Yoga teachers: enough with the invitations. TEACH! (A rant.)

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I love yoga. I’ve been a half-assed student (which might be an asana, I’m not sure) for close to twenty years. I remember the moment I fell in love with the practice. It was at Kripalu. The teacher was Stephen (Kaviraj) Cope. The pose was trikonasana/triangle. Following Kavi’s precise verbal instruction and watching him model the pose with his beautiful (and beautifully human) body, I suddenly found that I was suspended in space in an unexpected way, my body draped into an unaccustomed but oddly thrilling design. It can do this, too?! I thought. How cool.

Kavi gave point-by-point instruction on how to find the proper alignment. Once there, we were encouraged to feel into it and then relax, including the awesomeness, including the oddness, the beauty, the discomfort, and the enjoyment of not knowing what it was supposed to feel like. His instruction to establish the pose but “relax around the holding” has served me to this day, on and off the mat.

From this, I learned that the first step in asana practice is precision. Each pose has a magical kind of integrity that is awakened only when animated by your body. Without alignment, the integrity goes away. From this precision, an opening of the energetic body is created. The pose then starts to animate you. And the third step, to let go—of expectation, judgment, hope, and fear—allows energy to continue flowing. In this way, honest transformation, the kind that transcends mere self-improvement, can occur.

Precision. Opening. Letting go. I had never related to myself in this way before and it changed the way I felt inside my body. I still love yoga for the same reasons, only more so.

Since then, I’ve been to like a zillion yoga classes: Iyengar, Ashtanga, Kripalu, Anusara, “Power,” Bikram, heated vinyasa, and on and on. I’m not a yoga snob and I pretty much like them all. As long as I shvitz, I don’t really care what the style is. Wherever I live, I just go to the studio closest to my house.

A long time ago, I stopped caring who the teacher was, too. (Apologies to all the incredible, devoted yoga teachers out there.) This is because I stopped being able to count on the skill of my instructor. Some time in the last decade, I found that deep knowledge of asana was replaced with an unchanging posture sequence spiked by a coaching vibe. I don’t care for this, particularly. It’s not that I don’t like repetition, I do. I actually prefer it. But I don’t want just anyone getting all up in my grille with their ideas about who I am and ought to be. First and foremost, I want them to know a lot about asana practice. If their knowledge on this score is great, I would maybe trust them to sneak in some ideas about life. Otherwise, hold the deep thoughts. I can tell when you’re posing, so to speak.

And so I arrive at the point of this post, which is already turning into a bit of a rant. (Apologies.) Yoga teachers, I would like to be taught by you, not “invited” to do this or that. “Make it feel good” is not an instruction. Neither is “do what feels right to you” or “this is the pose I suggest, but if you prefer another one, go ahead.” When I hear things like this, I can’t help but sneak a peak around me. Often, people seem a bit confused, like they’re supposed to know what this means, but don’t. Most interpret it to mean something sloppy or embarrassing. They may start rolling around or making some kind of baby sounds.

“Do what feels right” is actually a super-advanced instruction that requires tremendous self-awareness. Unless you know the proper alignment of a pose, doing what feels right is not a release into an internal energetic shift, but more of a self-indulgent collapse.

Please, before offering too many choices, help the poor guy with his shoulders up about his ears in Downward Dog. Give the young woman who is jutting forward with aggression in Warrior Two permission to rise up out of her waist with elegance instead. I’m not saying we all have to become mini Iyengars, moving our femur bones about and whatnot—but it would be so awesome to focus on meat-and-potatoes alignment. The basics.

Encouraging us to do what we want is more often than not an encouragement to fidget and I’m already pretty good at fidgeting. I excel at doing random stuff just to entertain myself. I would love to hear a yoga teacher counsel stillness. Waiting. Silence. Space. Allowing discomfort, rather than chasing it off. What I really need to practice is the discipline of being with my experience, not creating endless distractions from it.

We live in a culture that eschews discipline as punishment. The truth, though, is that through discipline we find spontaneous, self-arising freedom. On the yoga mat or off. As a student or a teacher.

Discipline begins with coming back to the basics, over and over. Only then can real transformation occur. As the great transpersonal educator and psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo said of music, “spontaneous innovation can only arise from repetition,” and this is one of the smartest things I’ve ever heard anyone say. Ever.

Beloved yoga teachers! I “invite you” to stop inviting us, your students, to do anything and instead to instruct us clearly. Teach from a place of your own inner knowing, from your own intimacy with the practice, from having screwn (yes, a made up word) it up a thousand times, gone back to the mat, worked it out again, and learned each pose from the inside out of your own body.

