great yoga teachers: fancy poses not required

kathryn flynn ottawa yoga teacher baby grasshopper pose.jpg

Yoga teachers can be intimidating, beautiful, and mysterious creatures. We ponder if they are dedicated to a strictly liquid diet, and exactly how low those elegant tattoos go. We frequently covet the ease with which they seem to glide into postures we haltingly and sweatily work into our bodies.

If they can stand on their head and wrap their legs into lotus, they must have answers to questions that haunt us. (Give me your recipe for your green smoothie, an amazing cue to get into an arm balance, and the secrets of the universe.) This is a conflation that happens often in the yoga world: an impressive asana practice is interpreted as an excellent teaching practice. We covet those beautiful flexi-strong bodies, and if we bask in their glow, perhaps we may absorb some of their fabulousness. It's a common and natural progression to feel great affection and admiration for teachers, but we sometimes conflate their jobs with our effort. All those good feelings and ease your practice brings you? That was you doing the heavy lifting. Physically, emotionally, and maybe even spiritually, the student wades into the dark, murky waters of their experience on the mat. The teacher provides the forum and advice from their own experience.

Teachers who made an easy transition into yoga and found ease in fancy poses early in their practice have a responsibility to think of an emotionally fraught, challenging experience and bring that self-knowledge to their teaching. Their challenges in life may not be reflected on the yoga mat, but they certainly exist. Empathy relies on the acknowledgment that we all struggle, though others in greater degrees and different ways. This should be done in a graceful way that avoids encouraging students to "hate this" process - if you can teach to all levels in the room, you can honour each iteration of a posture knowing there's equal effort across all.

On the other end of the cuing spectrum, physically strong teachers often sprinkle their classes with the phrase "you're just going to...", indicating the next move. In my experience, the thing you're "just" going to do has ranged from picking your toe up from a forward fold and stretching it to the ceiling (my first drop-in class ever) to "just" popping into a split legged arm balance mid-sun salutation (more recently). These cues are often accompanied by a cute smile and a quick demo radiating effortlessness. Both of these poses are accessible to me now - with preparation and significant effort - and if I cue students to "just" pop into them, I obliterate the years of struggling on my mat to make them happen. That's not respectful to people who are willingly making themselves vulnerable as my students, and I need to honour that.

As teachers, if we want to use the word "just" to communicate effortlessness, it needs to be thoughtfully contextualized as one small movement on top of a well founded posture.

Making advanced posture practice available in a drop-in can take several approaches:  encouraging dedicated practitioners whose practice you know to "take their practice where they need to", including inserting a handstand or crow-jumpback into their sun salutations. Thoughtful sequencing, warm up, and clear instruction offer levels-variations on your way to a fancy pose, and you can suggest additional at-home practice for postures that will require daily investment.

We can encourage our advanced students to flourish and do so in a way that honours the whole room and resists celebrating ourselves.

You are allowed to be a beautiful, flexible, strong, and a kick-ass asana practitioner. If that's you, amazing, but in yoga, we're here to be real. If you've struggled elsewhere in life, and asana practice happens to be the field that comes more easily to you, acknowledge that no one is here to learn to be fabulous like you. They're on their mats to be fabulous like themselves. Honour it, offer the tools to cultivate it, and get your ego out of the way.