Yoga Teachers: Who Needs Em?

gimme a 'k'
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You’ve heard it before. During class, a yoga teacher says something along these lines:

“Make the pose your own.”

“Take this pose in a way that makes you want to do it.”

“You are your own best teacher.”

Like the best psychologists, some say the best yoga teachers are those who run the risk of putting themselves out of business. They are so skilled at guiding us, so effective in helping us help ourselves, after a certain period of time under their tutelage, we know what to do for ourselves. We’ve spent our time (and money) with them. We have learned the moves.

Let’s say we have a few years (or decades) of yoga under our belt. We’ve put some miles on our mat. We’ve even seen (not that we were looking) other people our way in awe as we land a pose that just shimmers. Then, just as when we were blissing out on our flawless hang-time in handstand, it’s on to something else. The teacher calls another shot, er, pose, and we do what we are told to do. That’s the name of the game. Or is it?


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A yoga class is not a game of Simon Says.  The teacher’s job in sequencing a class is more than just calling out “Simon says, ‘Stand on your head.’” Our job as teachers includes making sure students feel welcome and seen. And, it is our job to conduct a class with safety in mind while instilling a fresh, inspiring practice that will speak to as many people as possible in the “one-room school house” of the modern day group class.)

Freedom Style yoga teacher Erich Schiffmann has some wise words on the role of the student in this one-room school house class. Here’s a paraphrase:

If you get bored with what I ask you to do, your job is to find something that interests you about it. If you feel that what I ask you to do is too hard, your job is to find a way to pause and play it easy. So, please. When you go to someone else’s class and don’t feel like doing yoga their way, play the game. You might learn something anew.

Now, I’ve been to classes where a student plays their own game during the group class. I kind of hate to see this happen. Okay, maybe they know “a lot of yoga.” But, having practiced yoga for 15 years and taught for 12, when I go to another teacher’s class, I still participate with the class.

I also agree that ultimately, we are our own inner teacher. We do possess inner wisdom. But if that is the case, What is the role of the teacher in today’s yoga classes? Traditionally the role of the yoga teacher was one of spiritual guide, or guru (remover of the darkness of ignorance), and the relationship of guru to student was revered. The teachings were oral, and one-on-one in a direct transmission of knowledge that was passed from guru to disciple–guru parampara. It was sacred. Think Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita.

I told this ancient secret to Vivasvat. Vivasvat taught Manu, and Manu taught Ikshvatu. Thus, Arjuna, eminent sages received knowledge of yoga in a continuous tradition. But through time the practice of yoga was lost to the world. The secret of these teachings is profound. I have explained them to you today because you are my friend and devotee.

The Bhagavad Gita, translated by Eknath Easwaran

How do you feel about people disregarding the yoga teacher’s guidance and doing their own thing during a group class? Is it just a matter of their own self-expression, or is this disrespectful to the teacher and the rest of the class? Maybe you are a teacher who has had this happen in your class? Simon Says, tell us about it!


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Posted by:

- who has written 41 posts on Yoga Modern.

Barbra Brady is the Art Editor at Yoga Modern. She holds an MA in Museum Exhibition Theory & Cultural Studies, which she has exercised as a museum curator of contemporary art, nationally published writer, leader of a venerated nonprofit yoga retreat foundation, and now, yoga with a slant on channeling creative energy. When not practicing or teaching yoga in the tradition of her teacher, Yogarupa Rod Stryker (as a Certified Level IParaYoga teacher) or as an iRest Yoga Nidra practitioner, Barbra practices the yoga of “curiosity.” The curiosity that fuels her imagination may be through writing, curating, a turn of leaf or phrase, cinema, a century ride on her road bike… She’ll be sharing her curatorial picks and original musings, as she whispers in the ear of the Yoga Modern community: “Hey, look at this!” She lives in Sonoma, California, an Eden which naturally prompts her reflections on nature, food, and yes, wine (in meaningful moderation).

17 Responses

  • hi! thanks fpr your post. I teach MBSR in Milan and what comes to mind is the way I deal with physical discomfort during sitting meditation.
    When students ask me: "When is the right time to move i.e. to re-adjust my position?", my usual reply is that yes, they are the experts and the only ones who can really know, but at the same time I invite them to ask themselves the following questions: "Am I avoiding in some way to be with how things are? Am I running away from something? Am I being gentle to myself?".
    I guess that, when a teacher is guiding you, most times doing one's own thing could be interpreted as avoiding to be in a gentle and brave relationship with how things are, both internally (body and mind states) and externally (recognition of the role of the teacher) but then it could be that one has good reasons to do something different, and at some point I might kindly ask permission to the person if we can explore that together (I only do that if I am sure I am non-judgemental about the whole thing).
    I also try to make sure that there is some space dedicated to personal exploration as well as more guided practice.
    And I always remind my students that their relationship with what happens in class is a mirror of what's happening out of class, so they might as well want to closely and honestly look at it.
    Carolina Traverso
    Facebook: Mindfulness Semplicemente

    • veloyogi says:

      "And I always remind my students that their relationship with what happens in class is a mirror of what's happening out of class, so they might as well want to closely and honestly look at it. "

      Thank you, Carolina, I love this reflection. Indeed. I was actually prompted to write this post following a couple of recent classes I held wherein a woman went about doing completely different poses and sequences than those I was leading. As my sequences are "vinyasa krama," or carefully placed as to which poses come when…there is method behind it. Yes, I can imagine this tendency (vasana) of the woman to do different poses may surface in other aspects of her life.