Don’t humor us. Teach us. Don’t overestimate our skills or the body’s ability to take care of itself, which we so easily confuse with wanting to feel good/look good/deny the realities of age, injury, and anatomy. Don’t assume we need you to make us feel good or create any type of experience for us whatsoever. We can definitely create our own experience—but only when your authentic (honestly attained, personal) wisdom is there to anchor it. The example of your personal presence will always be a thousand times more instructive than your words.

Deepen your practice and deepen it some more. Commit to your own journey and from that commitment allow love for your students to blossom spontaneously. Then take your seat as an adept and teach us what you know.

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28 Comments

  1. Kelly Salasin { 11.20.10 at 11:06 am }

    wow, i want to say FU and thank you,
    kelly

  2. Kimberly Johnson { 11.20.10 at 11:24 am }

    Dear Susan,

    Thank you for this. I laughed out loud several times.

    And several times could not agree more.
    “Some time in the last decade, I found that deep knowledge of asana was replaced with an unchanging posture sequence spiked by a coaching vibe.”

    “Encouraging us to do what we want is more often than not an encouragement to fidget and I’m already pretty good at fidgeting and doing random stuff just to entertain myself.”

    As a yoga teacher myself, I learned a lot from this. I agree that improvisation is an advanced skill and that I need to help the student build a significant repetoire in order to be able to cultivate intuition.

    As a teacher trainer, I could not agree more that the basics of precise alignment are the meat and bones and are sorely underrated. I will remember this article.

    Thanks, Kimberly

  3. Susan { 11.20.10 at 12:18 pm }

    Kelly, you are welcome. On both counts!

  4. Susan { 11.20.10 at 12:19 pm }

    Kimberly, many thanks for the comments. It means a lot to hear the response of a yogini. Wishing you well on your path as a teacher! Susan

  5. Anna { 11.20.10 at 12:57 pm }

    Lovely! As a plus-sized yoga student and teacher, I could not agree more. I’ve had to develop my own modifications since so few are offered for bigger bodies, and teachers who focus on alignment are the ones who gave me the knowledge and freedom to do so.

  6. Susan { 11.20.10 at 1:12 pm }

    This makes complete sense, Anna.

    And of course, I never even mentioned safety in the post, which is the best reason to teach alignment.

  7. Marianne { 11.20.10 at 2:26 pm }

    I agree with so much in this post Susan – especially the basic premise that it is only when we have the experience of appropriate alignment that we can safely explore. That is my responsibility as a yoga teacher, to teach appropriate alignment (and I insist on using the word appropriate because it won’t be the same for everyone).

    But I think I have a different understanding of what it means to ‘invite’ my students. For me it doesn’t mean giving not giving them clarity or direction, but it does mean reminding them that they are always in control. They never have to do anything that I’m suggesting. I see this as a primary responsibility as a yoga teacher, even with beginners, to begin to connect them with their sovereignty. I’m responsible for teaching alignment, but I’m also responsible for reminding people that even in the midst of clear instruction on appropriate alignment they are in charge. So, although I totally agree about the need for solid teaching (which means continuous study) about alignment, I don’t find that this is incompatible with the invitation.

    The main feedback I get about my teaching is that people feel safe in my classes and I suspect this is because of a combination of clarity and compassion, instruction and invitation. I think we often need to feel safe to be able to soften, which is at the heart of the yoga practice, so creating that safe environment is one of my primary occupations as a teacher.

  8. Ashley { 11.20.10 at 3:58 pm }

    Marianne, you said it better than I could have! Like you, I have a different sense of what it means to “invite” my students. This is perfectly stated: “For me [to ‘invite’] doesn’t mean not giving them clarity or direction, but it does mean reminding them that they are always in control. They never have to do anything that I’m suggesting. I see this as a primary responsibility as a yoga teacher, even with beginners, to begin to connect them with their sovereignty. I’m responsible for teaching alignment, but I’m also responsible for reminding people that even in the midst of clear instruction on appropriate alignment they are in charge.”
    I would add that so much of the practice of yoga (in the greater sense — i.e., beyond mere asana) is about tuning in and finding one’s inner teacher. I, personally, feel as though it would be a bit hubristic of me, as a teacher, to assume that my external directives should always carry more weight than a student’s personal, internal wisdom. If we never allow space for that to develop in our classes then, as far as I am concerned, we are falling short as teachers.

