I believe that "the goal" of a yoga teacher is not to offer transformation, acceptance, or a transcendent experience. The goal of YOGA TEACHERS as a collective, is to bring people back to the mat. To meet them where they are and provide a space where they can meet, acknowledge, love, slay (or whatever) their own darlings and demons. There is NOTHING WRONG with crossfit-meets-yoga. Maybe it isn't your yoga today, but to someone else, it is letting in a sliver of light - it is providing a space on a mat for someone who needs that kind of yoga right now, today. If the teacher is popular, great. She is meeting students where they are. And if they later choose a different class because her class no longer serves them, than better for all of us to have open arms and say YES. WELCOME to my class. Here is what I have to offer you today. I'm glad you have returned to the mat.
Right now, a particular quote - a particular teaching - resonates with you. Perhaps in the crossfit class, someone else had a transcendent realization.
Who is to say which yoga is right?
It is an important lesson for us as teachers to embrace ALL teachers, styles, formats so that we as a collective can support one another and shine and share our light (and our shadow and darkness, as needed).
I often joke that I received two invitations on the same day - one to a beautiful prenatal yoga teacher training, with hands on bellies and peaceful music, and one for Booty Yoga - which was basically strip dancing on yoga mats in some poses that I could almost recognize as yoga poses. I don't think that's safe - at all! I'm personally concerned about their poor bodies the same way I'm personally concerned about other peoples' questionable moles - but neither has anything to do with me. I used to make fun of this style of yoga, until I met a few students who told me that was how they found yoga - someone told them it would make their butts look better. Maybe it did? But they also got injured, learned lessons, wrangled demons, and found a different style of yoga.
I'm trying - gently - to offer you something that I have seen in myself - a judgement of someone else calling themselves a yoga teacher doing something I'm categorically opposed to. Someone whose ego is showing, who is maybe a bit rajasic. Someone who highlights in me my own questions of worth - am I a worthy yoga teacher?
What I am saying is yes - I am a worthy yoga teacher. And so are you. And so is she. Even if you don't like it. Even if I don't like it.
When someone says to me, "That's not yoga!" I think of my dad shouting, "That's not music!"
Because it isn't, to you.
But it is to someone.
There’s a dirty promise lurking in the world of Instagram. It says if you practice yoga in your underwear in your kitchen, drink green smoothies from glass jars, and have a mala to match each phase of the moon, you will have “made it.”
Your life will be perfect.
If you become a teacher, sponsored by a yoga apparel company, adored by followers, you will find peace.
Your anxiety will roll over and die.
While you might know that these things are not true, you might still hope they are. You might play along, “just to see” if it does actually work out.
That’s actually ok.
It’s ok to want everything to work out, and while apparel sponsorship might get you the equanimity you desire, I find I feel just the same amount of wonderment or disdain whether I was paid to wear the pants or not.
I have always had anxiety. I have always practiced yoga.
My anxiety is incredibly productive. She can juggle insurmountable tasks, and when left unsupervised, will create more chaos and work than she could ever accomplish, out of self preservation.
Is there anything else in the house that could be alphabetized?
ARE YOU SURE???
If I don’t practice yoga, she starts to get the upper hand. And she’s pernicious.
I lose track of this sometimes, as a teacher. Sometimes I forget that teaching yoga is not practicing yoga, and if I teach and teach and teach at the expense of my practice, I find myself overcome by tears at a rest stop, starting a meditation timer to try again.
And so I’m writing to tell you that this is the game. I still sometimes wake to the strong-willed toddler of my own inner neurosis, and by sometimes, I mean often.
But I know what to do, and I’m better at remembering earlier. I have more tools, more friends, more guides. It used to take me until 3pm to remember that eating helps, or that phoning a friend is better than mining Facebook for real connection.
Go to class. Start the meditation timer. Find a cushion. Lie down. Repeat.
Lately I feel like a wet and wandered dog stumbling into a class. The teacher thinks I’m there to evaluate them, or believes because I have taught for a long time that I’m there to judge.
“I just need to practice,” I have whispered.
