Yoga Teachers: Who Needs Em?

gimme a 'k'
Creative Commons License photo credit: istolethetv


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?


You Turn Creative Commons License photo credit: gfpeck

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!


Creative Commons License photo credit: Whatsername?



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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).

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