Are You a Yoga Show Off?

This entry was posted on Jun 5, 2013 by Charlotte Bell.
Yoga Show Off

One of the things I really loved about yoga practice from the get-go was the fact that it is not meant to be competitive. My early teachers were all quick to emphasize that comparing yourself to your neighbors is not helpful. As a not especially competitive introvert, I found this to be a relief. We Type B introverts do not always fare well in a world that celebrates getting ahead. We’re just not as good at it as our Type A friends, and when it’s not in your nature to strive it takes a whole lot of ungraceful effort to do so.

But yoga was different. Along with the lovely, spacious feeling I felt after practice, the de-emphasis on competition signaled that I had found my home in yoga. On top of that, I have always had a flexible body, inherited from my gymnast dad.

Even though yoga was not intended to be competitive, when I started practicing, I noticed that in certain classes I commanded attention simply by what my body could do. Sometimes my hypermobility brought praise. At other times, I became the example of what not to do if you like healthy joints. Even though I was not consciously striving and competing, I was heavily invested psychologically and emotionally in the fact that my body was capable of “advanced” poses.

This led to a cognitive disconnect in my teaching. I was sincerely committed to the idea of non-competitive yoga. I  understood the wisdom of this. On the most basic level, it’s for safety’s sake. On a deeper level, striving and discontent takes you out of the moment, the futility of comparing yourself to a genetically different person whose history is entirely different from your own. I got this—at least intellectually.

Cognitive Dissonance

Yet, at the same time I was telling students that yoga is not competitive, I was demonstrating the opposite. For example, 20 years ago, when I taught Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana (Pigeon Pose), I never failed to demonstrate the full version (see the above photo), a pose that, on average, 95 percent of my students would never be able to do, simply because of the underlying structural realities of the way their lumbar spines, hip joints and shoulder joints were formed. Flexibility was not the problem. When bone contacts bone, the body will move no further. End of story.

I could rationalize demonstrating the pose by saying that I meant to inspire them, to show them what is possible. At the time, I didn’t have an understanding of the role that skeletal structure plays in what appears to be flexibility. So I didn’t get that most people’s bodies just aren’t built for this pose.

When I reflected some years later on my motivation for demonstrating “advanced” poses, I realized it was likely I did this to establish my superiority as a yogi—to use my bendy body to get attention and respect. At the time I would have chafed at the thought that this was my motivation. It goes against everything I think of as responsible teaching.

When I finally owned up to my tendency to show off without meaning to show off, the realization was humbling and freeing. I had to admit that I was not walking my talk. Sure, it’s fine to show individuals whose bodies are capable of fancy poses safe ways to approach these poses. But I realize that demonstrating them for my classes at large is fraught with problems—for my students and for me.

The Problem with Being a Yoga Show Off

When teachers show off, it causes at least some students to feel inadequate. Many will feel that they are not capable of doing yoga at all if they can’t do fancy poses. How many times have you heard someone say she can’t possibly do yoga because she is not flexible? Demonstrating fancy poses gives students the erroneous idea that yoga is about performance and that “advanced” yogis are the ones who do “advanced” poses. It may even cause some students to try to force themselves into poses of which they are incapable, which can lead to injury.

As a teacher, showing off fancy poses in class reinforced my attachment to my identity as a bendy person. That attachment caused me to subscribe to the “more is better” theory of flexibility. For almost two decades, my practice was about gaining more and more flexibility. This created an unhealthy instability in my body, a lack of balance that surfaced as I entered my 50s. And clinging to an identity as a bendy person, a stiff person, a happy person, a sad person, a smart person or a dull person—all these identities limit our ability to see the truth of our vast, infinite being.

Are your words congruent with your actions when you teach? How do you bring words and action together while encouraging your students not to be competitive?

About Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. Her third book is titled Hip-Healthy Asana: The Yoga Practitioner’s Guide to Protecting the Hips and Avoiding SI Joint Pain (Shambhala Publications). She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.

14 responses to “Are You a Yoga Show Off?”

  1. Avatar Wendy Lyons says:

    During a recent class several students called me a “Show off” during practice. I’m another student, by the way. One of them even went so far as to say “I don’t want to sit by Wendy because she everyone look bad.”

    I’ve been doing yoga since Sept of 2012, not very long. I started as a way to lose weight and find myself in a better mental place. I’ve succeeded in both. I’ve lost 58 lbs since then and I’ve found myself at peace with the “me” that I am, not the “me” that I want to be.

    I wasn’t doing anything fancy, it was a Level I-II class and we were doing a few chatarunga’s and a few planks. I certainly can’t do full pigeon. 🙂 Heck, because of a bad right hip joint I can’t even do an easy seat, one of the basics!

    I’ve always been exceedingly supportive of everyone in the class because I remember what it was like when I couldn’t reach my own knees.

    Needless to say when other students say things like to me, it hurts and I have no idea how to handle it except put on a public face and laugh it off.

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Thanks for your comment, Wendy. I’d hate to see people start to accuse people with flexible bodies of being show offs just because they happen to have come into the world that way. The problem with yoga in this culture is that we still think that the point is to do fancy poses, and that it means something about us if we can or can’t perform them. Our bodies are vastly different. Some poses are easy, while others are unattainable because of the way we are built. As you say, planks and chatturangas are easy for you, but sukkhasana is hard. I hope that someday we can get past the idea that how our pose looks actually means something!

  2. Avatar J. Brown says:

    Earlier today, I was teaching a workshop and one of the participants was an experienced teacher who was questioning what I was teaching and, honestly, being a little disrespectful in the process. So I did a demonstration of what I was talking about in a “fuller expression.” The lame thing is that while my display did end up winning over that teacher and her tone changed considerably after the demonstration, I ended up straining my back some. I feel annoyed and a bit disappointed in myself that I gave into showing off to earn respect. Not like I haven’t done this before but I know better and appreciate coming upon this post to bring it home.

