The Yoga, It Does Things to People.

As a reformed news junkie, I no longer read the Huffington Post, but came across this insightful article via commentary at PeaceLoveYoga that resonated with me as both a student and teacher.  Susan Piver, author, vents her frustration with the growing practice among yoga teachers of teaching students to "do what feels right," counseling with vague, motivational rhetoric rather than instructing the correct alignment of the poses.  Piver asserts that the power of the practice is in the form of the poses, and I agree.
The poses are designed to open the body, to clear the energy channels of obstruction and allow prana to flow freely.  Advanced practitioners may know how to manipulate the body for their own purpose in their practice, but for someone new to yoga without the body awareness that comes with years of practice, "do what feels right for you" may be difficult to translate among the host of unfamiliar and often intense sensations that even the most basic of the asanas can incite in the body.  Piver points out that largely unregulated education standards for yoga teachers in the US has inevitably led to hoards of teachers with minimal training inauthentically offering up a spiritual "experience" for their students.  It seems many yoga teachers feel compelled to layer their classes with nebulous new-age motivators, all the while neglecting to assist their struggling students in refining the very basics.

My classes are low on philosophy. I like to keep it to a minimum because I find that if it's planned, it feels contrived.  Sometimes, the moment inspires a nugget here and there, but generally I choose instead, when venturing beyond anatomy and alignment, to suggest tactics for dealing with discomfort on the mat, which allows the students to eventually realize these tactics in their everyday lives at their own pace if that is what they seek.  However, the teacher training program I completed was big on infusing classes with motivational stories and themes.  I don't care much for themes.  When designing my classes, I turn to the wisdom that the body has to offer by working with the level of sensation and emphasizing 1 or 2 fundamental alignment points throughout the class to really drive them home.

Much of the feedback I received from the lead instructors during my YTT course and after the final presentation was that I do not include enough "messaging" when I teach.  In response to this, a resident teacher at the studio assured me that my understanding of the body was paramount and commented that "the yoga does things to people."  In other words, teach the poses well, bring people into their bodies, and the rest will come.  I believe this to be true.  The wisdom that yoga has to offer is experientially gained.  The real essence of the practice cannot be taught, it must be found along the path of the individual.

Yet, it was impressed upon me during YTT that the quiet space in class is to be filled with optimism and enthusiasm, that it is my responsibility to keep the energy of the room soaring.  Because of this, I worry about the students feeling abandoned when I quiet down and let them sit with the poses, as if they'd all just give up and collapse on their mats if I left them to their own devices for a minute or two.  I know this is absurd.  In spite of what I was taught, it feels natural to offer spaces of silence in every class for the students to turn inward and explore their experience more deeply.  It is yoga, after all, the practice of calmly facing oneself in the quiet. 

On my way to teach my class last night, I told myself rather sternly that "less is more."  I resolved once and for all to be an example for my students, to let go of the teachings I received that I know to be wrong for my approach, conflicting with my character and presence as a teacher.  From this point forward, I intend to share the taste I have acquired for silence through the practice of yoga and offer my students a rare opportunity to observe themselves, to face the chatter, to face the doubts and quiet them, one by one.  So I will teach the poses as clearly and directly as I can.  I will continue to learn as much as I can about anatomy and philosophy with the intent of creating the best possible environment for the students' self-realized experience.  And I will relax and learn to trust my students to be brave enough to face the quiet.

(image source)


  1. Love this--and couldn't agree more! I especially love this: "When designing my classes, I turn to the wisdom that the body has to offer." I always appreciate (as a student and teacher) the ability to tune into my body vs. hearing someone ramble on about a theme. I find that when a class has more silence, it also makes those moments that you choose to comment on something beyond alignment more meaningful.

  2. Goodness, your YTT sounds the complete opposite of mine. I'm training in the Classical Yoga tradition, so quieting the mind is paramount in any class. My teacher would have a fit if she heard teacher-trainees were supposed to be getting their students all psyched. (Except, being a Swami, she doesn't have fits anymore.) People who want to get all psyched can go see Anthony Robbins.

    I think you are right about going with your feelings and what's important to you in approaching your teaching. You will attract the students you are supposed to teach if you stick to your guns, and the others can go elsewhere. I too am going to have to find my own way - Classical Yoga is so much about meditation and stilling the mind even in an asana class, which I can appreciate, but I also known that many students at an average suburban class are not coming for those things. They want to learn how to do the postures, at least in the beginning.

