An Open Letter to Yoga Journal

many-yogis-one-classThe November 2016 issue of Yoga Journal featured an article titled: “What it Takes to Teach” by Tasha Eichenseher.  (Here is a link to the online version called, “Is 200 Hours Enough to Teach Yoga?” ).  The article discusses the ongoing controversy over teacher-training standards.  Whether or not you know anything about preparation for yoga teachers or even yoga itself, you would have to be living under a rock with no media access to be unfamiliar with this controversy.  It has been going on in every educational institution for many years.  To make that connection, here are some of the highlights of the controversy:  What makes a good teacher?  How do we train good teachers? How do we identify “bad” teachers?  Is it possible to turn “bad” teachers into “good” teachers through mentorship, supervision, incentives, threats or other seemingly objective evaluative concepts?  Do we need uniform standards?  How strict should they be?  How do we honor tradition and retain what is valuable in the process of implementing change?

All of us have heard all of these questions arise in multiple situations, especially in recent years as we witness change happening all around us. Many of the institutions we have all accepted and relied upon for years are not longer serving us.  Some of us cling to the past and want all new things to find someplace else to exist.  Others of us recognize that the need to revisit and maybe even update the way things have “always” been done is both necessary and overdue.  As a result we are witnessing a clash of cultures, which, in very simplistic terms, is between those who want to pull the past forward and those who want to move on.

In response to the article, the first comment I would like to make is this:  in my opinion, teaching comes from within, not without. You can try to feed ability from the outside in.  Many volumes have been written proclaiming the right way to do this.  But all we have to do is look at the results to know that some of those approaches will work for some people, but none of them work all the time.  Institutional thinking from government to corporations to medicine, etc., loves one-size-fits-all solutions.  We want to be able to apply one standard (or product, or rule, or cure, etc.) to every person and situation.  Makes for standardization, right?  And efficiency.  That way, whenever you get a product, rule, cure or academic course, you are getting a dependable, uniform treatment that you can rely on.  We can rest easy that not matter where you receive this service, it will be the same as everyone else who received it.  Admittedly I’m dating myself here, but what comes to mind for me is recalling a family vacation many years ago travelling the old highway U.S. 1 down the East Coast. We would search for Howard Johnson’s restaurants.  You always knew that you could get the same thing no matter where you were.  In some ways McDonald’s and Starbucks have taken over this role in modern life, but even those juggernauts have found they need to continuously change or suffer the consequences.  Our global community is too large and too diverse.  Unfortunately, though, individualized solutions are expensive and inefficient.  So the conflict continues.

The article mentions some long-time teachers who learned their craft “the old fashioned way”.  That is, through years of study with an individual teacher who would not let them teach until deemed ready.  And even then only taking on that mantle gradually and under ongoing supervision.  Some of you may know that yoga is more than a physical practice.  It is also a philosophy for living that encompasses additional practices beyond yoga poses.  Teachers from this old-style tradition spoke also of the many years of studying this philosophy and history to incorporate these important concepts into their teaching.  There was no counting of hours spent studying anatomy or the Yoga Sutras.  You simply studied because you wanted to learn all aspects of the discipline.  Through the years I have seen similar arguments in the Pilates community as those who learned their craft from the original disciples of Joseph Pilates advocate adherence to those strict guidelines while many newer teachers have continued to adapt and morph the principles developing new versions to address the needs of an ever-enlarging public.

In some ways, yoga is a victim of its own success.  What was once an esoteric practice thought to be limited to a few “bendy” individuals, yoga has gained widespread interest among a huge variety of participants.  The Yoga Journal article mentions a peer-reviewed study released by Dr. Dean Ornish showing the positive health effects of yoga which sparked enormous public demand.  That, in turn, created a need for more teachers. Thus, teacher-training programs began to proliferate.  Think about the rise of “for-profit” universities.  This also began as a direct in response to demand for trained workers in certain industries.  But as the training industry grows, the focus can become skewed and quality can be stretched beyond its capacity.

