There’s a line that gets tossed around many a yoga class that makes me cringe: If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.
When I had first heard that line, I was at a Cirque de Soleil -style yoga class in a 100*F room with really loud music and too many people. I had a 14 year yoga practice that was mostly done alone in my living room. That day I had ventured into a studio and was already annoyed by the heat, by the sweaty woman next to me who smelled like vodka and cigarettes, and the teacher who rapidly called out pose names but didn’t tell folks how to get into them. When the teacher dropped that line, my annoyed state quickly grew to anger. My hands began to shake, not from the effort of the sequence, but from the effort of keeping my mouth from shouting expletives or rolling up my mat to hit the teacher across the room. I went into child’s pose to quiet the rage. The teacher then followed up with, Not all of you will be able to handle the change.
If it were possible, my skin would’ve turned green, my muscles grown to 5 times their normal size, and I would’ve smashed that room like the Incredible fucking Hulk.
This happened several years ago. At the time, my life was in a major transition. A transition that I had not chosen. Circumstances had fallen onto my path that were devastating to my livelihood, my mental health, my identity, and to my family. I was not embracing the “challenge” I was currently facing because it was nearly killing me. I hadn’t asked for any change, thank you very much, Karen.
I knew that the yoga teacher threw out that line as just a glib thing to catch the hearts of starry-eyed students who thought moving rapidly in a really hot room was a good way to challenge their bodies. She said the second line, if I may be so frank, to be a bitch. To be the “voice of authority”. To let her students know she’s “edgy” and won’t coddle the “weakest link”. I know this because I’ve heard teachers and personal trainers brag about the way they teach. Their intent seems to be that of an Army drill sergeant: to break people down until they believe they are nothing. Much like a cult leader, they can then get their students to believe their leader is the wisest, most-skilled yogi in the land. That their teaching, their studio, their way is the only way.
I was reminded of this experience a couple of days ago when Colin Hall, a man I follow on Instagram posted a meme that says, “that inspirational quote may have come from an abusive guru”. As examples he used the ever-present yoga quote and hashtag, “Do your practice and all is coming,” by Pattabhi Jois as well as Yogi Bhajan’s, “You can never hide from your truth. If you do, you will always be lost.” (If you are unfamiliar with with either of those teachers and their multiple scandals and abuses, a quick Google search will sort it out.)
Within this post, Hall writes, “My suspicion is that we are looking to the past to legitimize our present. We don’t feel ‘authentic’ enough without attaching ourselves to some outdated notion of guru lineage. So ditching the guru feels like ditching our connection to ‘real yoga’.”
New teachers often ask, “How do I find my yoga teacher voice?”
My answer to that is, “What’s wrong with the voice you’re using right now?”
I co-teach a yoga teacher training and when we get to discussing applying a theme to a class, I encourage students to find something they are very comfortable and well-versed in should they choose a theme (you don’t need a theme to teach a good class). When you are not completely comfortable with the content you’ve chosen to teach, your speech will be riddled with a lot of “Um”s and “uh”s… and tangents that are going to make you lose track of your intention. A theme could be a physical range of motion, it could be a yama or niyama, it could be a particular body part to work on… the possibilities are endless! If you want the class to feel solid and easy to comprehend, make sure that the words coming out of your mouth are your own. Inspirational quotes are lovely and fine (provided they are coming from a fairly decent human), but speaking in a way that sounds completely foreign to how you normally speak is going to come off as completely disingenuous.
A Message to Yoga Teachers: YOUR VOICE IS ENOUGH IF YOUR INTENTIONS ARE PURE!
There seems to be a spectrum to the pretend voice of the yoga teacher. At one end is the hard-ass, squash ’em all mentality of the teacher I mentioned at the start of this post. At the other end is the ethereal, flowering speech of inspirational quotes and describing body parts as if they were botanical wonders. Can you imagine if your doctor or barrista spoke in this way?
You don’t need to be a Bully or Queen of the Wood Sprites when you teach a yoga class. You also shouldn’t parrot what other yoga teachers say unless you 100% believe it and feel like it applies to the room you are teaching. As a practitioner, it sometimes makes me cranky to hear the same old yoga lines rippling through the class time and time again.
Practice and all is coming…. Release the issues from your tissues…If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you…Travel light, live light, spread the light, be the light…It’s not your history but your presence on the mat that matters…Body is not stiff, mind is stiff…
They make me cranky because life is so much more than flip one-liners. There’s a level of privilege and assumption that comes with these sort of quotes that have a lot of potential to make a person feel kind of shitty. How can we honestly tell anybody that a yoga practice is going to give them everything? That if they just did enough passive stretching, they could let go of decades of emotional baggage? That if they just rolled out their yoga mat, they could “be the light”?
Your body probably IS stiff. And let me tell you, your history DOES matter. YOU matter. You are made up of your past experiences. I know you didn’t ask for “challenges”. I’m never going to tell you that you should embrace the hard times. I’m never going to sell yoga as a cure.
If you’re looking to find your Authentic Voice, in or out of the yoga studio, I believe you need to sit down and ask, What is my intention?
What makes you show up to wear your teaching hat? What is it you’d like to present as “yoga”? What does the practice mean to you? How can the practice benefit everyone in the room?
Here are some of my intentions as a teacher:
- I want practitioners to feel comfortable and welcome.
- I want practitioners to feel safe.
- I cannot presume to know where anyone is physically, mentally or emotionally, but I can hold space for them to have their own experience.
- I will not tell people what to think or feel EVER. Their experience is uniquely their own. (Do not theme a class to evoke a specific emotion.)
- I will never intentionally use my words in a harsh manner to make someone feel unknowing, badly, or stupid.
- I will police my words to the best of my ability so that I do not insult or hurt anyone in the room.
- If I see someone struggling to understand a verbal cue or to integrate a movement, I will do my best to help them, and not leave them to drown.
- If the majority of the class appear to be new to yoga, I will teach to the new-comers and leave the more advanced practitioners to follow along as they like.
- I will not play music that is likely to provoke strong emotions, nor will I play music too loudly. The teaching should never compete with the music.
- I will honor my natural speaking voice and allow myself to enjoy my teaching time by cracking silly jokes, laughing at my mistakes and likely letting the occasional swear word slide out of my mouth.
There it is. Release any expectations of speaking “like a yoga teacher” and instead focus on teaching yoga in a kind and compassionate way. Make a list of your intentions to come back to your authentic reasons for wanting to teach yoga in the first place.
Your voice is perfect. You are enough.