Over the years I have seen Yoga evolve and change. From the days watching my mother teach in community centres during the dawn of the New Age movement meets Jane Fonda in a leotard, to the present. Now, cultural appropriation and all, it is BIG business, it is BIG egos and it is almost unrecognisable from its origins. With that said, it has also become a very big part of people’s lives that has helped many to connect and improve their mental, physical and spiritual health. It has also launched sportswear brands and lifestyle trends that have become multi-million dollar companies that I, admittedly, have benefitted from both financially and sartorially. I have been very fortunate to be at the right time and the right place to capitalise on it’s popularity and find great success as a Yoga teacher. For over 20 years now I have had a wonderful community that followed me in studios, privately and on retreat in locations here in the UK domestically and internationally. I myself have evolved and consistently try to improve on my practice and teachings. I value what I am passing on, not just creative sequencing, but the teachings of Yoga philosophy within a practice. I take pride in myself that I am educating students to go beyond objectifying Asana (Yoga postures) and implementing a felt sense of the history, techniques, themes and embody the experiences as a result to a refined practice. I am not alone in this pride and I celebrate each and every one of my peers who have sought, studied and shared the remarkable discipline and teachings that is Yoga.
However, I think it is time that I make a few very selfish and self-centred pronouncements–
I am not your Yoga teacher if you simply want a workout or want to be a contortionist
My understanding of Hatha Yoga is that there is an intimate relationship with mind, body and essence of spirit. These three qualities and attributes of life awaken within any given moment to a oneness, wholeness and a completeness of being. Through the discipline in practice of shaping the body, mind and breath we too can experience lasting fulfilment, contentment and freedom. This is my definition of Yoga. This is what the many Yoga texts state as the goal of practicing Yoga. This is what I teach.
My entire Yoga teaching career I have taught a holistic approach and look at it as a discipline. However, recently I have had students feel it was their right/qualification to come up after class and state some version of the following: “I just want to let you know, I won’t be attending your class again. I come to Yoga to get out of my mind and body, not to be in it”. Mind blown. Purpose missed. Heart sunk. Ego shattered, etc.
I would like to think I am still new to this teaching thing but I have noticed a trend and admittedly, I am still finding my way through whether I feel it is a good or bad evolution. The trend is; confusing Yoga with a work-out or more disturbingly, valuing gymnastic feats, thinking that is what makes a good Yoga teacher.
First of all, Yoga is not exercise in the western sense/idea of aerobic exertion. On the contrary, Yoga, as described and detailed by the ancient texts, is a means of preparation for meditation. The Asana postures (the most basic of what we Westerners have appropriated as Yoga and major fixture of what Hatha Yoga is) were techniques to “get the kinks out” of the body, so that the physical was not distracting, during meditation.
Secondly, the contortionist and extreme postures are indeed, part of the Yogic teachings but are there to create discomfort and suffering. Creating pain within the physical body and pushing the limits of what the physical could withstand would help the practitioner to experience an altered state of consciousness. However these poses are dangerous and without proper training and observation can lead to life long physical disabilities and damage. Teaching these techniques to students in the modern world without philosophy merely fulfils an endorphin rush at the very least or at the most, a potential career with Cirque du Soliel. Other than that, it is a stretch to call it Yoga.
There were and have always been many ways of pushing the physical, the contortionist poses were just one. Renunciants who disavow any material possessions create their own physical suffering, but the whole point is to push the physical, so that the Yogi can be in the mental and spiritual without distraction. The extreme forms of Tantric Yoga can offer the same brush with the limitations of the physical, but the experience is there, not just for the endorphin release, but so that you could do something with that endorphin release.
On a personal note, my husband describes me to his friends (a bit oafishly, yet satirically) as “real bendy”. Thats fine. With enough practice, flexibility will come and its inherent benefits will manifest. However on a more maternal note, no amount of hip opening makes childbirth easier. I know, I am extremely open in my hips, but I still had to push out two babies. What helped was the mental training of focused concentration, breathing techniques to manage the intensity, listening to the inner wisdom to guide me through the variety of extreme thoughts, emotions and sensations. This was also valued when I faced watching my late husband die of cancer. Asana doesn’t prepare you for life, applying the Yoga philosophy to practice does.
