The Yoga Teacher Dilemma

But I’m Supposed to Be Good at This Stuff

When I began my teacher training certification, I had been doing yoga for a good decade and some change. I started going to yoga class at a health club during my sophomore year in high school at the age of 15, and went through a whirlwind tour of all the different flavors of modern yoga before settling down to study with a consistent teacher.

Quite frankly, I thought I was a major hotshot. “I’m athletic, I’m strong, I’m flexible, I’ve been doing this for a long time, so yes, I’m *good* at yoga,” went my thinking.

Little did I know that I knew very little.

Doing Yoga and Learning Yoga Go Hand in Hand

A couple months into my training, it hit me: I’ve only *done* yoga, but I have not *learned* yoga, and there is a huge difference. Doing yoga is when someone calls out the name of a pose, and you do it. They call another name, you do that. And on and on it goes. This is all fine and good, because sequencing the poses is a skill within itself, and it’s not easy. However, this assumes that I have *learned* how to do the poses.

Looking back, sometimes I resent that. I resent that no one ever told me how to not collapse my chest in Extended Side Angle pose, that I was flattening out my hips in Triangle, or that I was dumping all the weight in my shoulders in Down Dog.

“If only I had learned things right the first time, how much further along would I be today?” That’s what the petty part of me asks out loud when no one’s looking (then, realizing what’s going on, I quickly–and shamefully–pull myself back and send out silent thanks to all my teachers and all the things from them).

Armed with my training, I have vowed that my students not just do yoga, but learn it so that they are empowered in their own yoga practice, with or without me. Then, they can safely do any style they want, slow and methodical or flow and free vinyasa.

What Yoga Students Want vs. What Yoga Students Need

In my freshman year of college, What a Girl Wants by Christina Aguilera was one of the most popular songs. “I’m thanking you for knowin’ exactly / What a girl wants / What a girl needs / … And I’m thanking you for givin’ to me,” she would sing. Meanwhile, my guy friends would tell me, “I have know idea what girls want and what girls need, ’cause it’s usually not the same! The girls don’t even know themselves!”

Ah… guys and girls…

But back to yoga. The more I teach, especially in a health club and gym setting, I’ve realized that yoga has become synonymous to a “workout”. When I posed a question on my Facebook if people really learn how to *do* the yoga poses, or if they just want a cardiovascular workout, a friend responded, “My guess is that 99% of the yoga practicing population wants the latter, with only the hardcore students wanting the former.”

And so here lies my “yoga teacher dilemma”, do you give students what they want, or what they need? The ideal solution, of course, is both. But if it were that easy, I wouldn’t be thinking and writing about this at 1am in the morning.

What Yoga Students Want

In retrospect, I can see the possibility that perhaps, my previous yoga teachers *would* have liked to adjust more and stop the class the explain the mechanics of the poses. Perhaps they did look out and saw a lot of crooked spines and strained necks and shoulders, but had to turn a blind eye and kept the class going, because that’s what we were there for, a strong powerful calorie-burning sweatfest.

I’ve heard stories of yoga students who only stay during the “active” part of class, and then roll up their mats when the class starts to cool down for savasana. I’ve been told my class is supposed to be “like the one on TV”. A studio manager once asked me if the new teacher is good, and if I “got a good workout in.”

What Yoga Students Need

It’s clear to me that we are all in it for the physical benefits. There is no doubt that the yoga asanas will provide that. As an athlete, I understand the endorphin, the “high” of doing and moving at high intensity. And yet, yoga injuries are on the rise. For sure, people hurt themselves doing anything, or nothing at all. Yoga, however, is meant for healing, not hurting, and any exercise done incorrectly is ground for pain and injuries.

I’m not a chiropractor or surgeon, but what I have learned from my anatomy teacher, who’s a retired surgeon, is this: yoga injuries, especially spinal, don’t happen overnight. Very often, chronic pain or problems show up when it’s too late. If a student is getting a great workout today, and consistently goes back to class, doing certain poses incorrectly year over year, he or she may be creating lasting damage.

Knowing this, I cannot, in good conscience, teach a fast moving vinyasa-style yoga class where most students have not learned how to safely do the poses. Yes, they are getting a good workout doing all those pushups, but at a cost that’s too high for me to handle.

And yet, the plot is thickened when I consider the possibility that perhaps my intentions are in the right place, but I can soften my approach a bit. Compromise is a good policy. Get technical, but get moving more. This is my challenge. This is my dilemma. I’m committed to the search and the solution, to finding where that ever-so-precarious balance is, to give yoga students what they want and what they need.

How About You?

I want to hear from you. What’s your take on this, as a student, teacher, spinal surgeon, or a casual observer? I’ll love to hear from you.