Thursday, October 08, 2009

American False Idols

Oh man, are there some juicy discussions going on out there in the yoga blogosphere(yogaspy, it's all yoga, baby, YogaChickie). I've been hanging back, without commenting, trying to decide what I think and I'm a little late to the conversation, but here goes.

What seems to be the general theme floating around these postings and the resultant commentary is what we--in the West--expect of our teachers, and what they see as their responsibility to us. What's really interesting to me is why these issues and expectations around the yoga student-teacher relationship seem so loaded and emotional. Are these really our spiritual leaders we're talking about? Someone invested in our mental well-being and development, who will let us down and disappoint us they turn out to exhibit human frailties? Why do some teachers encourage this kind of dependence?

Aside from a handful of senior teachers, aren't most people teaching primarily asana? Or at least, isn't this what most teachers are qualified to teach, without a lot of extra training in religion or counseling or psychotherapy? Why would you expect your yoga teacher to have any idea how to handle your spiritual development aside from leading a few chants or focused breathing exercises? Why would a teacher presume to be able to?

Am I mistaken? Does my role as a yoga teacher suggest I owe my students more than an effective sequence of poses and explanation to help create awareness of their own bodies? I don't want to be responsible for anyone else's spiritual life but my own. My classes are not hot or sweaty or competitive, but I never go beyond the basic physical aspect of the asana. If chemicals are released in the brain (and I suspect that they are) that calm my students and make them feel more satisfied or happy or mindful, that's great, but I would never tell them to interpret it as anything more than that.

Would you? Am I missing something?

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hmmm

The way I understood it is that yoga provides tools(asana, pranayama, pratyahara etc) for removing our physical, emotional, psychological and mental distractions so we get an accurate reflection of ourselves.

A teacher may be more experienced with using these tools but is not the one to tell us what we will find once the objective if yoga is reached. Thats up to the student. In fact through my eyes this is one of the main reasons yoga differs from religion.

So a teacher feeling equipped to interpret and guide a students spiritual experience sounds a little odd ?!?!

Rachel said...

I agree with you whole-heartedly. I have been milling thoughts in my head and hope to blog on something similar very soon. In the middle of all of this I had a personal experience that has made me feel even more strongly about the role of us as teachers.

We are not shrinks. We are not drs. We are not religious leaders.

We are (essentially) fitness instructors. We need to be happier with that role I think...

Yoga Spy said...

I agree that most modern, Western yoga teachers are teaching at the asana level and not intending to promote themselves as spiritual leaders or even ethical role models. Similarly, I see most students as primarily asana students, who view yoga simply as another way to improve their health.

But some do put yoga (and their yoga teachers) on a pedestal. (These are typically "serious" students, not the once/week class goers at the neighborhood Y.) Often, people who have rejected their family religion (Christianity, Catholicism, etc) will look to yoga to fill a void in their inner lives. Then it gets tricky if they then look to their teachers for approval and for guidance beyond "lift your sternum and square your hips."

So, to me, teachers still bear some responsibility if they call themselves yoga teachers.

One problem is the definition of "yoga" in the USA: Is it simply shorthand for stretching and stylized poses? Or is it a philosophy and spiritual path? The definition that resonates to you will determine whether you think those ethical issues are a big deal or much ado about nothing.

Good blog,
Yoga Spy
www.yogaspy.wordpress.com

Kitty said...

It's frightening enough to think of the so-called "yoga teachers" out there, basically regurgitating no more than what they've learned from DVDs. Scarier still are the teachers who tout themselves as "yoga therapists." Unless you have a counseling license, or a physical therapist certification or an MD, you are not a "therapist." I once had a student introduce me to her family member as her "guru," and I was very uncomfortable with that. I think a lot of this sort of attachment to the role of a yoga teacher stems from the newness of yoga in the West. A lot has been lost in translation.

Anonymous said...

