Willing and Able

Developmental Levels









When I was a Drill Sergeant in the Army, and in the many leadership courses I’ve taken, we describe developmental levels as it applies to people we lead. In the case of Army Basic Training, we are talking about new trainees.

Truthfully, as Drill Sergeants, we can review the files that give backgrounds for every soldier. We are not supposed to use those histories against them, but it makes us aware of issues of concern and ways to build them as soldiers. Today, as a yoga teacher, I see similar traits in yoga students. We can see this in anyone who is developing into something new. And I see it in myself as I become a student over and over in various fields.

Developmental Level 1 – Unwilling and Unable

For whatever reason, a person walks in the door and signs up for a class. It may be that someone told them to, so they do so reluctantly. Maybe they think its to meet someone else’s expectations. Maybe their Father was a lawyer, so they go to law school. Regardless, they are there for reasons other than their own. In addition, you want to teach them a proper plank, downward facing dog, or chaturanga, but they don’t have the strength or flexibility to even come close. And as much as you want to push them to try harder, they are unwilling to put in the effort or additional actions to get there. This is surely a struggle.

Development Level 2 – Unwilling and Able

Through repetition and corrective actions, you may be able to get a student to successfully find strength in a pose. Maybe they are still unwilling. Maybe they are seeing you, like for a drug addiction or math tutoring; they don’t want to be there, but you slowly make them able to do their tasks. Even though they don’t want to read 300 gas meters a day, they know how to do their jobs. Unfortunately, some work toward retirement in a job they dislike and never move to Level 4. But this is still progress from Level 1. It makes a capable person regardless if they want to be there or not. In yoga, sun salutations is the best way that we can build strength, breath, and flexibility. Its the most basic and most advanced flow we can teach. It is the way to make someone “able” to do yoga.

Developmental Level 3 – Willing but Unable

Realistically, this is where we would always like to begin. You always want someone to be there because they want to, even though they can’t perform the tasks yet. After the attacks on September 11th, 2001, Pat Tillman gave up a career in the National Football League to be an Army Ranger. He was clearly willing, but hadn’t learned the ways of the soldier. Sadly, he was heroically killed in battle a few years later. When I have a yogi walk into class striving to be better, to go deeper, to hold longer; those are the yogis who see the most progress. They have an innate motivation to succeed. They want to be there and they believe in what we are doing. This is where we see the most growth in a person. A student has to trust that the teacher knows the way. This trust builds over time. Unfortunately, sometimes teachers fail us too. If you look at controversies with several prominent yoga teachers who fell into drugs, greed, and promiscuity, it can be difficult to trust in people. Sometimes, you find they have views or personal histories that are broken. They are still able to help a yogi develop physically, but their example of brokenness makes it hard for them to lead into other realms. I have several teachers that showed this heartache. Its not that I don’t respect them anymore, but I have trouble following them into their despair. If we want to make willing students, we as teachers have to set the example of what success looks like.

Developmental Level 4 – Willing and Able

This is a fully capable person in whatever field. They are happy with what they do and are able to do it well. This is the ultimate goal in development. Its hard to say much more about this other than an example.

Last night, I had a student who was both strong and flexible, but they haven’t done the specific shapes we do in Ashtanga yoga. This person was willing but unable (DL 3). So, as a yoga teacher, I walk over and talk the yogi through the shapes. I press the shoulder forward and wrap the arm around the leg. The student easily binds their fingers. Then I straighten the shoulders and have them look toward their toes. Then I press on the ball of the foot so it stays active, which presses the hip firmly in the ground.

As students learn the shapes, they become able to practice yoga. And in Ashtanga Yoga, once they know the shape, they can begin to focus on the Tristhana. This is the Breath, Bandhas, and Drishti. This is when we truly are able to understand.

What is amazing about Yoga and many other arts and skills, we never “arrive”. We are always students. We are always developing. We can never call ourselves “Guru” or “Master”. And if people call us that status, we know even more truly through humility that we have a lot left to learn.


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