Friday, August 24, 2012

On teaching yoga and being a "role model"

I just read Bindy's latest post, in which she commented on this recent article on MindBodyGreen titled "I Love Yoga... But It Didn't Help Me Love My Body." I haven't been following much news or yoga trivia online lately; I've been focusing on and blogging mainly about my own personal life and practice. But I think this article brings up a couple of issues that are worth thinking about.

As you can probably tell from the title, the author of the article, "a high-energy former collegiate athlete", relates her own story about how yoga hasn't helped her to overcome her body image issues, despite whatever other good things it may have done for her. I don't feel like I should argue with her experience. After all, when all is said and done, yoga is probably like everything else under the sun: It works for some people in some ways, it works for others in other ways, and it simply doesn't do anything at all for others. And I probably have body image issues of my own too, so I won't comment on what she has to say about body image issues either.

What I do want to comment on is this rather innocuous thing she said somewhere in the middle of the article:

'As a yoga teacher and a soccer coach – two positions in which I want to be a positive role model – I often end up feeling like a failure if I look in the mirror and think, “Eh.”'

What's with this need to be a "positive role model" in yoga? I mean, sure, if you are looking at being a yoga teacher on a purely professional level, then being a yoga teacher is, in this way, very much like being a high school math teacher or a gym teacher. A math teacher teaches math, a yoga teacher teaches yoga. Just as a high school math teacher would want to model certain behaviors or attitudes that her students would hopefully emulate, a yoga teacher as a professional would probably also want to model certain behaviors or attitudes that her students would emulate. On a purely technical physical level, these might include things like proper alignment in asana, proper breathing, etc. And on a slightly less physical level, these would also include things like having a love for the practice. And perhaps there are also things that the teacher should not model, such as showing favoritism to particular students, fraternalizing with particular students, or having inappropriate sexual relations with students.    

And the list of things that one should role model or not role model as a professional yoga teacher goes on and on. I suspect that one can probably write an entire book on all these things, if one cares to do so.

Now is it just me, or are you starting to feel that talking about all these things to model or not to model as a professional yoga teacher is getting a bit exhausting? If, like me, you are also starting to feel a bit exhausted from thinking in this way, but don't know why you are feeling this way, please allow me to enlighten you (I know, I'm being very immodest today. Please bear with me...). Well, here's why this way of thinking is so exhausting: Being a yoga teacher is more than just being a "professional". It is true that on a purely practical everyday level, yoga teachers, like anybody else who tries to make a living teaching something, need to be held accountable for their actions and practices in the classroom. Hence there need to be standards governing yoga teaching as a profession, standards which tell teachers what they should or should not do or model, and which protect students and teachers alike.

But ultimately, being a yoga teacher is more than just a profession. It is ultimately a... I don't have a name for what I am trying to describe here. Well, let me put it this way: When was the last time you heard somebody say that she wants to be a yoga teacher so that she can be a positive role model as a yoga teacher? Doesn't this just sound... weird? I mean, in the universe in which I live, people decide to be yoga teachers because they have personally felt the power of the practice within their own lives, and they feel a strong desire or calling to share this powerful thing with others. It just so happens that the way to go about doing this is to become a yoga teacher, and to accept all the responsibilities and roles that come with being in this position. It is only when the individual decides to take this step of sharing her practice with others that all these considerations of adhering to certain professional standards and being a role model comes into play. Not the other way around: People don't want to become role models, and then decide to become yoga teachers because being a yoga teacher fits this mold of being a role model. Or at least they shouldn't: I dare say that anybody who thinks in this way--who puts becoming a role model before being somebody who simply loves the practice and wants to share it with others--is setting herself up for occupational burnout. How can she not, when she is preoccupied all the time about what she should or should not do, or what she should or should not role model? And this seems to be what is going on with the author of this article. And maybe, just maybe, it could also be aggravating her body image issues ("Am I looking as fit and healthy as I should be? Am I as slim and lithe as I should be? Do I look like I care too much about being fit and healthy and slim and lithe? Oh no! What should I do?! What should I think?!...").

To use a very cliched phrase: Where's the love? Where's the heart that burns for the practice in any of this? But maybe I simply live in a very different universe from the one everybody else seems to be inhabiting. Does this mean I'm crazy? Or maybe everybody else is...         