In recent years leading yoga teachers have continued with Dr. Ornish’s ideas. There have been increasing efforts to have yoga recognized as a genuine therapeutic intervention that can work in concert with the medical community as part of a more holistic approach to health care.  The International Association of Yoga Therapists is a prime example of this type of advocacy.  This organization recommends more training, more mentoring, more hours, more supervision.  All noble and welcome ideas.  The Yoga Journal article further quotes teacher-trainers who impose similar requirements before releasing their proteges into a classroom, a potentially sound approach.  But here is another consideration:  all of this is expensive and time-consuming.  The article also states that fewer than 30% of yoga teachers registered with Yoga Alliance , the primary trade association of the yoga community, make a full-time living teaching yoga.  Ongoing training is not free.  Neither is mentoring.  If a would-be yoga teacher must maintain a job and/or other obligations, how does one justify the expense?  Granted, no one goes into teaching of any kind for the money, but few yoga teachers have any job security, health benefits, tuition assistance or paid leave time.  In my own experience of more than 20 years in the fitness and movement industry, most teachers who work for an organization (e.g., studio or YMCA) make $10 – $20 per class.  Through the years I have funded all of my own training all of which has been driven by my own interests and the needs of my ever-changing student population rather than any mandates from certifying bodies.  I did not start teaching until I felt ready, but I have learned much more about how to teach by actually teaching than I ever did by being told how to teach.  I often say that I “lead” sessions rather than “teach” since I learn just as much – if not more – from my students as I try to impart to them.  If I had to wait through all of those years to try to teach not only would I have lost a great deal of personal knowledge and skill, but I like to think my students would have also.  After so many years of studying and experience, I would also not want some governing body to tell me I did not have the correct credentials to be a teacher.

So what are we to do?  Obviously, there are no easy answers.  Despite the hand-wringing, however, I think there are some positive aspects to all of this which need to be brought to the forefront.  As always, nothing is always negative.  For example, one good thing about the proliferation of yoga teachers is that a participant has lots of choices.  I live in a town of 2,000 people and we have FOUR yoga teachers holding classes here on a regular basis.  If you don’t like the way one of us teaches, you can choose another teacher.  A short drive either north or south of my town provides even more yoga teachers and styles.  Also Pilates and many other mind-body disciplines.  There is something for everyone.  Teachers tend to weed themselves out, also.  People pursue teaching for any number of reasons, most of them well-meaning. But some aspirants may find that teaching is not what they thought it would be.  As with any profession, there is this idea that anyone can acquire the right skills with proper training, but this is simply not true.  The fact is that not everyone can be a good teacher.  It’s just not in their DNA.  Just like not everyone can be a good waitress, or hairdresser, or engineer, etc. etc. We are all different and we all have individual strengths and weaknesses.  We all need to find our own way.

The public will also voice its opinion.  If no one likes a particular teacher, they will stop attending that teacher’s classes.  This will either cause some soul-searching by that teacher that might lead to more learning, or perhaps a complete change of career path.  I recall a would-be yoga teacher years ago who began to teach classes thinking he was ready.  One day a participant came up to him at the end of a class and began describing her fibromyalgia.  At that point, this teacher realized he wasn’t ready to teach after all.  So there are other methods besides governing bodies that can sometimes also prevail.

Of course, we do not want participants to become injured and sometimes poor teaching can create some unfortunate consequences. This can give the industry a bad reputation which, I think, is part of the underlying concern here.  Personally I am a believer that there is a form of movement (maybe yoga, maybe not) that is appropriate for everyone and I would love to see everyone find their way to their own style. However, even the best teacher cannot necessarily control the way a student behaves.  The Yoga Journal article quotes Dr. Timothy McCall who says, “A teacher can encourage students not to do things they shouldn’t be doing, but a lot of people will just do what they want.”  No amount of teacher training is going to change that.

So I hark back to my initial opinion – teaching comes from within.  Mary Taylor, one of the long-time teachers quoted in the Yoga Journal article, speaks of the way training used to be.  “You had to really want to learn,” she says.  I couldn’t agree more.  One of the things I love most about yoga and Pilates is that there is always something new to learn.  Love of studying should always be part of the teaching vocation. I know we will continue to witness the struggle between how and what to teach teachers, but I hope that the discussion always allows some flexibility.  Yoga is all about strength, flexibility and balance for the mind and the body.  If we want to keep those ancient concepts alive any imposition of rules and standards needs to take that into account.

Is Yoga Exercise?

