about touching sweaty people. I intentionally touch people and sweat comes with the territory.
Part of me feels like if I just adjust people, they don’t learn to do the poses properly themselves, but unless you have felt a pose in your own body, it’s hard to know that you are doing it with the best alignment. If I adjust you, I’m not fixing you because you’re “doing it wrong,” I’m enhancing the experience of the pose for you.
SK: Do you judge people for not being able to do poses?
SS: I’m never looking around thinking, “What the hell are you doing?” My job is to create a safe space. The point of yoga shouldn’t be trying to hit a perfect pose. Over the years, I have attracted a certain kind of community. My classes are not competitive environments. The classroom is a reflection of the teacher and how she holds space. It takes time to build that kind of community, but students gravitate to specific teachers and a community forms. If I made my classes about ego, that’s who I would attract. I try not to make yoga about the exterior pose.
SK: When you see the same student doing the same thing wrong over and over, is it annoying?
SS: Not at all. Even the most basic poses, when executed well, can be really hard. I have students that have been with me a while and are still struggling, but not every pose is for every body. When it’s an issue of basic alignment, I just have to remind them that there is a healthier position for their body.
I also get that it’s difficult to be 100 percent on for every moment of a 90-minute class. I’m inspired by people who show up week after week and keep doing it. My home practice isn’t a 90-minute experience.
Photo credit: Sara Strother
SK: As a student, how can I tell the difference between pain and discomfort?
SS: In general, if something hurts, you are probably out of alignment and need to back out. Do not push through pain. I watch my students’ body language, looking for clenched teeth and short breath, those are cues to me, but you need to take care of yourself in class. You need to think about the difference between something feeling challenging, emotional or new and pain.
These issues are often best addressed privately after class because in a drop-in environment, like most classes are, I can’t always give people special attention. I have to find a way to get them away from a situation that could injure them, but I have to keep the class moving.
SK: What’s your advice for yoga students?
SS: Yoga is more than a physical practice. Even if you’re only thinking of it as a way to exercise, yoga will still be a lifelong process of learning. People see yoga poses on magazine covers and think that’s where they should be going. I think it’s healthy to have yoga pose goals, but I truly feel those more advanced poses can be achieved by working the basics — and that’s the safest way to build a sustainable, lifelong practice.