  9. (OvO) { 11.20.10 at 4:26 pm }

    If it’s correct that you live in Boston, there is Dominic Corigliano. Traditional ashtanga vinyasa yoga. Go. I invite you to go.

    aumboy.com

    Or if not, sheesh! Then receive the advanced instruction already. Who cares how others receive the instruction? Who cares if the teacher was wise enough to give it? “Feels good” is something students around you may filter through consumerist or suffering-driven frameworks. You can receive it on your level, you know? If “feels good” feels wrong, ok, you could also practice feeling wrong about feeling “good.” Or, avoid that feeling and draft a blog post instead. :-)

    That said, I do agree with the spirit of your rant. I agree in the sense that technique needs some structural integrity; and increasingly generic yoga asana in America (being sort of post modern and egalitarian) is losing that. Both on the level of the posture and the practice generally.

    But there are deep asana practices that regard technique not as oppressive but a scaffolding for some pretty rarefied sorts of freedom.
    Ashtanga vinyasa yoga, in particular, resonates with the Vajrayana.

  10. Jasmine Lamb { 11.20.10 at 5:18 pm }

    Amen, Marianne and Ashley.

    Susan, I love that you rant. Even though my rant would be a different one. As a yoga teacher and more importantly student of movement with a strong personal practice my first priority is to teach from my own experience and meet my students where they are. I emphasize alignment less and awareness, presence, and direction more…because this is what is most deeply at the heart of my practice: listening and exploration. And also because I actually think there are a lot of classes where students will be instructed in how to align there bodies—often in ways that seem unsafe and confusing to me—but none the less I feel I have something else to offer: clarity about witnessing your actual experience, meeting your body not only without shame but with curiosity, and discovering the support of gravity and space. I want to establish this first, and then work on alignment second. So that it is my way. Certainly my class wouldn’t be for everyone.

    What I’d say to teachers is: teach from your greatest inner knowledge of each posture and also from the whole of who you are. Be present in the moment and don’t let your ideas of how “it should be” cloud “how it is.” Love yourself and love your students. And come forward and meet your darkness so it doesn’t wreak havoc on those in your classes. Practice with exceptional teachers and then trust your inner teacher.

    I love this conversation and want to see it keep going. Thanks.

    Jasmine

  11. Leanna { 11.20.10 at 7:25 pm }

    I was taking a new yoga class this morning and was composing a blog post in my head while there (first sign of a not good class. Actually, that was the second sign, the first sign was that the teacher brought her dog with her and it urinated on the floor of the lobby.) I realized that what has kept me at home practicing is many teachers’ inability to just be quiet. Stop talking to me while I’m in tree pose. Tell the class how to get in it, and then shut up please. Let me be in my body and explore my tree without you yammering on about my breath and my feet and my thigh. Just hush!

    I was thinking, Susan, about your meditation instruction. You give us the instruction and then we sit. And you are quiet. If you were speaking every moment while we were sitting it wouldn’t work. And yet, when you’d come back in with a reminder every so often, that was helpful. I wish yoga teachers would get more comfortable with silence. Explain the pose. Then be quiet. Come back in with a reminder maybe. Or walk around the room and silently adjust.

    This was my little post about the yoga class I want to take:
    http://lainesotherblog.blogspot.com/2010/11/yoga-class-id-like-to-take.html

  12. Debbie { 11.20.10 at 10:33 pm }

    I find myself torn. On one hand I love the rant and do agree. On the other, I question the judgment. Perhaps it is up to the student to find what works for him or her? I did. If I went to the studio closest to me, it would be a with blissed out 20 something who knows very little about proper alignment. Of course, I have a dance background and could rant on about the importance of alignment and how few of yoga studios I tested did not focus on.
    I went to many studios before landing on one that truly is spiritual and actually has teachers who teach. I know many who don’t like the studio I go to because the teachers are not bubbly and don’t offer enough of a workout. Thank goodness there is a teacher and studio out there for everybody.

  13. iamronen { 11.21.10 at 1:15 am }

    Hello Susan,

    A couple of months ago I wrote an extensive post about what I percieve to be a degeneracy of Yoga. In some ways I guess it is an echo of your rant from a teacher’s perspective:
    http://iamronen.com/2010/08/yoga-therapy-degeneracy-and-yoga/

    As I was rereading it to see if it indeed was relevant to mention here, one sentence popped out that I wanted to give specfically to you:
    “The whole point of Yoga is not to move the body but to ask who is this me that moves the body?”

    Yoga and asana are not synonomous!