    Prior to Classical Yoga I was a student of Iyengar yoga, and I really believe that glimpses of the spiritual side of yoga come with attention to the asanas. Although Iyengar is criticised for focusing on the physical at the beginning levels of yoga, I can see why - when the student is ready, the whole spectrum of yoga teachings and practices are available to them.

    I love how thoughtful your posts are. They always help me clarify my own thinking. Evidence of a great teacher, I'd say!

  3. Er, just to clarify my earlier comment - I meant that I can see why Mr Iyengar focuses on the physical, not that I can see why he is criticised. I need coffee...

  4. Great post! I don't do any philosophy/new agey stuff in my classes. Who the fuck am I to give any spiritual advice/guidance?! Seriously. And, I struggle with the silence during teaching, but I'm getting better. Me yakking away about edges and breath keeps their focus off their edges and their breath. It is certainly a balancing act.

    As far as doing what feels good...for example, in extended side angle, I will have students place the bottom arm on the thigh, then a block, then the ground, and then ask them to do what is best for them. Learning what feels good is part of the process.

  5. Brigid - My training was in American Power Yoga. It has been interesting and necessary, since I entered YTT after much solitary study and with a well established personal practice, to sort through the information we were given and try to preserve some of the more valuable skills we were taught, such as teaching to a variety of experience levels at once, while letting go of those teachings that conflict with what I believe to be the true nature of the practice.

    Thanks for clarifying the Iyengar comment, but I think I knew what you meant. Precise alignment of the poses awakens the body and draws the mind into a place of receptivity and openness. It isn't necessary to preach to a class when their bodies are sending them all the messages they need.

    Babs - It is a struggle, definitely, to find the balance between quiet and encouragement. As a student, I love it when teachers leave plenty of space in a class for quiet, but as teacher, I tend to worry that the silence is too scary and coddle my students with instruction. This is what I'm working to change.

    I teach my open level classes in the way you describe, guiding through 2 or 3 progressively more advanced options and letting the students find their own stopping point along the way, but I feel this is different from simply suggesting that students move in a pose however they like, which results in wacky variations and serves as an open invite for Type A's to take it too far.

  6. Guilty!
    There are so many forms and styles of yoga right/wrong doesn't exist anymore for me. There are only exceptions. The human body is this incredible mystery.

    The more I know, the less I know. It's all good. I'm here to guide people on their journey - Not impose mine.

    Thanks for bringing this subject up. When I knew less, I demanded people fit into the mold - but now... I ask students to explore within their bodies.

    But this has only happened after teaching more than 5000 classes.

    I love your website - it's graduated from Blog to "site". Looking good!!

    All the highest!

    Devil Wears Prana

  7. Hi Michelle - I agree that the journey is highly personal and that it's up to the individual to be in tune with and respect his or her own body, but this attentiveness is something that is developed over time. For the beginner in an open level class, vague instruction can be frustrating and confusing. I'm not talking about cranking every student into the perfect Trikonasana here. I just think fundamental alignment points, which keep us safe and energetically open, are often neglected in favor of nebulous new age babble.

  8. I was never comfortable with the "messaging" either. I'm not a wise person and I'm younger than a lot of my students, so I don't even have more life experience than most of them! I find that I'm never really listening when teachers give their life philosophy, partially because the language they use is often vague. If it's not helpful for you or me as students, there are probably many others like us.

    During training when we worked on "sending a message" while instructing, I felt so cheesy because I never talk like that and I didn't even mean what I was saying, I was just making something up! Thumbs down on that. (One thing I do appreciate being added during instruction is something like, "If you always look down in this pose, try looking up at your hand", which challenges students and also points out the human tendency to stay where it's comfortable, which is a message of sorts.)

    I'm not such a stickler for a certain kind of alignment because I've been to a lot of different classes where teachers get very specific about how to set up a pose, but they'll set up different poses differently. I'm sure there are reasons for the different ways it's done. The student needs to be set up in a way that they will not injure themselves and will, at the same time, receive the intended benefit. Some students will never be able to achieve a particular alignment because of the structure of their bones.

