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The Colossal Failure of Modern Yoga (2016)
I published this when I stopped working in the yoga business and it caused quite a stir).
Most contemporary yoga teachers cannot answer one simple question that any teacher should be able to answer without hesitation. And that question is: What do you teach?
Every time I look at the screen to write this I feel nauseous.
I taught successfully within the yoga studio system for almost 20 years. But I don’t any more and I think the reasons for it are worth sharing with those of you who still do.
I was a full-time yoga teacher from 1997 until 2015. Beginning in 2004, I focused on educating practitioners so that they could be teachers. I helped get the Teacher Training at YogaWorks in order when it was still a teeny company and helped grow it into the global leader in the spiritual industrial complex that it is now. Then I started my own little company so I could focus the content more on the philosophy that underlies the practice. Over the years, I’ve taught about 1,000 people to be yoga teachers, and a lot of them are extremely good ones. But now I just can’t stomach the thought of trying to teach in that thing that the modern world refers to as a yoga class.
Now I’ve moved from the yoga mecca that is LA back home to the Chesapeake Bay where I grew up; and I’m happy to say that I haven’t seen a yoga studio for a few months. When people ask me why I left LA, I tell them that it’s because I couldn’t stand to look at another yoga teacher and, for now at least, it’s true.
That’s because “yoga” has taken on a new meaning in the public lexicon and the new meaning is absurd. It’s been less than 50 years since the first group yoga class happened but in that short time, the content of those classes has veered so far off course that it falls well outside of even the most open and generous definitions of yoga practice.
Classes with yoga in the name are a free-for-all now. Most of them are led by people who have practiced for a short time, then took a short training with an inexperienced teacher. Instructions about how to practice yoga have become practically extinct, replaced by music, smiles, and well-intentioned but misguided falsehoods.
And that has slowly but surely eaten away at my ability to function as a studio yoga teacher because of how much energy I’ve lately had to put into dispelling the prevailing understanding of what yoga is, what yoga does, and how it does it.
But I have not rejected the practice and never will. I am a yogi still. There is no aspect of my life that isn’t about yoga, from the big picture to the most minute details. I do the practice and I live my life according to what I’ve learned from it. I practice yoga because it taught me what the world is and who I am. It showed me how to recognize happiness and how to make happiness happen. The things I’ve learned on my mat provide a beacon in darkness that makes pain understandable and manageable. Insight from yoga practice guides me through experience by making me know that whatever is happening will never be repeated and to pay attention to it as a way to move forward with less avoidable suffering and with greater contentment. What I have learned provides solid ground when I am in a world of chaos, which is always.
I want to teach those things and I used to be able to do it well. But things are different now.
I loved my job so much. Almost nothing in my life mattered as much as my work. Anything that got in the way of getting the word out about yoga was pushed aside without much thought. I lost contact with my family, drifted away from friendships, and didn’t interact much with anybody who wasn’t part of my learning and teaching yoga. I sold my car to make payroll and was evicted from three homes while trying to keep my yoga studio open (it closed in 2013). For a long time, it felt like it was worth it. My mission in life, and its path to completion, were clear.
Then a couple of years ago, I started to see that things were changing for me and I didn’t know why at first. I started showing up late to anything that had to do with teaching. I watched myself sabotage my career and my relationships with my students. Last year in Manila, I taught my 44th teacher training course. And I can tell you with great assurance that it was the worst teacher training of my career, and that it was awful because of me. I didn’t know why I was self-destructing, but I was.
I would start shaking and sweating while I was teaching things that I’d taught hundreds of times without stress. I threw up every morning. I cried every night. In the last days of the training, I broke down in a shopping mall, sat on the floor, and called my host studio owner to ask for help, something I have never done before. I didn’t recognize myself as a teacher any more.
Then I came home in March and went to bed. And I didn’t get up until August. At that time I neglected every relationship, every responsibility in my life, except the one I have with my dogs, (who have taught me more about yoga than anybody). When I finally woke up, I knew what the problem was. I hated being a yoga teacher.
I started to hate my job because I wasn’t being allowed to teach yoga any more. Instead, I spent time with students un-teaching the idiocy that’s been learned in classes with yoga in the name, as well as from social media, and from the way that yoga is talked about in contemporary culture. It did not used to be this way. Something is wrong.
Yoga has a big problem now. That is that most contemporary yoga teachers cannot answer one simple question that any teacher should be able to answer without hesitation. And that question is: What do you teach?
The vast majority of modern yoga teachers are incapable of breaking down the most basic concepts about what yoga is, what the human body is, and how they can work together in this thing called asana. They tell their students all about the magical things that happen when you do as they say but they cannot, for the life of them, explain what it is that they are doing and how that may connect to any usable tool for living.
So, what are yoga teachers doing, if not teaching yoga?
Just have look at the advice that the world’s biggest yoga publication, Yoga Journal, has for new yoga teachers. The number one tip? They tell you to do something that is completely unnecessary but has the appearance of being a requirement: register with Yoga Alliance, the creator of the problem. And what is Yoga Journal’s next tip? Buy insurance … from Yoga Journal.
Or head on over to social media, where the world spends a whole lot of time. See there that yoga rock stars like to teach how to “get” fancy poses with a few words that are not based on reality, and are always accompanied by a flattering photo. Or scroll down a bit further and find teachers who share videos of people they’ve deemed to be bad getting killed, posted with their clucking comment this is karma, revealing that they are profoundly misguided about what karma is and what a yoga teacher’s job is.
Also, my inbox has been populated lately with a new thing: promo from services that offer free sequences to new teachers as a way to get them in the door. The sequences are lists of poses and that’s all. Teaching yoga from a list that somebody else created and that you don’t understand is not okay. This is not how yoga is taught. But the writers of the lists and the people who try to use them don’t know that because they haven’t been educated about yoga practice and how to teach it.
The descent this embarrassing charade called yoga started when Yoga Alliance training standards, 200 hours of contact with almost no direction about what is taught, no oversight, and no skills testing, became the norm.
Teaching asana as a yoga practice takes skill. It takes an understanding of the body and an even greater understanding of the system of yoga, because this new thing we do, using the body as the tool for practice, is not that easy to fit into the context of traditional practice. It can happen, but it requires knowledge, training, practice and skill.
However, Yoga Alliance requires none of those things. Their under-educated registrants cause harm by misguiding trusting students. But they are only doing what they’ve been taught by Yoga Alliance-registered teacher trainers, most of whom have no business teaching yoga, let alone yoga teachers. But they don’t know. It’s not their fault.
It’s time that skilled yoga teachers, the ones who know this is not okay, to do something. I have talked to hundreds of them this in the past couple of years and every single one of them agrees that the Yoga Alliance standards are way off the mark. Publicly, however, they say that we should all be nice to each other and not criticize. There is almost nothing written by other yoga teachers this mess. Complacency is not yoga and skilled yoga teachers know that. So, where are you? What are you doing? Are you going to let this keep happening or are you going to speak up and help the world learn about yoga?