Yoga is a Hammer
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.
PROGRAMS for Yoga Teachers: