Funny story: I was playing on a church softball team. We were up to bat and I was serving as the 3rd base coach. I was fairly new to the team, so I didn’t know the players all that well. We had a man on 2nd base and the batter just hit a long ball out into center field. I was thinking, even if I ran slowly, I could easily make it home on that hit. So here I am waving this guy to home. He was like 6’3″ tall and thin. He looked like a giraffe in a slow motion video. I’m certain he didn’t have a single fast-twitch muscle in his entire body. Needless to say, he was easily tagged out at home and I was berated by him for waving him in. I didn’t have the guts to fight back and say “dude, how can you be SO slow!”
I have a lot more experience with reading bodies now that I’ve taught yoga for a while. I have seen a lot of bodies since then in CrossFit, gymnastics, and other sports. I can see a runner and automatically know that one leg seems longer or if they have an injury or tightness. I can watch an Olympic weightlifter and see a strength or weakness very quickly. I’m nothing special, I just have a lot of experience studying how bodies move.
In yoga class, I can often tell if someone is capable of going deeper. If they are inches from a bind or close to reaching their hand to foot, I’ll often help them in that direction. My intuition is getting pretty good. But I can also see when there is a body like mine. I have a lot of years under my belt, I eat well, I lift a lot, and my body doesn’t move like your average yogi. So when I see someone who is strong or not super pliable, I can often tell that they won’t get a bind or attempt deeper variations. So I help them where they are and don’t push for the full expression of a pose.
Sometimes, people surprise you. The other day, I sort of condescended to someone by talking them into headstand. But they just popped up into it without any trouble. I didn’t read that one correctly since I was just going by facial expression and body language. Sometimes, I see a bigger body and they are very pliable. Or an older person who has amazing strength. I love those pleasant surprises.
If you are a teacher, getting experience by watching bodies is super helpful. Sometimes, I think it is more difficult for a naturally gifted athlete or super-limber yoga teacher to understand the limitations. I was once helping someone do muscle-ups on rings using a flexible band. As I was doing this, the coach walks over and adjusted it differently. And that change was largely ineffective. So when the coach walked away, I had them do it how I was showing her. This coach does muscle ups with ease, so he didn’t understand what I was doing since he never had to use that assistance. But it was something I had studied and practiced myself for years. A yoga teacher who pops into binds easily and twists into complicated poses without a problem sometimes doesn’t understand. Sometimes they do. But its good to feel those limitations. If you don’t know what it feels like to weigh 300 pounds, you can easily load yourself up with weight until you can understand. Try to get in and out of a car, or try a downward-facing dog with that weight. Its not easy.
Learn bodies. Learn empathy. And be of real help to your students.