    All Things Good
    Ronen

  14. Claudia { 11.21.10 at 9:18 am }

    Susan, I appreciate your article, I would also get discouraged if I heard those words in class, I would want direction. I do have to agree with OvO up there, I do not see that you may have tried Ashtanga yet… Mysore style in particular, there are no ifis there… it is very much true core instruction, you might be in for a treat if you do…

  15. Loo { 11.21.10 at 2:43 pm }

    Ditto Claudia and OvO: I stopped and started, began and quit yoga for nearly 20 years before stumbling onto Ashtanga. It was just this sort of soft unfocused do what your body wants pick whatever pose you feel like approach that continually drove me away. What also drew me to Ashtanga is that the teacher certification — at least while Pattabhis Jois was alive — was rigorous. YTT in this country is all over the map requiring us to choose carefully who we study with. Finally Mysore style is a huge blessing. Quiet room, quiet teacher, no “partnering” with other students where you receive adjustments from completely unqualified people (this drove me nuts!). But Ashtanga isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (although I believe it is for everyone!) and a lot of people must want that sort of make it up yourself yoga or else it wouldn’t be so dang popular. Anywho, fun topic!

  16. Tricia (irishsamom) { 11.21.10 at 3:18 pm }

    LOVED this article. So well spoken. As a yoga teacher and practitioner it completely made sense to me. I, like you, don’t like too much vagueness nor free reign, I need a lot of help with getting where my body will take me, if I have instruction that is constructive first. Thank you!!! Tricia : )

  17. Susan D. { 11.21.10 at 9:54 pm }

    I agree with many of your comments in your rant, Susan. I think yoga teachers are becoming a little too mass-produced and focused on a limited repertoire of asanas and the physical aspect of yoga only. I value a teacher who doesn’t just become a human pretzel at the front of the class, but moves around the room correcting alignment with a gentle laying on of hands, demonstrates alternative postures to those of us with injured or aging bodies, incorporates several specific pranayama (breathing) exercises into the class and uses the correct Sanskrit names for asanas, reads a thought at the beginning of class to inspire or reflect upon, encourages the setting of an intention, and teaches with joy and creativity. Fortunately I have these qualities in several of the instructors in my nearby studio that I walk to several times a week and for which I am extremely grateful.

  18. Anna { 11.22.10 at 11:32 am }

    Awesome—I think all instructors need to be reminded of this. My first year of teaching, I was so excited by theory and existentilism and being that I probably spent as much time in lecture as hands-on instruction. After seeing about the millionth glazed-over look, I realized that this is not why students were coming to me. So, I changed.

    I’ve changed again. My students want particular results. They may not care about perfect form (although good form, yes). They may not care about the theory of why we are “supposed” to do something for so many counts. They want to get from point A to B, then start thinking about C. So, I now teach an “advanced techniques” class where those students come in, we focus on one thing for four weeks. We discuss the anatomy and kinesiology of a movement—which muscles are the prime movers, the antagonists, the helpers. We break it down to the basic fundamentals, then move up. The results? Astounding. And so the teacher learns from her students again.

  19. Leslie { 11.22.10 at 12:14 pm }

    Enjoyed reading your blog post and all the comments – it reinforces my belief that students (and teachers) do need a guide in this practice, even if they tell you they just want to ‘feel and move’. And, I am grateful to read Leanna’s comments — not an easy thing to be silent, but so effective.

    Thank you, all, again.

    • Susan { 11.22.10 at 12:33 pm }

      Leslie, I also enjoyed Leanna’s comments about silence and space. As she does, I appreciate just the right ratio of instruction to silence.

      In some ways, this is a classic introvert’s preference. We can’t comprehend what is being asked of us until we can take it into ourselves and check it out. If someone else is talking, it is a distraction. Extroverts, as far as I’m able to observe, respond to continuous instruction while us introverts simply need to pulse attention toward the instructor and away, toward and away.

      Neither way is better, just stylistically different. It can be difficult, though, for a teacher who leans in one or the other direction to recognize how to create a balanced environment.

      Ahh, the joys and complexities of being a teacher!

      Thanks for your comment.

  20. Susan { 11.22.10 at 12:22 pm }

    Wow, what thoughtful and smart comments. They’ve sparked a lot of responses in me–so many, that I’m going to compose a follow up pose about what it means to teach. IMHO, of course.

    And to OvO and Claudia–I have practiced Ashtanga, many times. It is probably my favorite style. It has the combo of gravitas/lineage/alignment & physicality (athleticism, even) that I seek.

  21. Brigitte { 11.22.10 at 5:25 pm }

    I have quit instructors for this very reason. I hate being put on the spot to “do what feels right.” I find that a good instructor pushes my limits rather than allows me to rest within them.