      I just heard today of a teacher who will not even tolerate people chatting during her class, that she will reprimand them, "I want you to listen to me." I wonder how she might address a student doing different poses than the ones she was leading…

  • When it becomes a problem it's either the teachers ego or the students. In the end isn't yoga about unity within? Meaning, a teacher is ultimately there to guide not to dictate. If a student can't or won't choose wisely it's on them, not the teacher.

  • Barbra Brady says:

    Interesting observation, downdogandcats….Now I am wondering if this happens in say, an aerobics class, or in a master swim class, or even an academic class…Yes, the student chooses what they want, both in that moment in the class and in what they then take away from the class…

  • Sony Trieu says:

    It's important for new students and neophytes of yoga to have nurturing and caring guidance from yoga teachers who practice more than just the physical practice. In time, as the student progresses and learns to listen to her/his own intuition, I wholeheartedly agree with Erich Schiffman's freedom style yoga, wherein the freedom to choose becomes that of the student. As a yoga instructor myself, I have been blessed and grateful to the teachers who have shared their time, support and guidance with me as I built my own personal practice. I now share my insights with my private clients and group classes with the intention to help them find their inner teacher.
    Great article and has an irreverent bend too!

  • Barbra Brady says:

    What, Yoga Modern irreverent? <smile> Thanks, Sony. I've done Erich's teacher training, and do love him. I do incorporate some of his "feeling tone" into my teachings, but also appreciate that students need to "learn the rules before they break them."
    It reminds me of a quote from one of the jazz greats, I cannot remember which one…about how to truly experience the essence of jazz. "First, you gotta learn the notes. Then you learn the music. Then, you learn to PLAY."
    I am also still reflecting on the traditional relationship of teacher/student….guru/disciple…any thoughts there?

  • YogaDawg says:

    Good post. I make it clear to teachers from the beginning that I will be modifying certain asanas due to a bum knee. They seem to appreciate that I know enough not to do a Simon Says (which I ran across in the Iyengar scene too often and which is quite laughable to me now).

    "Jazz is about being in the moment."
    Herbie Hancock

  • clare says:

    Excellent topic and questions. I recently had a drop in student who did her own practice, completely and utterly, in the midst of my class. I had to smile at it, I mean, it doesn’t offend me, however, my other students were confused. Many would do what she was doing instead of what I was cuing. The class was very “off” in this regard, and very unfocused because of her flowing/flailing off to the side. This, as a teacher, I’m not cool with. People come to a class to be led, guided. Because maybe they need that for whatever reason. There is a balance, a level, of finding one’s own expressions, and I make that freedom clear and imperative, based on the 3 phrases you included at the beginning of your article. Guilty as charged of using those! But it is so true that is what we are “going for” as teachers I think. For the students to truly find their own connection, to not have to be led by an asana teacher in order to practice. Anyways I’m just resaying stuff now…but appreciate the post, conversation, and awareness!

  • yogiclarebear says:

    Excellent topic and questions. I recently had a drop in student who did her own practice, completely and utterly, in the midst of my class. I had to smile at it, I mean, it doesn't offend me, however, my other students were confused. Many would do what she was doing instead of what I was cuing. The class was very "off" in this regard, and very unfocused because of her flowing/flailing off to the side. This, as a teacher, I'm not cool with. People come to a class to be led, guided. Because maybe they need that for whatever reason. There is a balance, a level, of finding one's own expressions, and I make that freedom clear and imperative, based on the 3 phrases you included at the beginning of your article. Guilty as charged of using those! But it is so true that is what we are "going for" as teachers I think. For the students to truly find their own connection, to not have to be led by an asana teacher in order to practice. Anyways I'm just resaying stuff now…but appreciate the post, conversation, and awareness!

  • jbnorton says:

    In my 200 hour training, one of the trainees asked a similar question and our teacher's answer was to say something like "This is kind of like Simon Says, and right now, I'm Simon" – but not in a demeaning way. As a teacher I am responsible for the safety of sometimes dozens of people of varying levels of yoga experience and physical limitation, many of whom I may have never met, and some who weren't forthcoming when I asked them about injuries ahead of time. I have had very direct and frank conversations with a student who did her own thing during my class and it was disruptive to other students. She no longer comes to my class and I'm okay with that. People who have no business doing certain poses began to imitate her instead of following my direction. It's not my ego that can get hurt – it's their bodies that can. I was also trained to be a good student in any class I go to, which means that I follow the teacher's sequence.

