I thought about writing this post for a while, worried about what my peers will think, but then I realized that my service does not lay in protecting fellow teachers, it lies in serving yoga students. And in telling the truth, the way I see it at least.
A few weeks ago while in London, I went to a yoga class of a quite popular yoga teacher. Not so much for the practice, more to check him out as a possible guest teacher in Sangha. I made it a policy never to invite teachers I, or one of Sangha’s senior teachers had never practiced with, so I use every opportunity to check out different teachers. My friend, student and former Sangha teacher (former as she now lives in London) Ivana came with me. It was a weekday around lunch time and there were about 40 people at the class. Impressive for that time of the day I thought, must be a sign of a good class. I soon found out it was just a sign of a popular class, good had nothing to do with it.
First thing I have noticed and was surprised by was a pregnant student attending the class and nobody telling her that this is not such a great idea. It was a level 2-3, featuring arm balances, tripod handstands, handstands, you name it. But, OK. It might be the studio’s policy that teachers are not allowed to turn students away. Next thing was - he did not ask if anyone had any injuries or health issues which would require them to modify. Given that this was an advanced class and that his hands-on assists are strong he should, in respect to safety, ask. He teaches only this one class a week at this particular location and most probably doesn’t know all the students well enough. He didn't know us for example. I thought I will modify and be careful. With my numerous conditions lately I have to (thyroid, adrenal fatigue, SI joint, neck...). BUT, it was not really allowed. Basically, if you did ANYTHING different than he had instructed he did not like it and was very verbal about it. He is the boss and you need to obey. Even if you don’t hear or understand him (music, big shala, his accent). His reasons as to why you need to do as he said were wrapped up in yogic talk, with a nice bow of spirituality, all used to boast his superiority and feed his Ego. There is no Ego worse than spiritual Ego.
The thing is, as a teacher you never know who came to your class and what this person went trough that day, that month... I taught a class ones, years ago, and one of my regulars was very distracted in her practice, modifying a lot and just not being herself. I asked if she was OK after the class. She said her boyfriend died in an accident last week and that she is on medication and she has no energy but needs to get back on the mat. Imagine if I came to her and was being rude and shouting ''why did you look down??'' Engage your arms, why are they floppy??'', ''Why are you in Balasana''??
People come for numerous reasons to the class and, as a teacher, you need to show every one of them compassion and hold that space for them, fill it up with love and support.
The class was basically a masterclass, very fast passed with I don’t know how many standing asanas (I lost count) linked on one side (who does that anymore?), with not much understanding of biomechanics. Some strange queues and strange alignment instructions were given and often bad pronunciation of Sanskrit really annoyed me as it was followed by an advice that Sanskrit is ‘a sacred yoga language we should all learn it’. Yet, he doesn’t know how to pronounce the second Sutra. Yes, the one that gives us the definition of YOGA. To him it is ’citta vrtti naroda’ (I remember this as it made this horrible noise in my ear plus his version is a word in Croatian meaning people) instead of nirodaha. I know - it’s funny and sad at the same time. All of the above would be forgiven if only he had shown some of yoga teacher (or just human) qualities like humility, understanding, loving and compassion.
At one point, just as I was about to get up and walk away, Ivana turned to me and said: ‘’just for the record, this was your idea.’’. I smiled inside (outside was not allowed:) and decided to stay. Just to see the end of it, to see how far it goes. When I decided to stay I had two choices; to take the high road - obey and follow his instruction even if it caused me harm, or do my own thing in order to stay safe and annoy him. I chose the latter. I moved around in my Adho Mukha Svanasana even though he repeatedly said we should not ‘fidget’. Sorry, but I like to move around if my body feels it should. I am not a robot. Plus, I did Prana flow TTC - we never stood still in Adho Mukha. I looked down in my Chaturanga’s and Virabhadrasana III even though he had said many times that there is no drishti on the floor! (however, if you look up your cervical spine extends followed by your thoracic and you lose your danda- or stick – a straight line in these asanas). It would in fact be much better if he had instructed not to tip your shoulders down in Chaturanga, something all the people around me were doing. Continued with your arms should not be flabby in Virabhadrasana II, you should engage them with all you have. Especially those biceps and triceps (never mind they don’t abduct your arm and are not involved in this movement). If you fail to do so he will come up to you and show everyone your flabby upper arms (this particular thing was shown on me). No need to go on (and there is plenty more!). You get the picture.
My practice is pretty strong; those of you that know me know this. So, who are those students that can actually follow this class, stay centred, stay grounded and BREATHE while doing this practice? From what I have witnessed – they weren’t any. So, what is the point of this practice? I haven’t a clue. Maybe he just had a very bad day? I'll never find out...
I left the class feeling stimulated (in a bad way), tired and energetically violated. Like after a really bad sex with an borderline abusive guy who cares nothing about you as he is the center of the universe and you are nothing. And, even though it was consensual, you kinda feel violated afterwards. And you wonder why didn't you just walk away. In a super challenging environment which London is and is becoming more and more so, people are used to this fast, ever more stimulating, super challenging, ‘if you can’t catch up you’re out’ type of life. When they come to the yoga mat the last thing they need is more of that same type of stimulation. They will adapt and even like it as they are so used to it, but it does not serve them at all.
I took a mindful walk home after this class, being aware of each step, prolonging my exhales, taking deep breaths to ground. I had nowhere to be, no work to do, no kids to pick up, no dinner to cook. Most people rushed off from that class to meet their busy lives, all wired and up in the air like a helium balloon.
I may be too critical but, when you know any subject well, you can spot mistakes instantly. I believe we can all relate to this. Let's say you are a musician. You hear bad music and you KNOW it is bad. You know why. You can hear every mistake someone in the band made like that crazy guy in Whiplash. (BTW, great movie if you haven't seen it yet). I am using this particular example on purpose as I annoyed a musician friend with my ‘not hearing that this is crap?’ the other day. What sounds good to me is crap to him. You get the point. When you know your thing and are very good at it, you become picky and you can see mistakes where not many do. I almost walked out of that class, while many thought it was great. It might be that they are in that stage of life where they need this type of ‘guidance’, but it is very likely that most just don’t know the difference. Also, many yoga practicioners today value a yoga class by how much it made them sweat...
There comes a point in most yoga teacher’s life where self practice is the only way to go and there are only a few yoga teachers out there that you will actually take a class from. My teacher Shiva Rea ones said at a teacher training ‘why waste time going to classes, your practice is your own’. And she was so right. The most juice you get out of your practice is when you let your breath and body lead you. But, this happens after many years of practice and after you have studied, understood and embodied the flow. Till then you stick with a teacher you trust and who makes you feel good about your Self and your yoga.
I have established a loving relationship with my yoga practice. It does me good, it makes me smile. It grounds me, humbles me, heals me, balances me. It’s like making love with someone I love and know well, someone who loves and adores me back. Someone I am myself with and feel completely comfortable with. This is what your practice should feel like dear yogis, like a loving, nurturing relationship. Like making love and having wonderful long orgasms! Life is too short and too sweet for meaningless relationships. So stay safe and chose wisely.