Yoga for Every BodyA friend arrived early to one of my yoga classes this week and told me that she had just come from a Weight Watchers class where the group discussed nutrition and exercise.  This caused my friend to reflect on her yoga practice.  She had been taking yoga fairly regularly for a about 6 months now.  A bit skeptical at first, she had come to realize how differently she felt now from when she began.  Yet she marvelled: “If people were to look into the room”, she said,” they wouldn’t think we were doing anything beneficial”.  Think about it.  Sometimes we just sit on our heels or with our legs crossed, often with our eyes closed, simply breathing.  Or we might be on our hands and knees rolling the spine in a movement called cat and cow.  Sometimes we lie on our tummies and just lift our legs or arms in what might look like a easy move. Then there is Mountain Pose which can look like just standing in place. Finally, of course, there is Savasana, the yoga pose that is practiced at the end (and sometimes elsewhere) in every yoga class. This can easily look like nap time.

So why are these seemingly simple movements so powerful and, in fact, sometimes quite challenging? It is important to remember that one of the main reasons we practice yoga, and I would add Pilates in here, too, is to connect the mind with the body.  Surprisingly, many of us have lost touch with our bodies.  Perhaps we have experienced some kind of physical trauma, or suffered from an injury or illness that has left us with a difficult recovery and maybe even permanent changes to our bodies.  Sometimes we have struggled with our weight, trying all types of programs and practices to achieve some kind of ideal that media projects to us.  In all of these cases and more, the body becomes the enemy.  It just won’t respond the way you want it to.  Why would you ever want to get in touch with a body like yours?

Yoga and Pilates can help you change that thinking.  For one thing, all of these reasons why your body no longer works the way you want it to are just stories you tell yourself.  Sometime others have contributed to those stories in ways that are less than honorable, but the end result is still a story.  You or someone else made the story up, but you’ve allowed yourself to believe it all these years.  Believing it doesn’t mean it’s true.  Since you’ve bought into the story, you can also change it.  Yes, physical trauma and other changes in your body, including aging, are real.  But if the story you are telling yourself is that the changes are bad and interfering with your ability to do the things you want to do, that’s the story you can change.  “Good” and “bad” are simply value judgments.  They have no meaning unless you give them meaning.  In some cases you may not be able to do the exact moves that you used to do in the same way you used to do them, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a different way you can at least do some of them.

This is why bringing your mind back to your body is so important.  Your body is not the enemy.  It is a miraculous apparatus that breathes and has a myriad of systems working in concert to keep you alive.  Your body wants you to live.  And it wants to move.  Sometimes not everything will move well, but the body is also an amazing healing machine.  Healing can take much longer than we want it to.  In fact, it can take so long that we think it won’t ever happen. And there may be barriers that won’t allow the body to heal the way we want it to.  Our lives may not be long enough to accommodate all the healing we think we need.

But every living thing clings to life.  And every day is a new day in which change can happen.  We all know examples of incredible instances of survival.  If your body had given up on you, you wouldn’t be here.  So don’t give up on your body.  Get to know it.  Feel its limitations without discouragement and find its abilities for celebration.  You might be surprised to find that you are capable of much more than you think you are.  There are no promises in life, so no particular outcome is guaranteed.  If you let go of expectations for outcomes and just concentrate on what you can do right now, you might find that no matter how little that seems, you will begin to feel better. Just standing in Mountain Pose or sitting upright in a chair, feeling your feet connecting to the earth, adjusting your alignment and breathing can improve your posture. That’s huge!  I constantly marvel at the people who come to my classes and say things like “I can’t get down on the floor because I can’t get back up again.”  Time after time I’ve seen the look of amazement on their faces when they find themselves standing.  They had been concentrating so much on following the moves and helping their bodies in and out of changing positions they didn’t even realize they had moved from the floor to standing.  What’s an hour of peace from your constantly chattering mind worth?  In my book it’s priceless!

So when your sitting in “Easy Pose” or lying on your back, recognize that this is a time to check in with your body.  Where do you have sensations?  Can you allow your breathing to help you relax any tension you’re feeling?  Is your neck tense or your jaw or your shoulders? If you’re experiencing pain, does releasing tension help you to feel less pain?  Maybe not this time, but practice is what it’s all about.  Each pose may not look like much but there is a purpose.  Certain muscles are being strengthened.  Others are being permitted to relax.  Most of us have pain due to a lifetime of creating imbalances.  Our lifestyles – sitting, driving, bending and lifting improperly, moving without paying attention, being in a hurry, and on and on – all contributed to those imbalances.  Yoga and Pilates light the way to getting back in touch with how your body is actually built to move. This is different for each of us.  Human beings come in all shapes and sizes.  All are right.  None are wrong.  They are just different.  Get in touch with your own body and it will accept that attention and return it with a little greater ease of movement and maybe, even, peace of mind.