I didn’t realize how strongly I felt about these things until I was recently approached by a student after a class. I had poured every ounce of energy I had into making this a creative, fun, and functional class for the mind, body, and spirit. The general mood and feedback after class was great and I walked away feeling like I had made the world a better place 15 happy Yogis at a time. Turns out, it was 14 happy Yogis and one not so much.
I was feeling great about the last 75 minutes, until one of my regular students approached me after class with what I think he felt was “constructive" criticism. I will just politely add in here that I do welcome feedback on my classes, whether it is good or bad, but delivery is key! Regardless of the delivery, the message was the same:
“You don’t ever give out individual positive reinforcements, I never see you walking around giving adjustments, and your playlist could use an update..”
"Eeeek!" This statement led to a 30 minute discussion, where I stood my ground on my beliefs of these things (like an adult) and then spent the next hour crying because someone didn’t like my class (like a child). I guess that means I actually don’t take constructive criticism well? For me, this conversation highlighted some of the emotional underpinnings of being a passionate teacher. As teachers, we give our all, share our values, and ultimately teach to make your day better. I think I took this so hard not because I think I’m a perfect teacher, but because I am so passionate about Yoga and I think some of our expectations have started to slowly ruin the practice.
It truly makes me sad that there are so many individuals out there that are practicing Yoga simply for a workout without recognizing the other amazing benefits. We have started to turn Yoga into something it’s not and was never meant to be. I do appreciate that we have adopted Yoga and tweaked it to better fit into our Western society. I’m okay with this. I’m also okay with teaching and practicing a very Yang style of Yoga and experiencing an amazing workout. This isn’t where the problem lies for me.
The problem lies in the fact that we are not taking account for human variances in our practices. Off of our mat, in everyday life, we accept that people are different. We have different jobs, different interests, different strengths and weaknesses. But for some reason on the mat, we are supposed to fit into this “one size fits all yoga pose.” I’m not saying that the alignment of postures we yogis all know so well is wrong. I’m just saying that we do have different bone structures and human anatomy. Two students can be appear aesthetically to be in the same pose, but having very different experiences internally.
Am I against adjustments? No, but I think we need to make our students more aware of what they should be feeling, rather than forcing them into a certain aesthetically pleasing posture. Yoga is an internal practice. We have unfortunately started to ignore this, and it’s become more about how a pose looks than how it feels. In the words of Bernie Clark, “if you’re feeling it, you’re doing it.”
Looking at adjustments from another perspective, they can be distracting to the student depending on the style of Yoga you are practicing. To me, Vinyasa Yoga is about creating a meditative state by moving body to breath. Being touched might be distracting, an interruption of that mind, body, breath synchronization we are working towards on our mat. It could take away from the internal practice. If you’re in one of my classes, I care more about how you feel than how you look on the mat. I want to add here, that I WILL do adjustments if the student is going to hurt themselves in a pose. I still cue appropriate alignment as I teach and pay close attention to if the student is putting themselves at a risk of injury. In this case, I have no qualms about providing assistance, adjustments, or bringing over props. I have very substantial training on proper alignment and adjusting students, so it is not a matter of incompetence or inexperience. Whether I touch and the level of adjustment I offer, depends on the type of class, the anatomy of the student, and my intuition.
As for the individual positive reinforcement, I agree 110% with encouraging my students to challenge themselves and in reinforcing their efforts. I am not okay with saying “great Warrier II, Stacy” or any other comments that indicate a student is doing a pose “better” than another. I’m not oblivious to the fact that everyone loves compliments and reinforcement. But, those things are the Ego! To reemphasize, to me at least, Yoga is NOT about how you look in a pose. We come to our mats to forget about the Ego and reconnect with our True Selves. Who am I to look at "Stacy" and determine that she's doing a great Warrior II? What does a “great Warrior II” even look like? Does this mean perfect Ashtanga alignment? Due to human variance, this picture perfect alignment may not be attainable for some people. Does this make these people any less “good” at yoga or unworthy of their instructors praises? Yoga is not meant to be competitive. But we start to create that environment by indicating someone may be doing the “right” thing or that they are doing something “better” than the person on the mat next to them. I don’t know about you, but I think this practice is all about non-judgment (good or bad) and really experiencing the present moment and the flow of breath throughout the body.
I do however, love group motivation. You can find me saying things to recognize the fact that the class is “working SO hard” or maybe that they all look beautiful flowing through sequences as a group. I think we are constantly comparing ourselves to others in our everyday lives enough. I want my students to feel safe and free when they step on the mat and I don’t want any comments of mine to stand in their way!
I think we need to stop putting instructors in a box, just like our students. We all simply have different teaching styles and belief systems. There is no perfect mold in yoga, for teachers or students. Let us appreciate that every teacher has reasons for her or his approach. That’s the beauty of Yoga! Let’s embrace our uniqueness and work on maintaining the integrity of this beautiful practice for all styles, teachers, and students.
International Yoga Trainer,