The Means We Use.
When I asked on the Applied Psychology For Yogis Facebook page why people taught yoga, the responses were lovely, heart warming and frankly, as I suspected. Mostly those who responded, reported wanting to 'help' others. They reported wanting to 'offer' or 'pass on' the health, healing and discoveries that changed their lives. The ‘change that people Yoga it seems, is a way people can transmit their message.
What I find ironic is that no one said specifically (two of them were close to the notion though) that they teach yoga because they love asana. Perhaps this is a given. Perhaps the love of this kind of movement is just assumed in the question. But the fact that everyone chose to write something yoga offers rather than the yoga itself, leads me to believe (or rather I should say, confirms my hunch) that those commenting all see, realize and know yoga asana is a vehicle for something more.
It seems we can agree that yoga is a method of change, expansion, shifting, creating self-love, etc. It seems though that the skills needed to transmit and share the teachings listed above is different in some ways than teaching asana.
Now don’t get me wrong. I believe a lot can get done through the asana practice itself. The shapes have potent medicine for us when we open to their possibilities. At the very least, teachers of yoga should know when to stop preaching their teachings and let the simplicity of the shape be the profundity of the practice. There are the teachings of yoga, which everyone is free to receive through asana. And there are your teachings. Or I should say perhaps, you as a teaching. In my book these are linked but different. I believe we should know when to offer which. I also believe teachers of yoga need to know when to steer their students to qualified professionals in other complimentary fields.
This leaves me with some earnest questions for my colleagues.
Why do you teach yoga? If the answer to the why is something underneath the asana's or something the asanas may afford, then do you have the skills to transmit THAT? Do you think you learned those skills of transmitting and transformation in your teacher training when you took it? If not, did you get them elsewhere? Do you think you need other skills?
I see many teachers wanting to use asana as a method or vehicle to some other end. It is that saying ‘Its not about the pose’. Teachers know that asana is the beginning, not the end. It seems teaching great asana is half the issue. It is a big part of the picture obviously, but not the whole picture. Good asana teaching skills are absolutely necessary because you need your technique or vehicle to be strong. It needs to be strong to carry the teachings you have inside them. The stronger you make your vehicle and the technique that built it, the more powerful and sustainable your teachings carried by it are.
So lets say you are good at teaching asana and you want to really teach self love. Let’s say self-love is your core value and at the end of the day it is what yoga is about for you. What are the skills then that you are using to teach self-love? It is not only the asana itself. If you try to incorporate this into a theme by saying 'love yourself' that is not teaching. That is talking.
Teaching is giving someone an experience of the topic so that it becomes their own. Talking about it might land at the intellectual level but experience lands in the cells of our bodies not to mention stimulates the emotional centers of the brain. Our brains pick up the emotionality or the context of a sentence before its content? Teaching is creating an environment for the embodied actions of the topic to arise. If you say 'love yourself', sorry, you aren’t teaching self-love. You are teaching asana and talking about and around self-love. But if you emanate self-love, if you are the teaching of self-love, if you create an environment where the experience of self-love is more likely to occur, then the person learns.
But of course the difficulty here is that self-love is an individualized experience. It’s presumptuous to assume we have what a student needs. So then we come full circle.
Perhaps it is better to teach plain asana. Perhaps it is better to let the experience of good ole’ fashion asana practice elicit whatever it is going to for each particular student. Perhaps it is better to let each student glean their own teachings from the practice, whatever they may be. You learn self-love through asana practice. You do. You do not need a teacher to knock you on the head with it always. I mean, sometimes maybe, but not always. As teachers how do we be overt enough and clear enough with our teachings and core values without being overbearing or suffocating? It is grand to be on a mission but not at the expense of a student’s own path.
Even if we only taught straight up asana for the sake of itself and let the teachings unfold student to student, you still need skills to help students regulate themselves. Obviously I do not think yoga teachers need to be their students’ therapists. I just think that sometimes teachings come to us, and its actually not some joyful experience of pleasantries. Sometimes those teachings come to us and it hurts like hell. The student-teacher relationship gains much of its preciousness through the power of witness. Students pay not only to learn, they pay to be witnessed. As teachers we need to remember the great weight we carry, the great honor really, of being a witness. The witness needs skills to hold space and keep the container of a class or session safe. Otherwise, why have a witness?
So lets take away all the theme-ing in the world. Even then, we still need skills to be good witnesses of what happens in asana. And anything can happen in asana. I think the psychology world would say these witness skills are called ‘psychotherapeutic’ skills. Frankly, all psychotherapeutic skills are simply being-a-good-human skills. Many people conflate psychotherapeutic skills with analysis.
While analysis is one skill required in psychotherapy, it is about 5% of the entire picture. The majority of psychotherapeutic skills are things like, listening, unconditional positive regard, witness, etc. I am not advocating for yoga teachers doing psychoanalysis. I am advocating for the usage of psychotherapeutic skills because although yoga is not psychotherapy, it is inherently therapeutic. A lot of these skills you do actually learn in yoga teacher trainings but certainly not all of them. And I think if we want to be good teachers. And I mean like really deep amazing teachers we need those extra ‘psychotherapeutic’ skills.
I think there should be delineation between asana pedagogy and training teachers how to use the asana technique as skillful means to teach their core value. Asana teaching skills is one part of the pie. It is a huge part. But what if the person wants to use asana as a vehicle? We may actually need to take them through a process that helps them know and understand what their core value is. This process is really what rites of passage work is all about. What is your core value? What is the thing you must give back to the world?
Once someone goes through this threshold, skillful means must be trained. This is where yoga asana pedagogy comes in. It is also where psychotherapeutic skill training comes in.
So I say we need to ask ourselves what is it we want to teach? Is it asana for the means of asana? Is it asana for the means of a core value teaching? Is it a combination of the two? You could teach asana. You could teach asana and have good application of psychotherapeutic skills to maintain the health and safety of the room. You could teach a core value through asana. The trainings for these might overlap but they are different.
We now have an oversaturated market of yoga teachers who teach asana. Mostly because we keep putting people through the same kinds of trainings regardless of their intentions. Most teachers though, are desperately trying to make a difference in peoples lives through asana. Few of us, as leaders in the field, are asking them (let alone ourselves) what their core value is and giving them the skills (a combination of yoga and other things too) to teach that through yoga. We keep using the same hammer of ‘yoga teacher training’ to meet a whole variety of needs. I think its time we choose some other tools. Like maybe some of us need to be leading rites of passage. Maybe some of us need to be teaching pure asana pedagogy. Maybe some of us need to be teaching the psychotherapeutic skills.
its just a thought.