Here's an interesting little question: how important is praise? Do we really need it? And if so, when?
Sometimes I like to visit Yoga Soup for some yoga of the non-Bikram variety. Bikram's my go-to practice, but as far as I'm concerned, these kinds of classes are a fun extra thing to do sometimes, just like going hiking or salsa dancing. I like taking class with the owner, Eddie, because he says a lot of true things. I go to his class cause I like to hear him talk. It's like being at church or something, except there's no God stuff, there's music, and I get to move around into yoga shapes while I listen. (Actually, except for the last bit, this is not too different from the church that I actually went to as a kid.) Anyway, sometimes Eddie talks about how addicted we are to getting compliments from other people. We feel like we need someone else to tell us that we're good enough, and we're always holding our breath and waiting for it to happen, which is a mistake. Instead, he says, we should come to a place where the breath fills the body and we feel our own worth from the inside. I like this. (I even wrote something similar on Bikram 101 last week.) Needless to say, Eddie doesn't single anyone out for compliments in his classes, as this would undermine his message, but the class itself does make you feel good.
I was in a Friday evening class of Eddie's recently, which happened sort of by accident, and it really hit the spot for me that day. I felt relaxed and rejuvenated afterwards. I thanked him on the way out, saying, "I feel so relaxed, it's like I've just gotten a full night sleep!" He smiled gently at me and said, "Excellent, that's the perfect way to practice." It was a lovely compliment.
On one hand, we know that we shouldn't rely on other people's praise for our confidence. On the other hand, positive feedback can be incredibly valuable. Without it, how would we know when we were doing something right? Praise tells us, "Good, that's right, that's something that you should keep doing!" We figure out a lot about ourselves through praise, even trivial things like "I look good in turquoise" or slightly more important things like "It's good for me to bring my body down in standing bow pulling pose." When it comes to teaching - or giving any kind of feedback - I like the "Oreo" method: compliment, then critique, then compliment. Three layers, like an Oreo cookie. "Good posture J, now upper body lean back 2 more inches, yes, that's it!" I think that positive reinforcement for good behavior is key, plus it creates a more empowering environment overall.
I went through an interesting period where I'd opened up enough that I could give praise very easily, but it was hard for me to receive it. Maybe this is a common thing. We deflect praise, almost without thinking about it. Someone says "You look great today," and you say, "Oh no, I haven't slept much/ I didn't do my hair/ I'm totally bloated" or something silly like that. Is this a female thing? I'm not sure. But I used to be guilty of it all the time. It was one of my yoga teachers who taught me how to accept a compliment gracefully. We talked about it over bowls of pho in Chinatown after advanced class. She told me that if someone wants to give me a compliment, that is a gift from them to me, and I should just accept it and say "Thank you!" This took a little practice, but I think I've gotten the hang of it now. It's completely sincere and it's much better than deflecting!
I was surprised by a great compliment last week. I took class in LA with a teacher who I'd never met before, a woman who'd been practicing with Bikram for 30+ years. After class she told me, "You have a beautiful practice!" It caught me off guard, and I just said, "Oh! Thank you!" with a big smile. Then, instead of commenting on my flexibility or my body, she said that it was so nice to see someone really trying hard "the right way" in every posture. In my book, that's the highest form of praise. It was so nice to hear. I hadn't heard those words in a while, and I was surprised at how grateful I was to hear them again. Sometimes you just need to hear someone tell you, "Yes, you're doing it right."
I think that what I'm really looking for is not just praise, but honesty. Because I want to hear the bad stuff, too! I want the teacher who could tell me, "good alignment," "hurry up, what are you doing?" "nice stretch," "use your damn muscles," and "that's gorgeous," all in one class. (That was my class this morning, by the way. Emmy is finally remembering my name these days, which means that I get yelled at twice as often now. Love it.) In other words, I want truth!
If we are all like little "flower petals blooming" - please excuse the cheesy dialogue jokes, I have dialogue spilling out of my ears right now - then we all need to be cared for properly. Maybe the praise is like our water. With too little water, a plant gets all dried out and wilted. With too much water, things are just as bad. But with the right balance of water (positive feedback) and sun (constructive criticism), the plant grows up to be big and happy.
Give praise generously, receive praise easily, and do remember that your most important teacher is still you!!