Coming to Yoga

Several days ago, Svasti wrote a post that rang a clear, true bell in my heart. After practicing for many years, Svasti last year completed a teacher training course. Here is an excerpt of what she had to say:

That old maxim “those who can’t do, teach” isn’t true at all for yoga (and probably many other disciplines, too). Yoga teachers must practice yoga, must understand what they are asking others to do before they can even think of approaching the front of the room.

I have been thinking about this post all week; thinking of the truth in those words and their relationship to my own coming to yoga. In 1999, I was selected to undertake training in a new Les Mills program called Body Balance (in the US, it’s called Body Flow). In those days (!) Body Balance (BB) was all yoga with a smidgeon of pilates. Now, BB is a hypnotic and highly addictive mix of Tai Chi, yoga, with a teaspoon of pilates on the side. If you haven’t tried it, promise yourself that you will do three classes.

Anyway, by 1999 I had been a fitness instructor for 10 years. I was no stranger to teaching people how to do odd things with their bodies (grapevine, anyone?). However, my experience with yoga at this point amounted to something like 3 Iyengar classes in my early twenties. Undertaking the BB training was stepping into an entirely different world; an alien landscape of complexity, new feelings, disorientation, and awkwardness with my body that I had long since forgotten. The course was three days of feeling totally out of my depth, frustrated, resentful and overwhelmed. There was only one other instructor from my gym undertaking BB training. This was woman who was a long term yoga practitioner, who effortlessly performed Surya Namaskar, Virabhadrasana, Trikonasana and every other asana requested of her. Alongside her, I felt like a 5 foot high elephant trying to perform ballet in gumboots! I cried at the training, because I was so sore, so demoralised and so inadequate. To complicate matters, in less than three weeks after the training, the gym where I worked was launching BB as new program, so I had to be able to teach an entire hour long class of warriors, forward bends and pigeons! No pressure, eh?

Having no yoga background, I struggled. I came to love the music associated with BB, but hated teaching the classes. I think it showed. We never had great numbers of participants, and eventually, the gym pegged the program back to only two classes per week, both taught by the other instructor. I filled in, and participated in launches for new music held every quarter.

In early 2000, I began my first stint of doctoral fieldwork and moved to Narooma on the Far South Coast of NSW. There is a big yoga community there (especially at Tilba Tilba) and I began to think about what I’d done wrong with Body Balance. I realised that having no yoga background meant having no understanding, no vocabulary and no body sense for the discipline … all of which were absolutely necessary for communicating with participants. There was also the breathing aspect of yoga which Body Balance training doesn’t really teach –yet those BB instructors who teach the best use the breath continually throughout their classes. These are also people who have a yoga background. Thus, I began to take Iyengar classes as much as I could. I was also fortunate enough to undertake a weekend course in Sydney on yoga for fitness instructors. After this, a gym in Narooma decided to launch Body Balance with me as the star. The second time around, teaching BB was bliss, was joy, and the classes were packed (although this too has significant draw backs).

What was different? Now, I had the experience of being a beginner, a vocabulary associated with where and how to place the body, an understanding of what one should be sensing in each asana, and the experience of truly feeling yoga to share with my participants. As Svasti has said, yoga is not something someone can teach in order to learn. One has to practice yoga in order to teach yoga.

Someone much wiser than I has said that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. I believe this is especially true in the case of yoga. Yet this is the opposite of the message we absorb every day in so many subtle ways: time is money, learn X in 10 easy lessons, more speed, more more more speed. Perhaps that was why the two-week yoga intensive I did at the end of 2008 scarred me so much. There is no quick, easy way to learn to do yoga other than sustained practice and study. There is no two week or even four week course that is ever going to teach you to teach if you’ve never done Trikonasana before and have never struggled with sirsasana.

In yoga, the journey is far more important than the destination.

… And the destination is always shifting to an unknowable event horizon.

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3 thoughts on “Coming to Yoga

  1. Well, have to say that I’m honoured that my post sparked this one of yours!

    I think you’ve made some good observations here about your relationship to both teaching and yoga. I know they’ve both been a little contentious for you in recent times.

    And no wonder – it sounds like business and $$ went before your comfort levels with learning Body Balance and yoga! Which can’t be very good for your self-esteem or the way you view those activities.

    Here’s to the future! I think when the time is right, the correct teachings will appear and perhaps then, you’ll find a teacher training course (if that’s what you want to do) that works for you.

  2. Yes, yes and yes – oh, and yes to Svasti’s wonderful post also. I think that is part of the reason why I love Yoga: you have to be devoted to it. Yoga is meaningless if you practise, say, once a month or so. I have been devoting myself to Yoga for about a year now and I am just starting to see small changes in myself – both physical, mental and spiritual. It just makes me want more.

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