Because I don’t care if it’s a “brilliant” sequence, or a “great” soundtrack, or “stellar” adjustments. I am just trying to surrender to my human-ness.
Yoga classes are like 12 Step meetings and chocolate chip cookies: even a not-so-great one is still pretty good.
Almost always worth it.
Because life continues to unfold after you get the letters, the gold stars, the sponsorship deals, the writing advance, or whatever it is you’ve told yourself will be the line of demarkation beyond which you will have made it.
Life will not get easier.
You will just get better at it.
Yoga teachers teach, they don't TREAT.
Jen with Anatomy for Yogis and I have been saying this for years - your yoga teacher's 200 hour or 300 hour or 500 hour training does NOT train them to diagnose or treat any conditions - so please don't ask. It is so tempting to want to step over that line and offer you something, except it could be the wrong thing, and we're just as trained to know as your accountant.
Here is a quick primer on our scope - if yoga is HURTING you, as in, "wow, my shoulder really hurts in side plank" we are trained to help you do side plank in a way that does NOT hurt you. Or we can recommend alternate poses.
We can understand the anatomy and physiology of various functions and dysfunctions, and we can help explain them to you. We can teach around a challenging area, or help you breathe through difficult moments, diagnoses. We can teach you how to need less pain medication by using meditation, but we can't tell you to adjust your dose.
We can even ease your discomfort as you die.
More importantly, we can be on your team. Whether you're seeing someone for your depression or your dislocation, we can welcome you to our classes and tell you what fits into your treatment plan. We can remind you or teach you how the body functions, we can explain your treatment provider's treatment, and we can even suggest a second opinion. But if you've taken a training with me you know that my philosophy (from David Swenson) is that YOGA is a HAMMER. It is a tool with equal capacity to heal and break, it is not a magic wand.
We do not have pixie dust.
We are here to remind you that you're perfect, you belong, your illusion of separation is simply an illusion. Maybe for you that comes via 75 sun salutations or licking your own ankle, and we're trained to teach you that.
We are also trained to help you shift your perspective.
I always say - a good yoga teacher gets you to touch your toes, and a great teacher gets you to release the want.
And the best teacher doesn't cross that line - because as tempting as it is to our sweet little egos to do it just this once - just for you - just so we can cure what ails you, all it takes is one teacher wielding her ego like a hammer to destroy the reputation of yoga teachers and close off the path to yoga. Our shared goal as teachers is to bring you back to the mat - to remind you that the tools in the lexicon of yoga are always available to you, no matter what, whether it is my class or someone else's, my studio or your home studio.
We are here to help you see your injury, your diagnosis, your treatment as a teacher. If we take it away, what will you learn?
That is the real gift of yoga.
Om bolo satguru bhagavan ki.
(originally posted 1/25/2017)
We live in remarkable times with an intergallactic platform and ideas of intellectual property. Sometimes I forget the intricacies of the universe and believe that my teaching belongs to me.
(This is adorable).
How do we request reasonable compensation, honor our teachers, respect boundaries, and not trample on one another? I’ve done this with a lot less grace than I would have liked - giving away my teaching for no compensation, forgetting where precisely I learned a teaching, and gotten territorial when I felt like someone was selling my teaching verbatim (or had outright stolen and reattributed my stuff word-for-word).
Here’s what I know:
Reciprocity is a value
Does this mean you must be compensated to teach the yoga to the people? No. Does it mean that you must be thoughtful about how you exchange your time and energy? Absolutely. I believe strongly in bringing yoga to populations who cannot access public yoga classes - those who are hospitalized, incarcerated, and homeless.
I also believe in valuing the work that we do in an interdependent world. When I go to the grocery store, I don’t ask for a discount because “I am a starving yoga teacher,” I pay what they ask, so I charge what I am worth. This is our cultural agreement in the West.
Reverence is a value
You may have heard me call myself “irreverent,” which is also true. I have selective reverence, and I value all of my teachers - those who sat at the front of the room, and those who kicked me when I was down. I give attribution to a teaching that is passing through my lips or hands by sharing the name of the teacher, what they taught me, and how I interpret it differently.