    It’s a shame that Gentle has become thought of as beginner and overly aggressive and flashy has come to signify advanced.

    Thanks for keeping it real.

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Hi J., I’ve been there, straining my back to do some fancy backbend and then having to teach the rest of the class in pain. I agree that it’s sad that gentle, mindful practice is thought of as wimpy. Traditionally, fast-paced asana was taught to children and teens. Slower, more mindful asana was for adults. It’s funny how we’ve inverted that.

  3. Avatar Lin Ostler says:

    Thanks, again, Charlotte.

    Nowhere is this more applicable than in my Prenatal Yoga classes.

    I find I suggest very few poses that are on the extreme of “bendyness” and don’t expect as much striving to go to the edge, unless it’s a Restorative asana.
    For me, this class is about soothing the inflamed joints, stretching & strengthening to prevent soreness, and focusing on the precise areas that the women are dealing with more intensely than when not pregnant. Students still work hard but not to look “pretty,”(though they always inspire ME with their beauty & courage).
    Some poses I’ve created could be called Ugly poses because of the ungainly positions the body takes to get the ultimate stretch.

    We’re cool with that!

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Thanks for your comment, Lin. Prenatal Yoga is interesting because the ligaments change so much. In a recent teacher training, a trainee asked me if she should encourage one of her students to push further because her ligaments became lax when she was premenstrual, as they do in pregnancy. I advised her to encourage the student to pull back a bit. Of course, the ligaments are supposed to loosen to prepare for birth, but to push into it could create instability that could cause problems later on such as S.I. dysfunction. Again, if we emphasize the point to be about balancing the body/mind instead of performing, people are less likely to get hurt. I’d love to see some of those ugly poses!

  4. Avatar Lin Ostler says:

    A better word that ‘pretty’ might be
    impressive. Still, they a r e impressive.

  5. Avatar Andrew says:

    Wish your blog had an RSS feed for articles. Loving it and get new posts via Facebook but my serious reading is done via RSS and at different times.

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Hi, You can subscribe to our blog and get updates through your email whenever we post something new if that’s helpful.

  6. Avatar Chris says:

    Hi Charlotte,
    I came upon your Catalyst yoga pose “The Chair” a few months ago and decided for giggles to try yoga for first time. Well I was surprised by just this one poses abilities to help me connect to my body and inspiring me to learn more about yoga and it’s benefits. Thank you for being a part of my awakening which soon followed. You’re an angel 🙂 Bless you!

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Chris: How great! Utkatasana is a very grounding pose. I’m glad you felt the effects after just one pose!

  7. Avatar Jewel says:

    My teacher shows off a little bit at times but that’s nothing to how she singles out one student and praises her to the hilt. Or else she will carry on a one-on-one dialogue with the same student during practice while ignoring the class. The student she singles out has a “I’m the Star” attitude; she stopped talking to me because I had improved and could pretty much do everything she can. She comes to yoga to show off and because she gets all the attention from the teacher. She has nothing to do with any fellow students who threaten her position as the “Yoga Star.” She is extremely competitive. And the teacher giving her all the attention just reinforces this behavior. This really affects the atmosphere and brings in a competitive dynamic, even though the teacher keeps repeatedly saying that yoga is not competitive. It is a VERY bad idea IMHO to single out one student and ignore the rest. She either compliments us as a group or not at all. Whenever “The Star Student” doesn’t show up for class, there’s a lightness in the room, as if everybody relax and enjoy themselves without the competitive and negative energy “The Star Student” brings with her to class.

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      I’m so sorry to hear this. What you describe is wildly inappropriate on the part of the teacher. It reinforces the idea that yoga practice is about accomplishing poses, which is not at all the point. First and foremost, it is the responsibility of a yoga teacher to create a safe space for students to practice. By favoring one student and ignoring the rest, your teacher is setting up an atmosphere where no one can feel safe.

      In addition, I’m wondering if the teacher understands that the “Star Student” may be injuring herself by practicing extreme poses. (When there’s cartilage in your joints, you don’t know that you’re hurting yourself because cartilage has no enervation. This means that you don’t know you’re damaging your joints until the cartilage is gone and it’s too late.)

      Is there another teacher in your area? You might want to consider finding a teacher who honors all his/her students.

      • Avatar Jewel says:

        Thank you for your response, Charlotte. This instructor teaches for free at a parks and rec complex. While there is another instructor, I’m unable to attend her classes due to my schedule. I’m on a fixed income so private yoga studios are out of my price range.

        Fortunately I solved the problem by switching to the more advanced class that the “Star Student” does not attend. It worked perfectly, because in this new class, there are a lot of more advanced students that can inspire (but not push) me. I understand the “Star Student” had actually tried this class, but because there were so many advanced students, she could no longer stand out so she went back to the “easier” class where she could shine.

        I’m not sure if the “Star Student” is hurting her joints by overextending herself or not, because I used to stand way in front and to the side of her. I did not have the chance to observe her. But it’s quite possible she is injuring herself without knowing it. For example, one time the instructor had the class try a hard pose that Britney Spears demonstrated in a video. It was a side plank with one leg lifted and the free arm holding onto the toe of the lifted leg. Nobody in our class could do it, except the Star Student, yet she did it incorrectly and could barely lift her leg off the ground. It was in poor form and quite possibly injured the Star. Sad how this instructor feels the need to single out this student. Fortunately, she does not do that in the more advanced class.

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