To say that a yoga teacher is primarily teaching "postures" and is therefore not required to understand anything beyond or other than postures is not only to lift the entire category of postures out of the context of the other 7 limbs of yoga and consequently sterilize and distort them -- it is also to misunderstand the very meaning of "posture" in the context of yoga. If you are teaching yoga as exercise, if you are primarily a fitness instructor, you are teaching something, but it's not yoga. What is the "purpose" of yoga postures? Yoga butt? Stronger biceps? This is a big part of the problem with what yoga in the West has devolved into. Of course it is a "spiritual" path & pursuit. That's what it was intended as, no matter how teachers dumb it down or present it according to their personal preferences. NOT that every hatha class is a yoga philosophy class. But yes, as a teacher, you are responsible to know, to experience, yoga beyond asana and to be able to communicate that knowledge and encourage that experience in your students when they express an interest in it. And that means that YOU are exploring yoga as a means of expanding consciousness and not just as a regimen of physical conditioning. Which is why you need to meditate, to study yoga philosophy and cosmology, to know pranayam and mantra and karma and dharma. And yes, I know all too well that this is way beyond what most teachers are willing to or interested in doing, which is how it happens that you get the folks with weekend certifications calling themselves spiritual guides or yoga therapists. But the fact that teachers in the yoga world take short-cuts, like they do in every other field, doesn't alter the basic definition of yoga or the responsibility of the yoga teacher, just like being a half-hearted physicist doesn't alter the laws of physics.

Brenda P. said...

Okay, so I'm not the only one.

Anon #2, Your comment gives me a chance to clarify. I'm sorry you got the impression that I'm letting teachers off the hook for the other 7 limbs--not my intention. Of course your personal practice should include elements beyond poses. And if you can explain the context for asana in terms of these limbs to your students, more power to you.

BUT, as having a strong personal physical practice doesn't make you a qualified teacher of asana, neither does "exploring yoga as a means to expand consciousness" qualify you to teach that to your students.

If I can expand on your metaphor--a professional physicist is expected to have rigorous training in many areas of physics, but is hired to teach only in her area of specialty. You may study and understand nuclear physics, but you don't teach it if you are trained to be an astrophysicist.

For me, concentrating on asana seems a more honest approach, rather than a half-hearted one.
I'm not sure how you bring your expertise up to a teachable level, but I would argue it takes more than self-study and practice.

Brenda said...

Wow! Juicy conversation, indeed. A piece of guidance one of my teachers once gave me is to be very clear about what's mine and what's not when I teach yoga and to promote personal responsibility within students. Sounds simple, but it can get tricky!

Students will bring a lot of stuff onto their mats (physical injuries, emotional scars, etc). It's important for me as a teacher to be clear about what is appropriate within my scope of experience to help them with (and this changes over time as I evolve as a teacher - knowing what is appropriate and what is not involves a lot of discernment on the part of a teacher).

However, whether I go into the yogic deep end or not, the beauty of yoga is that the magic of the practice will work on someone when they are ready.

I also agree with another's comment that yoga teachers do bear responsibility beyond just teaching asana, but we also need to promote personal responsibility in our classrooms. Taking responsibility for oneself is a real problem in our culture and it's an issue I see in the classroom as a yoga teacher.

Linda-Sama said...

I found this post

http://beyondgrowth.net/guru-criticism/the-unquestioned-gurus-of-the-religion-of-the-self/

very relevent to your post and the other discussions about "Americanized yoga"

Cathie said...

Interesting article. Firstly the world is changing at a rapid rate. I have been a teacher of tewelve years, and what is lacking is the spiritual aspects in a class. I beleive that teachers are avoiding their own spirituality. Spirituality deepens when we are exposed to teachings and others who have trascended beyond the physical, those who know that we are spiritual beings in a physical body. A teacher can transfer information onto students to develop their spiritual essence, not necessarily force or imply, however simply then allow that information to work deeper into the students being. Very rarely do teachers mention the Yamas and Nyamas, these are examples of leading the student to an understanding of their true and inherant nature. In closing perhaps more teachers would benefit by owning their own spiritual self. God bless

Linda-Sama said...