Spewing quotes in yoga classes is not teaching. MLKJ said some wickedly impressive stuff and deserves attribution. AND deserves for what he offered to be mixed with what it means to you, how it relates to your students, and where and how you agree (or not). Reverence looks like this:
“If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” MLKJ
Don’t just leave it there. Don’t make it about alignment in chatturanga. Tell me how small acts of self-love, like making the bed in the morning so I have something nice to crawl into at night, or acknowledging the existence of my yoga mat neighbor are opportunities for small greatnesses. Tell me a modern parable about a kindness that was repaid 1,000 times over.
I’d also like to shout back to Anne Lamott who says that your story is your story, and if people didn’t want you to write about them, they should have been nicer to you. Kick me when I’m down? I’m gonna learn from it and teach it.
When is it flattery and when is it flattening?
Sometimes I read or hear the influence of my teaching, and it warms my heart. Teaching is my legacy, and it feels nice to know that what I taught someone resonated with them to the extent that they are passing it along. That is the goal of teaching, is it not? I don’t want a statue built in my honor, but I do want people to suffer a little less for the suffering I have experienced and learned from.
Other times, I see people give handouts that I created with my name somehow missing.
That feels different.
Clearly, if it were only the teaching that mattered to me, this would not bother me. I would be grateful to see the lessons passed along. But I don’t think it’s just solid ego either. Sure, it feels like my legacy is unimportant if I don’t have attribution, but it is bigger than that.
My opinion on the matter, is that teaching is how you interpret the various life events that have come to you, whether they come to you as teachings or otherwise. It is essential that you take this in and interpret it back out. If you simply redistribute the teaching of someone else, it misses this critical step, so when your students ask you for your opinion on the matter, or for some deeper nuance, you may be lost in the woods with no sense of how you got there.
When I teach the anatomy sections of yoga teacher trainings, I ask the teachers-to-be to brainstorm a list of all of the things you could do with a hammer.
Break a window!
You get the picture?
Then I tell them why.
Approximately 1,000 years ago (or 2012, whichever comes first) I heard iconic teacher David Swenson say “Yoga is a Hammer” in response to a panel discussion about the article “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.”
(I’m sure you can google it).
This teaching had a profound impact on me personally, and on my teaching of yoga and teaching of yoga teachers simultaneously.
My interpretation of this teaching, “yoga is a hammer” is that yoga is just a tool. You can use it to build your body or to break it down. Teaching yoga to a room of students is similar to teaching hammer skills to a room full of construction students. You are handing a hammer to each one, and trusting them to do the right thing, to follow your instructions, and to ask for help if they don’t understand you.
Your student might be in class to repair their body. Quiet their mind. Cultivate a tight ass.
Or they might be there to beat themselves with a hammer.
(I have done this).
I have used yoga as a hammer in so many ways, including to beat myself up about why I can’t do something, why I don’t look a certain way. I have attempted to force, I have worked in anger. I have also used it to rebuild my confidence, to re-train posture, and to bond with my fellows and friends.
People will tell you that yoga can damage your body, but for some reason we give them a lot more social media attention than we give to people who post that you could get into a bicycle accident, or hurt yourself skiing, or miscalculating your step off of a moving walkway. Of course yoga can hurt a body. Repetitive movement can hurt a body. Overconfidence can hurt a body.
Life can hurt a body.
Does that mean you should not live?
May I encourage you not to concern yourself with all of the bizarre, freak ways in which yoga could damage a body, and instead to concern yourself greatly with the ways in which you can teach discernment, self-awareness, and autonomy? These things will support your students when they play basketball on the weekends, balance their checkbooks, and discipline their children in addition to supporting their bodies in the practice of yoga.
Bodies want to be healthy. They want to heal. It is in their nature to do so.
Teach your students to practice yoga like a turtle with a hammer. Slow and steady. Build up to physically challenging moves. Laugh at people who suggest you put your foot behind your head as a method of reaching enlightenment. Move slowly in the direction you’d like to go rather than forcing your body into pushups and handstands. If they are fun, if you are nimble and young and full of joy for being upside down, then sally forth. Slowly. Like a turtle.