  22. lauri { 11.23.10 at 4:09 pm }

    One of my yoga students forwarded this to me. Hmmm. I honestly don’t think it was a hint, but I’ll have to check. I also half-jokingly have been known to say there are no bad yoga classes, because you can always learn something, whether it’s what not to do or how to listen more closely to your own inner teacher. But that’s probably true only if you have some pretty good self-awareness and body knowledge.

    As a student, I gravitated to yoga because of the sense of joy I found on the mat. I was lucky enough to start with a good teacher who balanced precision and a generic spirituality. I suspect that’s what some of these teachers you describe are trying to do, bring joy and a sense of spiritual connection to people’s lives, but without any sense of authenticity.

    Part of the problem is money. Yoga schools just churn out teachers these days, because that’s how they make the big bucks. They encourage practically anybody and everybody to become a teacher. You take some classes, fall in love with yoga, and after a year decide you’re going to teach. It’s crazy!

    I can say this; I was one of them. And I was terrified. I knew nothing. So my mission became to learn as much as I could. After 10 years, as a student and yes, nine as a teacher, I still don’t feel like I know enough.

    I catch myself worrying I’m getting too detailed about lengthening the spine or pressing the big toe into the floor to energize the inner leg or internally rotating the thighs to broaden out the lower back … Is it too much information? Is overwhelming people who are struggling to find their own bodies in space?

    Do they have enough room to breathe or to “establish the pose but ‘relax around the holding,’ ” as your Kavi so clearly put it? Am I taking the joy out of the practice?

    Should I work more on relaying the philosophical or spiritual aspects of the practice? Honestly, it feels almost fraudulent. I’m not Hindu, a Tantric philosopher, a true student of Patanjali or a Sanskrit expert. I love the mythology and mantra and even some of the mysticism, but I don’t feel like I know enough to really teach that or offer it authentically. So I often don’t. Or very much.

    I want people who come to my classes to learn something — about their bodies, about their energy, their minds, their limits and the complexities of how those things all work together — but I also want to help them find some of the emotional release I found 10 years ago. Why does it feel so good to do yoga? Your “rant” has me thinking about it now, and this nugget may help clarify as the evolution continues:

    “Without alignment, the integrity goes away. From this precision, an opening of the energetic body is created. The pose then starts to animate you. And the third step, to let go—of expectation, judgment, hope, and fear—allows energy to continue flowing.”

    Thank you, Susan!

  23. Jane { 11.28.10 at 1:18 pm }

    Love reading the rant and the comments. I’ve been teaching yoga for a long time. Every class and student tell a different story. Over the years I’ve learned that some of these things can be really useful and helpful to students: Talk less and say more. Don’t try so hard to create something bigger. You’re not a guru so chill out and ease up. Be concise and accurate about alignment, with compassion toward each students experience. Realize that people are really stressed and in their heads too much, so teaching stillness is a good idea. Teach specific breathing techniques. Have fun. Be present. OM OM OM

  24. Bridget { 01.14.11 at 10:47 pm }

    There is a lovely teacher here in Portland who will spend 5-10 minutes getting you into proper alignment in asana. It’s a gorgeous process, and by hour’s end, you feel so good, and in touch with your body. Her name is Sarah and she teaches at Amrita.

    I wonder if teachers lack confidence when they ask me to “do what feels right”.

  25. Jennifer { 12.04.11 at 1:27 pm }

    I like the rant. Can I add another phrase to omit while teaching: ‘In your own time…’ Could take a long time til a student feels the urge to follow the direction. After all, we’ve got to end class on time.

  26. Deanne { 12.05.11 at 6:46 pm }

    How fabulously insightful! There’s a big difference between being a great yoga or asana practitioner and a great teacher. I think you’re alluding to the fact that some teachers just aren’t that skillful at teaching. The love is there, the personal practice is probably there, but the ability to take an experience and translate it into specific short phrases and movements to help students form postures with their bodies for a certain effect… and then to notice and work with it – well that’s something else.

    I loved your comment about ‘super-advanced instruction’. I’m developing the view that yoga students are left alone in their minds too much with no forum (in a general class setting) for validating and inquiring into their own experience. They arrive, do what they do and feel how they feel and then go home. If there are going to be ‘invitations’ to ‘make it feel good’ or ‘do what feels right to you’, then that requires a forum of sorts – discussion, teachings and the opportunity to bring insights to the table (or mat). Otherwise, the instructions are anything but, and the teaching even less.

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