I have to comment on the fitness instructor comment...you can read my blog for more but....

I have not spent over $10,000 to be a fitness instructor. I WAS a fitness instructor for a short while and what I do now is light years different from telling people to work their triceps.

My feeling is that for anyone who considers themselves to be a fitness instructor instead of a yoga teacher, should call their classes "fitness" or whatever and not a yoga class.

Kristin said...

Brenda,

Fascinating post. I had a different reply all typed up and I lost it. Oh well.

I'm going to lob this question out there because I don't really know where it fits in this discussion:

But what do the students want?

I have experienced folks who are content to keep the asana as just that, stretching. They don't want anything to do with the philosophy, the guidelines, the klesha's, the dosha's, etc. They don't want to be read poetry, lines from the Bhagavad Gita or the Upanishads. They want nothing to do with chanting.

They enjoy coming to class to be with this community and to stretch and strengthen. To them, the rest is too similar to Eastern religious beliefs and that goes against their religious structure.

What is a teacher supposed to do then?

And a closing thought:
A friend of mine attends a fitness center where he met a native Indian (who has been in the states 20 years now) in the yoga class and over the course of time they became friends. One day they were discussing yoga, and the gentleman exclaimed to my friend, “You Americans make everything so dramatic! It’s only stretching.”

Anonymous said...

All yoga instructors are different and that is a good thing. Some may be focused on asana, others on other things. I think the important thing is to be upfront about your classes. Because even asana classes can have a profound effect on peoples lives, there are always going to be people who end up looking to yoga instructors for more than instruction in postures.

Because of the emotional attachment students can develop, instructors have to be responsible for their interactions with their students. Unfortunately while other professions that may have similar effects on people (medicine, psychotherapy, organized religion) have safeguards against people abusing the influence their profession may give them (though not foolproof safeguards) that doesn't really exist in yoga.

The creepy part is when people start branding themselves as a way to start marketing their money making ambitions and abuse the influence they had to encourage a dependence.

Getting spiritual guidance from someone trying to make money by giving it is typically a bad idea.

-Bob

Brenda P. said...

All of this has truly inspired the (10/15) post on training to teach beyond asana.

Bob--excellent point, I'm all for safeguards against abuse. Would like to see more of them yoga, actually.

Kristin--yes, what DO students want? I'm throwing that in the hopper and will write about it next week after it tumbles around for awhile.

And thank you, too, Anon #1, Rachel, YogaSpy, Kitty, Cathie, and, as always, L-S. You've all made great points that inspired the next post. I appreciate your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

I was going to write something about how I've been teaching for 12 years and I have never once mentioned the Yamas and the Nyamas. I am not religious person and when one starts to pontificate about the 8 limbs and the bhagavad gita it starts to sound a lot like like a religion to me. I was going to go on and on but then I read Kristin's comment " you Americans make everything so dramatic, it's just stretching" and I thought: that is so right!!! which by the way, I have also heard from an Indian person....hummmm. "Yoga " is going to be different in America and probably different from coast to coast also. We are not in India! and none of us is a humble guru teaching Yoga for free or for food or shelter. If you want to call me fitness/realxation instructor... so be it.

Anonymous said...