When you see or overhear a conversation about this idea that yoga will wreck your body, offer a one-sentence, succinct and true answer, and move on.
Here is mine:
“Yoga is a hammer, I am a carpenter, and you can be, too.”
(Use your powers for good).
I recently had a rough flight. Bumpy landing. Maybe lost a wheel or two. Maybe refused an oxygen mask in lieu of muscling through impossible circumstances. But the flight is over, and we’re walking away, and I find I don’t need to talk about it anymore.
(This is a metaphor).
The last chapter of my life is in the crash-landing position, heaving, with its head between its knees. Wondering which way is up, and if there is a ground, and if we’ll make it.
Simultaneously, I have become terrified of flying. I do it anyway, and pretend to be cool, except when I also jump six inches when someone taps me on the shoulder with pretzel mix and a napkin.
(Who eats pretzels with a napkin, the Queen?)
When I start to panic, I listen to Jaya Lakshmi & Ananda Yogiji, and in my fever, often have a visual of a plane full of white ninjas, the Kundalini tribe, chanting, smiling, and washing their cares away in that sweeping motion - arms over the head.
Mantra. The power of words, intention, repetition.
It gets me through the flights, and it’s getting me through this.
(I think I can.)
We start teaching mantra for a the same variety of reasons we teach anything: we saw someone else do it, we think we’re supposed to, it’s on a list of objectives provided by a studio, we want to be cool, we actually understand and like it.
If I teach mantra, it’s usually dividing the class in three and starting the right side first:
“Row, row, row your boat…”
Which, as it turns out, is a pretty decent mantra.
In my class we bless the rains down in Africa. We howl with Shakira. We groove with the X Ambassadors who believe we are SO gorgeous, and we like our sugar with coffee and cream.
Thoughts become words, and words become actions, and this makes words a really interesting middle man between what you’re doing (actions) and why you’re doing it (thoughts). Yoga says change your words, change your life.
The genre and the language are less important than your connection to the meaning. When you are in the Seat of the Teacher, you are flying the plane, my darling. Your thought-mantra gets blasted over the PA system while the message you’re trying so artfully to convey with your spoken words can get lost.
It’s a lot of responsibility, and it starts with you.
Mantra is your oxygen mask. It won’t teach the class or fly the plane, but it will help you think clearly.
(Don’t forget it).
When I first retired from my fancy-pants career in 2011 to teach the Yoga full time, I was surprised to find myself in a remarkably precarious position that did not involve being upside down or folding any part of myself in on itself like a transformer. I had anticipated showing off my badass body folding skills, but I wasn’t ready for the real challenge.
I found myself on a pedestal.
People were looking up to me - modeling their behavior, their dress, their dietary choices after mine.
And I let them.
Yes! I thought. I’ve never had a traffic ticket, never used drugs… I really am morally superior. Go ahead and do as I do, and you’ll crush life.
Except they couldn’t quite figure it out, so I had to help them. Stay after class and sort through their problems, wipe their tears, and offer advice. Lots of it. Good advice, too, if I do say so myself.
And this was very effective! It didn’t change their lives for the better (or mine, if I’m honest), but it did distract me from the elephant-sized problem I was trying to ignore in my own life.
The details, as always, are irrelevant. Except to say that I could not outrun nor could I dance faster than my own misery and I came tumbling right down off of that pedestal in a public way.
Loads of people abandoned me, and I don’t blame them for a second. I was dishonest and “helpy.” Others became angry and felt betrayed, others wanted to help, and a few showed me how to teach.
They sat there as I lay beneath shame and a badly bruised ego, crying next to the pedestal that used to hold my impeccable moral compass and said things like “I know,” and “that must be hard,” and “you will live through this.”
They did not fix me, nor did they attempt to.
And they were right, I lived through it.
If you teach long enough, this will happen. Both the pedestal and the falling off. It will happen over and over again until you figure out a few things about yourself. Here are the few that I learned, in a form that I hope you find useful.