  9. I don't know so much about messaging but I enjoy themes. Themes help me pull a sequence together that make sense flow wise and have meaning. To me, teaching a class is like telling a story with a introduction, action, climax and resolution. Of course, safety is paramount. Teachers that come off all business can be hard to relate to. I want my students to relate to me as a person. I admit I am a silly person. I like to be a little silly in class and lighten things up. My approach might scare some people off and that is okay. Themes give me something to chew on and hopefully make the class entertaining and insightful.

  10. Late comment coming in here... I used to practice to a podcast that was "themed" and "messaged"... in the end I stopped practising to it because I just wanted a bit of silence and it never came!!

    I personally like a balanced approach: I think a bit of "themed" chat from a teacher is ok and sometimes very enlightening, but I also like to practice "in the zone", and too much talking gets in the way of that.

    When I teach I sometimes introduce themes without really contriving them... One class I might focus on shoulders and another on hips, even though the sequence is the same. It's a good way for students to slowly gain awareness of full body alignment without being "too much too soon".

    Sometimes at the end of class I get philosophical - but since we only have 5 mins to sit at the end, at least it limits my time! Most of the time when I do a little philosophical talk at the end though, I get really good feedback, which always encourages me to do more.

    I think a lot of teachers are afraid to "push" yoga philosophy on students, assuming that they are only there for the physical benefit. But I think more students than we know are coming to yoga because, as you say, "it does things to people", and as teachers, it's our job to let people know that those transformations are normal and that there is a framework for looking at them.

  11. La Gitane - Late comments are my favorite kind! Thanks for weighing in.

    I've had plenty of experiences as a student when I've really enjoyed the teacher's delivery of philosophy, and very occasionally as a teacher I am inspired in the moment to offer bits of wisdom, but when I've tried to plan a message for the whole class to revolve around, it doesn't seem to work. The effectiveness of such delivery is too dependent on the students and the moment. The words always seem to fall flat if I plan them ahead of time.

  12. for me the most important thing when I teach beginners is getting the students to feel their body. As such I don't really focus on alignment. What I do is give my students movements that they can do so that they can practice feeling their body. At the same time they get to learn what I mean when I say tilt pelvis forwards, or bend the spine backwards.
    Whether talking about alignment or "feeling the body" if we as teachers give clear instructions (and we take the time to explain what we mean when we say certain words) then the students can get on with what we are asking them to do.
    Then we as teachers can shut the f up and let them get on with doing. And we can then focus on anyone who is having difficulty, or enjoy the experience of watching others learning their body.

  13. La Garza Yoga- you made me laugh when you say that you admit to being a silly person. Me too, well I would rather say I take the practice seriously but not myself.

    Feeling your way into postures is essential in my mind. This might be because I practice Ashtanga and Pattabhi Jois always said 99% practice and 1% theory. So we only have 5 breaths in the posture. Students listen to the instruction on basic alignment. Hips, feet, what is bent etc and then breath. I've started saying that the posture should never be fixed physically or mentally, 'feeling your way' towards it suggests that you intuitively keep open to reach your edge. Yoga is a doing word and I want students to feel their way towards correct alignment rather than thinking about the words I say.

    This YTT things is difficult, "largely unregulated education standards for yoga teachers", well I don't care about that. Surely nobody should teach what they can't do. And if they 'can do' then they don't need a certificate, they just need insurance. If you can't get insurance any other way, do the course and then teach how you want to. People will get it or not.

  14. Hi Mark - Thanks for chiming in. As for the YTT regulation: in theory, I agree with you. Regulation isn't needed or even appropriate with such a varied, personal, and experiential discipline. Unfortunately, I think there are far too many teachers out there who fail to maintain a personal practice, or who choose to attend a YTT course not just to learn to teach, but to learn how to practice yoga safely in the first place. This is not okay.

    Teacher training is not the appropriate avenue for someone with no yoga experience, but it happens all the time because the courses are unregulated and many have no enrolment standards regarding previous experience or personal study.

  15. Hi Megan

    yep, tis true. I just hope people who go to classes with unexperienced teachers, wear out the possibilities quickly and look for something more authentic.

    'If it's for you, it'll no go by you' as they say in Scotland.

  16. My fear with that system, Mark, is that people, as a whole, aren't known for their ability to offer second chances. First-time students are not likely to brush off a bad experience and head out the next day in search of something better. More likely, they'll dismiss the practice entirely and never look back.

    Like I said, I want to agree with you. I wouldn't say that I'm in favor of regulation, but I do have concerns about the potential for fraud and injury.