As I mentioned, I am still undecided as to the good and the bad of the trend and this evolution because whether or not new students are drawn to Yoga because of the allure of acrobatics or the desire for some cardio, it still brings people to experience something new. With time and curiosity, it may even draw them into the bigger and more holistic benefits that Yoga can offer and hopefully that person will want to be in their mind as they find it beneficial.
I am not your Yoga teacher if you rate me on an app
Valuing a teacher, practice or school of Yoga by how many followers they have, likes, stars or hearts they receive is a new phenomenon. I recently discovered my teachings are being assessed on a “rate your Yoga teacher” App platform. Most reviews are from those who feel qualified to share their opinion and after all, it is their right to use it. However, that rating can lead people in directions set out by their peers and with that rating I think comes responsibility. Is the reviewer really qualified to rate a teacher after one class? Does the reviewer have any qualifications themselves to make official observations on the teacher? I’m not talking about testimonials here, if you want to formally speak to my character and my qualifications have at it. I’m relatively confident in who I am and my qualifications as a teacher and if you spend a bit of time with me in class, I’d be happy for you to share that experience. It may sound a bit pedantic, but testimonials don’t come with stars.
As I read through the ratings I also find people on these apps forgetting that a teacher is a student of life too and that we as teachers are not immune to unkind words. Don’t get me wrong, I use ratings and reviews to help me decide my AirBnB, my restaurant choices and my guilty Amazon purchases. I’ve given my fair share of “1 star” reviews for those guilty Amazon purchases gone wrong. But the mop that I purchased won’t be upset if I tell the world it is not made very well nor will the hotel room I booked be upset if I mention the “sea view” was a bit of a strain for the neck. The key to those ratings, is that the people are rating a tangible product or experience that can be discussed in terms of a general qualification of experience with those products or services. “The room was beautiful, clean and a great location”, “The halibut was dry”, “The product does what it said it would do”. I know that when I read those reviews, the people writing them are having casual experiences and making unofficial observations and judgements. Yoga is not a casual experience and I have no idea what an official observation, judgement or review of a Yoga teacher/class might look like.
I have chosen to teach what I love to practice and study. This means applying ALL that I know so far, into bite size, digestible-themed practices for the students to gain their personal understanding of how these practices work. Hopefully, students use them to guide them to a fulfilling life. What I have devoted myself to for the past 20 some odd years, is a teaching role. As for my students, I hope they come willing to learn, be respectful and curious. I challenge anyone to sum up my style, methods, qualifications and delivery of the Yoga teachings in 5 stars and/or under 500 characters. I get it that the reviews are there to help people make choices on how they might spend an afternoon or their hard earned money but some things you just have to experience and take a leap of faith. A review app for every aspect of our lives, especially something as personal as a teacher-student relationship, objectifies me as a teacher. I become a commodity that can be rated against styles, delivery and content of others. Whether or not the other teachers or the reviewer have any qualifications becomes irrelevant. Best one yet – 2 stars “not for me. I found the amount of breathing and techniques distracting from the Yoga”. Mind blown. Purpose missed. Heart sunk. Ego shattered, etc.
We as humans are full of opinions which have their provenance in our experiences and are voiced by our ego. Yogic teachings allude to their own opinions on the ego and imply provenance in karma, teachings on humility and discipline (or lack there of). The whole foundation of Yoga, at least from my interpretation, would be pretty against qualifying and quantifying a teachers ability to teach and a students ability to hastily gauge a teachers “performance”. Please come to one of my classes and, as I often say to my students, “take what you like from my teachings and leave the rest”. Also, leave the stars and the ratings for Amazon.
I am not your Yoga teacher if you don’t have manners
I have also seen a trend of interaction. The way we have become used to communicating through social media, zoom, emails etc., there has been a slow mutation of social manners, common courtesy and the etiquette of communicating. During this COVID era, where we have had to all adjust, adapt and learn how to teach and practice differently, there has been some extremely positive outcomes. I have witnessed the enthusiastic support for those on the frontline, volunteerism and charity have been on the rise. I myself have been on the receiving and giving end of reaching out in creative ways and supporting one another as the increased stress and uncertainty has become the norm. It has been a beautiful thing to watch, but it has, as I say, changed our manner and civility as well.