THE DETAILS ARE IRRELEVANT:
You do not have to tell your students your story. The whole story or part of it. But do not pretend that you belong on a pedestal, and if you find that a student is placing you up there, kindly remind them that you’re more comfortable on the ground. Authenticity is the jam, and does not require you to bare your soul in class or on the internet.
NO ONE IS BROKEN:
There is absolutely a power dynamic in the student/teacher relationship, and it’s important to acknowledge and respect that. However, believing that you are ‘better than’ requires you to also believe that they are ‘worse than’. You might not be doing this consciously, and that is my invitation here. You are a yoga teacher, and fixing people is not in your job description.
YOU ARE NOT ACTUALLY ABLE (OR ALLOWED) TO FIX PEOPLE:
Neither is anyone else. Dentists can repair broken teeth, doctors can stitch broken skin, veterinarians can prevent your dog from licking a wound, but no one can fix another person. All we can do is cultivate the circumstances where healing can occur. I do this the way my people did this for me, with a few key phrases and mostly just listening. Here are a few of my phrases. They are not brilliant, but they are easy to memorize and remind me to shut my mouth.
“That must be hard”
“I don’t know what to say”
“I’m glad you’re here”
BONUS: YOU ACTUALLY DO NOT HAVE TO LISTEN TO YOUR STUDENTS, FOR THE RECORD
This is not harsh, this is responsible. If you’re present to teach a class, that does not necessarily mean you need to listen. Remember, the details are irrelevant? It’s ok - healthy - remarkable, in some circumstances to direct someone to a more appropriate audience.
“I’m going to stop you - thank you for trusting me to hear your story - I’d love to connect you with someone who can offer you the support you need.”
You see? Boundaries are a sign of health.
Today my social media feed is about people giving up on New Year's Resolutions, before the new year begins.
Congratulations for quitting without starting. This is the best way to ensure failure.
If you’re feeling a bit glum this year, as the economy is unstable, as our leadership leaves something to be desired (like leadership), as you are snuggled into your cozies and hoping for spring, read on.
I have some ideas.
Let me take a gander at your personal story right now, if you’re in the dumps or adrift and feel a bit purpose-less. You had a rough experience. You found yoga. It helped! You decided you wanted to teach. That made it better for a little while. Then you had another rough experience, and another, and maybe a few more, and wondered how it was possible that life is not indeed perfect and problem-free now that you have accomplished your goal of teaching yoga. Now you wonder if you have to be vegan, or lose 10 pounds, or stick a handstand to level-up your happiness. Am I close? The unfortunate thing about the hedonistic treadmill (where we chase goal after goal after goal, and are only happy for a brief moment) is that we are chasing happiness outside of ourselves.
Happiness does not come with the achievement itself, but with persistence and perseverance. It comes from within.
For the love of the game?
To enjoy the journey?
Happiness is a practice you build.
A garden you cultivate.
If you spend your energy trying to look happy, you will look happy.
You might be able to balance on your hands, wear tight pants, drink green smoothies, chant, assemble a banging playlist, quote from the Gita (in Sanskrit!), make a killer vegan pot roast, and still find that life includes some foul lesson plans.
So if you’re down and a bit angsty about the idea of a resolution, I implore you to please try this one: Be kinder to yourself.
It will make you happier, because your loudest critic will be off your back. Do a little bit every day, perhaps as though you are offering an investment in the experience of who you will be tomorrow. Plant the seeds that could grow into experiences you will enjoy, like opening a tidy sock drawer, waking up fresh rather than hungover from alcohol or Netflix, or with a plan you’re looking forward to. It is not a guarantee that the seeds will germinate, that you will feel happy, that life will improve, but you will have done your part.
This will help you sleep better, (which may indeed be the secret ingredient). Integrate the experiences and lessons of the day. If you learn the lesson the first time, the Universe will not have to raise her voice and make you even more uncomfortable.
Resolve to create wins. Count them. Share them. Celebrate them.
Do not give up before you start.
