10 Things Your Yoga Instructor *Will* Tell You, Part I

I recently read an article titled 10 Things Your Yoga Instructor Won’t Tell You from Smart Money Mag, and naturally have a thing or two to say. (Let’s forget for a moment the blind cowboy “buy now” advice, and that not everyone heeds their words, but I digress big time.)

(Caution, long post ahead, brew some tea :))

Long road ahead

Long road ahead

1. “I just started doing yoga myself!”

The problem is that there’s no real standard for how much teacher training is required of instructors, so almost anyone can lead a yoga class. Yes, there are plenty of certification programs around, but they run the gamut from thorough training—like that offered at the Advanced Studies Program at the Yoga Room in Berkeley, Calif., which requires 500 hours of classwork covering such subjects as philosophy and anatomy—to mere weekend workshops.

How, then, to avoid un- or underqualified instructors? Check with the Yoga Alliance, a national education and support organization. Although joining the group is voluntary and many perfectly good teachers haven’t signed up for its instructor registry, you can check to see if yours has at least attended a YA-approved program, which must require a minimum of 200 hours of teacher training

First off, Hallelujah! Since yoga is “so hot right now”, more and more of us are foraying into teaching. It’s right on the money (har) to call out the lack of standard in yoga teacher training, which then leads to a wide array of qualified teacher. Let me be super clear that I’m totally onboard with the Twainian philosophy of not letting schooling interfere with education. Could a teacher *with* a certificate lead someone to harm? Yup! Could a teacher *without* a certificate offer a great yoga class? Absolutely. The issue of certification and experience versus education is complex and deserves its own post, or even book, so I won’t go into it here.

I want to focus on the fact that since there are no “real” standards, and the implications for yoga teachers and students.

1) If you are contemplating becoming a yoga teacher, do a lot of research on training programs since they are not created equal. It may be more expensive, it may take more time, but because we are working with people’s emotional, mental, and physical states, in my humble opinion, it is more than worth it. In fact, if teaching yoga turns out to be your calling, I bet that you will end up doing many, many trainings for the rest of your life. (You can read up on my experience of finding a quality yoga teacher training program)

2) If you are a yoga student, just like you would check out your car mechanic, realtor, physical therapist, it follows that you’d want to check out your yoga teacher as well. As Smart Money mentioned, you can check out if your teacher received any certification by *either* checking out if they are listed in the Yoga Alliance registry *or* if the school they graduated from is registered as a certified teaching program.

The minimum is a 200-hour (pdf) level standard set by the Yoga Alliance, and subsequently a 500-hour (pdf) level. In some styles of yoga, you merely need to go to a weekend training or a boot camp. In contrast, in traditions like Iyengar or Anusara, there is a different certification process, which require the teacher many years of studying, practicing *and* teaching in the classroom. (The issue of why some teachers don’t register with the Yoga Alliance is political and financial-based, but here’s more on choosing a yoga teacher.)

As a side note, Donald Moyer, the Founding Director of the Yoga Room mentioned above will be in Seattle at Two Dog Yoga in two weeks! I’ll be there, and say hi if you see me!

2. “Sure, we have mats you can borrow—how about a case of athlete’s foot, too?”

Though some facilities do try to wash or disinfect their mats regularly, most don’t get sprayed on both sides… With 30 people sweating for 90 minutes, the room’s a petri dish. Our advice: Spend the $20 on your own mat—or go without.

If you get your own mat, and if turns out to cost more than $20, it might be worth it. “It’s just a mat, what’s the big deal?” You might say. I spend a lot of time on yoga mats, and mats to me is like Bentleys to Bikram Choudhury, so I’ve sampled quite a few of them. I will say that from a safety and injury standpoint (not brand name, status symbol, aesthetic, etc.), be sure to look for a mat that’s sticky enough, and has enough padding, especially if you just started out. Slipping and sliding on your mat distracts you from learning other things.

Okay, I don’t normally endorse anything, but I’m going to break my rule slightly here. Um… okay, maybe not publicly. Email me, and I’ll tell you the pros and cons of the mats I’ve tried, and my favorite (which may or may not be yours).

3. “You’re not ready for this class . . .”

Yoga classes tend to be rated by level of expertise—typically beginner, intermediate, and advanced. But if you say you’re ready for an advanced class, chances are no one at the sign-in desk will question you. It’s not a bad idea to call the studio ahead of time and ask them which class is most appropriate. And be honest about your abilities. After all, you won’t learn much if you’re in over your head and become too discouraged to continue.

Once during a training, Judith Lasater asked, “Do you guys want to know a secret to getting your students to try something?” Our ears perked up with anticipation, as she mischievously smiled, “Tell them this is the advanced version.” We broke out in chuckles, realizing a certain truth in her joke.

For a very long time, I had it in my head that I was much more “advanced” than I really was. I came to a level 2-3 Iyengar intensive thinking I was more 3 than 2, and after one month, realized that I was more like 0. I wasn’t necessarily overconfident or full of myself. I had made the classic mistake of equating time = experience. I had spent soo much time doing yoga, what reason was there to think that I was a beginner? The thing is, I was in classes where there was little time alloted for instruction and correction. I was mostly going from one pose to the next, without really thinking about where I was going.

I believe this stems from our desire to get a “good workout” from yoga, to burn calories and to sweat. This too, deserves its own post, so I’ll direct you to something I wrote about the Yoga Teacher Dilemma, and leave this topic at that for now.

4. “. . . and you could really hurt yourself.”

Some yoga poses are universally acknowledged to be risky—in particular, inversions such as shoulder stands and headstands. Since they cause blood to rush to the head and can raise blood pressure, these poses are potentially dangerous for anyone being treated for glaucoma or chronic headaches, or anyone who’s recently had a stroke; they’re also not recommended for anyone who’s more than 30 pounds overweight, since they compress the vertebrae in the neck. Good yoga instructors will caution a class before going into inversions and will keep a careful eye out for anyone doing the pose improperly.

Ah, yes, my favorite: pain and injuries. If your yoga teacher won’t say it, I will, loud and clear, “Yoga doesn’t have to hurt. But it can, has, does, and will.” If we can hurt ourselves getting out of bed, picking up a kitten, then we can certainly hurt ourselves in yoga. No one is immune to pain, and no activity is exempt as a source of pain.

And yet, and yet, I’ve seen teachers too zealous and hasty with putting students in poses like headstand and handstand. I remember a time when I went through rounds and rounds of chaturanga with elbows wide as Shaquille O’Neal’s coat hanger, inflaming my wrist and shoulders. I can’t recount how many times I was told to “push and push and push” in a camel pose when all I was doing was dumping in my lumbar and sacroiliac.

I’m pretty sure people have hurt themselves or gotten hurt in a yoga class for a long time, but this is becoming more and more at the forefront of our collective consciousness, notably with the most recent lawsuit against Richard Freeman’s studio in Boulder. As students, there is no surefire guarantee to safeguard ourselves against any kind of pain. The teacher may be top-notch in the field, we can take every pre-caution possible, and one day, some mysterious pain will still show up. It is part of having a human body that’s subject to breakdown and eventual disintegration.

Knowing this, the awareness of pain is perhaps our most trusted ally. Being aware of our body’s susceptibility to injuries and the inevitable pain that comes keeps us vigilant. When I climb on a rock wall, being off the ground constantly reminds me that I can fall. That acknowledgement doesn’t stop me from falling, but it reduces the chances of me seriously injuring myself.

This could hurt you more than it hurts me

This could hurt you more than it hurts me

To be continued, with other riveting things your yoga instructor will or won’t tell you 🙂