I think in the last year and a half, we all have been affected by isolation, fear, uncertainty and scarcity which has made people behave in ways they probably wouldn’t have under other circumstances. I am not alone in noticing this epidemic of entitled, disrespectful, rude and angry people coming into studios and online practice. Yes, we all are going through stuff, but where is the kindness our community once displayed? Where is common courtesy and manners which our/my adopted (English) culture is known and prided for? The self-importance on display and disregard for others in the sacred realm of our Yoga classes is really dis-heartening. I feel like, with the proliferation of studios not teaching the philosophy of Yoga and treating it as an exercise or work-out, we as teachers are, as I said earlier, becoming objectified and talked at, interrupted, cut-off, rated, and deemed expendable as Yoga loses its significance on a cerebral and spiritual level.
Whats made it worse is the virtual realm of teaching over a Zoom link. The early days of COVID lockdowns were a remarkable experience to teach online. The scary days before we had any hope from a vaccine and when we really didn’t know what the future held was so good to hold space for people. So many of you reached out to tell me how much the classes helped you through times of uncertainty. However, as time went on, screen apathy set in and isolation started messing with all of us, the chat boxes on my screen started getting a bit hostile, the objectification of me as an idea on a screen set in and I started seeing comments like these-
“WTF? I thought this was a Yoga class!”, “when are you going to get on with this thing? I thought this was a Vinyasa class?”,
“You’re not a proper Vinyasa class because you don’t play music”, “Can you teach more like my favourite Yoga teacher …?”
“When are you going to stop talking and teach Yoga?”
We as teachers are trained and continually learn how to hold healthy boundaries and compassionately reflect back a students stuff, allowing them to own and digest their stuff. However, I feel there has been such an increase of bad behaviour lately and on good days I can see this is not my stuff, this is the students stuff. Many students don’t want to be “in their head” they have found other “Yoga” classes that offer the escape and the endorphins for the escape. But over the past two weeks, there has been too many incidences that have been so disrespectful and thoughtless that I have contemplated giving up teaching. Also, by the consistent comments about my teaching, I have questioned whether the way I teach is relevant anymore. I don’t need to explain what that does to someone who might battle with self-confidence issues and ponders metaphysics. Not to mention endless times watching students on their phones while I teach, sigh…. Again, Mind blown. Purpose missed. Heart sunk. Ego shattered, etc.
Maybe I could be
Look at where we are. Divided, angry, greedy, …. Look at what we as a whole are valuing. What habits we are nurturing. What is motivating us in our choices, fear, anger, … the words we say to ourselves and others…what thoughts are we entertaining and recycling? What is all of this saying about our core beliefs? A great teacher who has been rated, cancelled, cut off and definitely deemed expendable once said-
“Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
Are we happier these days? Healthier? Content? Joyous? Kind? Loving? Tender? Would you like to be? Have you discovered a path to those goals?
I may not be your Yoga teacher, but maybe I could be if you would like to address some of those questions and if that quote resonates with you. I would like nothing more than to be a part of a group of seekers who are yearning for kindness and fulfilment to manifest in their daily lives. I want to teach people some of the things that I have learned and continue to study. I’d like to not be hurt by the (d)evolution of humanity and the consequences of an absence of the philosophical teachings of Yoga. I am truly grateful as I do have a community who has shared these practices and teachings together, who have supported me in so many ways. The way I teach is not for everyone, as I teach how to live and deal with life, not how to escape from it. I try my best to pass on the knowledge that has been given to me by my teachers. The continual studies that deepen my knowledge, I then repackage into a 75 minute class of comprehensive techniques. A class which aims to get you back in, to your heart, and in to your head. It’s a 75 minute introspection, not an escape. There might be some endorphin release, but that’s just the beginning. Stick around long enough and I think you will understand what I am talking about.