It took me decades to realize this simple truth about humans, despite training in archeological and forensic anthropology. Humans are so weird! We are bipedal! We walk on two legs, and our limbs have evolved to accomplish different functions.
I can look at a human femur and tell you some basic information about the person who grew it - their relative age when they died, some clues about their gender and ethnicity. Their approximate height. Maybe if they experienced a unique bone-related trauma or disease.
But the most obvious thing was something I didn’t realize until I started teaching yoga full time:
Shoulders are not hips.
(you probably already know this, but humor me).
First, a reminder about the basic functions of these joints.
The hip is the strongest, most stable joint in the human body. It’s a ball and socket joint, and it’s there to bear the weight of our giant heads and torsos as we walk/crawl/climb. It’s strong enough that we can carry babies, firewood, and unreasonable quantities of chapstick.
In addition, it’s kind of flexible. You can rotate the hip (go pigeon-toed or duck footed), or abduct or adduct it (clap with your legs), or flex and extend (march and skate).
So why. Dear god. Do you want. To put. Your foot. Behind. Your. Head?
This is how yoga gets attention, how yogis get famous on Instagram, by turning their shoulders into hips.
(It’s also how they end up with pain, damage, or schmancy new bionic joints!)
Shoulders are for carrying things, crawling around, and climbing trees and rocks. They are incredibly mobile, and sort-of stable. They are kind of like ball and socket joints, but unlike the hip, the shoulder socket is made of some bones and some soft tissue. That gives it loads of flexibility, but less stability.
So why. Dear god. Do you want. To stand. On. Your. Hands?
I know why, and trust me, I have tried to make my shoulders into hips (handstands) and my hips into shoulders (foot behind the head).
These things are not inherently bad - you can (probably) train your body with thoughtful yoga practice or other exercise to request that your hips become more flexible and your shoulders become more stable. The slow and steady way is the jam in both cases, as our bodies are resilient and adaptable (we can walk in high heels!).
It might be because you need a goal. You’d like to climb a mountain, but what with work and the toddlers it’s not a “this year” goal.
It might be because you want your ex to stumble across your photos on IG and see how strong and/or flexible you are now, so they will miss you and regret the day they let you go.
It might be because you had a yoga teacher who told you that your body could do anything you wanted it to do, you just had to work diligently at it and someday, your body would submit to your training, conditioning, punishment, wishing, etc.
This is where I draw the line.
The first two reasons are your ego (this is almost always the answer to why we do the things we do), and the third reason is someone else’s ego. Someone in a position of trust and authority, who is abusing their powers, training, and seat of the teacher to tell you something that is categorically untrue. They might be doing this because it is what you want to hear, in which case, they are seeking your approval. It is not your responsibility to provide approval to your yoga teacher! They might be doing this because they are repeating something they have heard without fully understanding the implications of what they are teaching.
Shoulders are not hips, you see, and nothing short of extreme elective surgery will make it so.
And even that will not make you happy. Achieving the goal will be good for a few minutes, just as the sweet (vindictive) victory of making someone else jealous.
As you move onward in your teaching, be mindful of making promises to students based on this misinformation. Some hips cannot do lotus pose. Some shoulders cannot orient themselves in a way that is safe to bear the entire weight of a body.
Yoga asana is not magic. It is just as able to build up your body as it is to break it down. It’s a tool. It comes in a boxed set with some other tools that might help you address the root cause of your suffer, like, say your ego?
Shoulders are not hips, baby, and they don’t have to be.
(you are perfect anyway).
I devoted many years to the study and teaching of prenatal yoga. I have a separate blog, geared towards students, but have found many of these posts are relevant to yoga teachers. Here are the "best of."
Benefits of Prenatal Yoga
Why your students might enjoy and appreciate this practice in addition to or instead of other classes.
Yoga Plus One
How to modify yoga for a pregnant body.
Prenatal Yoga for Bedrest
How to leverage the deep well of yogic practices when your body is on bedrest.
I am pleased to be a lead instructor with Enso's Prenatal YTT program. Learn more & register.
I write in a few different places, but these are things just for yoga teachers, or those interested in learning to teach.