  • Keren says:

    I am a yoga teacher and thankfully, this only happened to me twice. The first time a student was chanting her Buddhist mantra while I was discussing Yamas/Niyamas. My initial response was shock at the indifference that she may have been disturbing the others who were interested in listening. I do tell my student that they are not obligated to believe anything I teach because I do encourage thinking and reflecting rather than following blindly. But However, I never encouraged using class time to do personal chanting. I was forced to deal with it on the spot because the chanter created background noise which was very distracting. So I stopped talking and excused myself myself to the rest of the class saying I was unble to concentrate. I never pointed out the student because everyone understood why… but the chanting student got it and stopped chanting without resistence.

    On another occasion, word had gotten out about my classes which caused curious yogis to appear. They are not the kind of students who aren't there necessarily to learn but rather to see what the hype is all about and then decide if they agree or not. I sensed it with this one student who halfway through the class decided to use the class time to do her own yoga practice. I was concerned that she was distracting the other students who were regulars in the class but it turns out that I was more concerned than necessary. The other students recognized her ego and just ignored her. I also try to teach that we are all entitled to live in harmony together even if we don't have the same beliefs. My students were able to put that into practice for themselves and stay focuses on their mat.

    Teaching yoga is not just about teaching poses. It's about dealing with whatever comes up at every moment, including the students who haven't yet learned to release control in yoga class. If you've ever taught 5-6 year old kids, you know what I mean! There is always the one who disrupts for the very same reason an adult would disrupt a class: because they want attention. The world is made up of many types of personalities and egos. There will be the shy, insecure one and there will be the over-confident show-off and both will need to find balance.

    • veloyogi says:

      Karen, thank you! The thought of teaching five and six years-old kids…and that perhaps the adult who was doing her own very different practice in my group class…well, I am better with it now. Thank you, Yoga Modern peeps, for helping with perspective!

  • Marissa says:

    This is a great article and posing a very interesting question that I have been faced with lately in the classes I teach. Most often, it seems as if the most flexible, not necessarily the most experienced in yoga asanas, are the ones who are guiding themselves and tend to come to class as a personal practice completely disregarding my cues as a teacher. This becomes difficult especially when the student is in the front of the classroom, because the other students tend to follow those who position themselves in the front. I believe in every student making their yoga practice their own and taking whichever adjustments/options they may need or want. However, when the student strays completely off course from the guided flow that the teacher presents to the class, this calls for a quick response to keeping the rest of the class on cue with your flow.

    • veloyogi says:

      Exactly, Marissa. I have noticed this as well, and that it is usually a student who seems to think they have been practicing yoga for soooo long, and they really know more than some of the other students around them. Like, they have enough "experience" that they know as much–or more–about "how to do yoga" than the teacher, or at least others in the class. I had occasion when I first began teaching to have a woman (a friend, and aspiring yoga teacher) correct me out loud about my alignment/anatomy guidance. She was a body worker, so yes, she knew anatomy, but to do that in front of the class…I had yet to fully blossom my courage, or I would have said something to her after class, but I did not. Lesson: do speak to someone who disrespects you in front of your class like that. Had I done so, I might have saved my friendship with her, as it stood, we did not remain friends…

  • wordyogini says:

    as a teacher, i really don't think that it is a big deal at all when someone does their own thing in class. when it happens repeatedly, i have sometimes wondered why this kind of person is in a group class, then i realized that student is at a level where they should be doing their practice on their own at home but for whatever reason (usually lack of space or discipline), they cannot.

    a yoga teacher's ego should be questioned whenever there is a claim of responsibility for other people's experience. just something to think about there. we often convince ourselves that our reactions to students "behaving badly" is justified because of some level of implied responsibility that we have, but more often than not it's about our own control or boundary issues.

    we are here to guide a yoga practice, and sometimes that means being ok with students who deviate from the norm and/or act out. it's all part of the process.

  • Karin says:

    As a student, I think it is very important to remember our intention for coming to the class which is to learn from the teacher, so we should try our best to do the poses being taught. Having said that, I am very appreciative of teachers who will give me the modified version of the pose when he or she sees me struggling or compromising myself in the pose. I think it is very important that the teacher is attentive to the needs of the student and not push them to do the pose. I have a fellow practitioner who refused to attend for some time classes that needed her to do a handstand as she was forced to do the pose by a teacher when she was not ready for the pose. As students, we have to listen intelligently to two teachers in the class.. .the one leading the class as well as the one in our body and at the same time not let our ego take over.