  1. So much of the studio yoga culture is driven by people desiring to project authenticity rather than being authentic. People who think about being role models, rather than just being one through the power of your practice and relationships.

    I actually think too many of today's teachers rushed into being teachers. Sure, they felt the power of yoga on a superficial level, but did it really sink in and transform their lives? I doubt it.

    In my Zen community, every one of our teachers practiced for over a decade before being elevated to such status. And furthermore, they demonstrated - through who they had become - that the practice had shifted how they are in the world to the point where they had something to share with others. Something more than "I love yoga 'cause it made me feel real good."

    The yoga teachers I love, respect, and have practiced with were all like the Zen teachers I speak of. People whose lives had been steeped in the practice. People who understood at a heart and gut level that the practice - at its core - is about liberation. Not feeling good or curing ailments. Those are nice side effects, but not what yoga in any traditional sense is focused on.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Nathan. I think you are right when you say that "So much of the studio yoga culture is driven by people desiring to project authenticity rather than being authentic." And they probably rushed into being teachers. But I also think that it may be a little harsh to fault them for doing so. After all, if that culture is all they ever have been exposed to, how can they know (and do) any different?

  2. Yes, I am probably being a bit harsh. Someone has to call these things out though. How else will the culture change?

  3. Barring the Ashtanga and Iyengar Yoga Schools , no others schools maintain a strict standard for Certifying the Teachers .But I do consider Other Schools to be good starting points for people to get a feel of the Yoga before they seriously decide to make it part of their whole life .I come from the Sivananda School of Classical Hatha Yoga and its founder Swami Vishnu devananda was the first to start the concept of residential TTCs and it was mainly to expose people to a Yogic way of life in an ashram like environment . He gave Certificates for students( and they are still being given after the TTCs ) just to encourage them to continue with the Yogic way of life and not to take that Certificate as a final authority that they are great teachers . The TTCs and ATTCs of the Sivananda System are basically meant to sow the seeds of Yoga in to each individual and it is up to the individual to nurture those seeds and make it in to a full fruit bearing tree .If you see today all those seasoned Ashtanga , Iyengar practitioners , they had a basic background in the Sivananda System before they went about fine tuning their Yogic skills with the Iyengar or Ashtanga Schools of Yoga . Problem is today most of the people who come out of their TTCs fail to understand that it is just a starting point and consider it to be the end of their achievement and go in to the role of a Teacher before they establish themselves as a student first .

    1. I agree with you that it is good to see the TTCs as a starting point on the journey of yoga practice, rather than the be-all and end-all.

      "If you see today all those seasoned Ashtanga , Iyengar practitioners , they had a basic background in the Sivananda System before they went about fine tuning their Yogic skills with the Iyengar or Ashtanga Schools of Yoga."

      First, I think this is bit of a generalization: Perhaps one or two (or even a few) senior Ashtanga and Iyengar teachers/practitioners today started with Sivananda. But "all those"? Just who do you have in mind by "all those"?

      Moreover, I think it seems grossly unfair--not to mention disrespectful--to see Sivananda as merely a place to get a "basic background" before fine-tuning one's yogic skills with Iyengar or Ashtanga. I mean, I really have no skin in the Sivananda game, so to speak (I've only been to a couple of Sivananda classes way back when I was still "shopping" for a yoga style), but I really wonder what the Sivananda folks out there would make of your rather disparaging remarks about their tradition.

      I don't mean to come across as confrontational, but, well, I just don't agree with what you say.

  4. Nobel

    I feel you have not understood what I was trying to convey or in fact I should have explained myself much better .I have the utmost respect for the Sivananda System as I have immersed in it for more than 10 years and have done all their 3 levels of Certifications . In fact this issue needs a much bigger analysis and I will do so in my blog post separately especially in the context of the Sivananda System now completing 50 years in the West and they celebrated it also recently at the Yoga Camp . I will write a separate blog post on this clarifying what I wanted to convey more in depth . This is nothing against Sivananda or for Iyengar /Ashtanga but how I feel Yoga has evolved in the West and what is its status now in form and spirit .

    1. Sounds good, Krishna. Maybe I misunderstood what you were trying to say. I look forward to reading your blog post.