I think we often work too hard at the things we are focused on, enough so that we are unproductive and our senses dulled. When I begin teaching, I start with awareness. Even with the first breaths I can feel how some of my students zoom into this muscling and posturing all around even the inhale, for example, making it into something rather than experiencing what it is. Big, serious, straining, forced inhales get stuck in people's throats and under their ribs. Even the exhales can choke off the ability to notice the subtleties of the moment, or observe what the breath is in the body.
It struck me recently that leading students in each aspect of something is like leaving them abandoned in a boat where they would be floating helplessly the next day. I asked a few of my beginning students how they would start their own practice on the mat, and found them frightened and puzzled -- "I don't know what to do!!" I remember feeling this way too. Of course I can direct them, but that is not my way of teaching beginners. How to help them take on that internal communication - the dialogue of inquiry, with directions that come from outside of them? Sometimes, I rely on my own integrated experiences to lead my "languaging" as it is called in the yoga training. (I scoffed and laughed out loud when I first saw that word, but I really get it now.) I scan my breath sensors under my own ribs to see where the catch might be, suggesting to my students "notice what you notice, perhaps the back of your rib cage, perhaps a texture in your throat..." etc. Not trying to tell them what to feel or what to notice... but aren't I really doing just that by leading with suggestive language?
So I isolated three primary questions my students can ask themselves at any time in a practice: What can I let go -- or where can I release; What do I notice; and Where is my breath? This worked well for beginning students, and I've tried it now with my more intermediate group and my more mature students too. I can remind them of variants of these questions throughout the course of events in our practice, and I feel them beginning to internalize it, discovering a path of their own no matter what is going on.
The next stage I ask is for softness. Taking on the working-too-hard-at-this, I have begun exaggerating fierceness of energy flow in a movement and then say, "Now softly" or "Soften" and repeat whatever it is ... it is so much easier for students to find a sense of relaxing into the breath, asana or effort, rather than pushing further and further. This is remarkable in utkatasana, especially for beginners to discover that they can continuously find more to release even as they are making such an effort.
"Finding one's edge," or "practicing at one's edge" seems misleading terminology for my students. I don't use it. I would rather speak of finding more space, exploring with the breath, softening within the form, and observing. We can witness the deep desire we have to go farther, as if there was a way to measure where we are, and realize that we can release that judgmental attitude, that attachment to the external.
After a deep forward bend at the pinnacle of my chair session this afternoon, I quietly asked, "Shall we do that again?" and a soft chorus of voices said, "yes, yes." The exploration had begun, though this asana was complex and challenging for each individual in the room, they had found the breath in it, had discovered freedoms in themselves, had softened into the support of the earth and were ready to release into the uniqueness of their own body experiences. At the end of our session, we turned our radiant open hearts towards each other. There is no energy more fierce, nor faces any softer, than that.