Brenda,

This may clarify my meaning: When I wrote "exploring yoga as a means to expand consciousness" I was refering to commiting to and following the classical yoga path of learning from a qualified guide in the process of expanding and uplifting awareness. Asanas are a part of that path and process but certainly not the focal point or even the foundation.
I didn't want to say "find a teacher to study with personally" because that opens up a whole new can of worms, part of which is what we're discussing here: Who is qualified to teach and how can I know that? What about the pseudo-teachers and instant gurus who ultimately cause real harm to sincere seekers? Etc. etc.
But -- The process of experiencing various states and levels of consciousness, understanding those experiences, integrating them into one's personality and life, allowing them to permeate and affect everything one does from teaching asana to (fill in the blank) -- all of this is well-documented in traditional yoga literature and is still taught in person by individuals who have had personal experience of it and achieved some level of "mastery" of it. It's not necessary to reinvent the wheel, to figure it all out for myself, from scratch. The general guidelines are there and have been for a long time. Having been taught individually in yoga (Big Yoga, not just hatha) in this traditional manner, having given myself time to experience, assimilate and digest it (15 years, not a weekend certification), yes, I do think I am qualified to share these dimensions of yoga with my students. More importantly, my teacher thinks so. So Im not talking about some woo-woo or vague or cursory engagement with consciousness, but about undertaking a study and practice that is very complete, complex, challening and expansive. I'm not talking about being a therapist or counselor or health care provider or giving advice or co-opting free will or demanding allegiance or adoration. I'm talking about passing along the information and guidelines that have been used for centuries in this realm, after having personal experience with them over time.

Brenda P. said...

Anon #2, thanks for clearing that up for me. I think studying personally is a completely valid and, probably, more effective way to consider this area of the discipline. You are lucky to have a teacher that you are able to do that with...

Your students are lucky to have some one so committed!

Anon #3 (?!) a little humility could go a long way to resolve many of these issues! Where are the humble gurus? (No fronting for sportswear companies, I assume...)

Random Thoughts said...

“You Americans make everything so dramatic! It’s only stretching.”- I really like that comment.I agree with that too(about dramatizing part).

Jamie said...

I don't think we are responsible for our students' spiritual well-being any more than we are responsible for their medical health. If a student approaches me with a medical question, I'll urge them to ask their doctor, just like if a student approaches me with a spiritual question, I will urge them to seek advice from someone more qualified.

The part that yoga class plays in this situation is that hopefully, through yoga, we give them the tools and the opportunities to open themselves up to the correct questions.

yogachickie said...

OK, now look who's late to the party?! I just saw that you linked to me, so thanks! I wanted to weigh in and say that while I do not believe that yoga teachers are responsible for teaching anything but YOGA, I do think that this includes something beyond asana. Yoga is MORE than asana. Asana is one of eight limbs of yoga. Teach asana, sure, but you can't ignore the other limbs entirely, all the time. Talk about them once in a while if they aren't coming up in the practice, itself (meditation, pranayama, pratyahara all come up without speaking about them, right?).

What started this whole discussion though is not what teachers should TEACH, but what actions teachers have a duty to refrain from taking. Like inappropriate touching. Or acting as shrinks. Or acting as nutritionists. Or acting as medical diagnosticians and clinicians.

Teachers of yoga should teach what they know and should not in any way abuse their considerable emotional power over their students.

Leave the psychotherapy, nutrition and medical stuff to THOSE professionals...

:)

yogachickie said...

OK, now look who's late to the party?! I just saw that you linked to me, so thanks! I wanted to weigh in and say that while I do not believe that yoga teachers are responsible for teaching anything but YOGA, I do think that this includes something beyond asana. Yoga is MORE than asana. Asana is one of eight limbs of yoga. Teach asana, sure, but you can't ignore the other limbs entirely, all the time. Talk about them once in a while if they aren't coming up in the practice, itself (meditation, pranayama, pratyahara all come up without speaking about them, right?).

What started this whole discussion though is not what teachers should TEACH, but what actions teachers have a duty to refrain from taking. Like inappropriate touching. Or acting as shrinks. Or acting as nutritionists. Or acting as medical diagnosticians and clinicians.

Teachers of yoga should teach what they know and should not in any way abuse their considerable emotional power over their students.

Leave the psychotherapy, nutrition and medical stuff to THOSE professionals...

:)