Why I Teach Old-School Yoga

This entry was posted on May 28, 2013 by Charlotte Bell.

I began practicing yoga in 1982 at a modest studio behind the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas. The teacher was June Bains, a trim, 60-something woman whose studio space had pink, plush carpet and no yoga mats, music or art on the walls. Still, it was a dedicated yoga space, something that was quite rare in those days.

What made me fall in love with yoga was the profound peace I felt when I left the class. After my very first class, I remember getting into my car and turning it on only to hear loud music blasting from the stereo I’d left on. I immediately turned off the radio. The peace I felt was far more compelling than any music could be.

My next classes were in the social hall at the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City. Eliot Hall is a spacious, heavily used and well-loved space with a sprung maple dance floor. When my teachers left town in 1986, they gave me precious gift of their classes. I continued teaching in that space until 2013, when Eliot Hall underwent a much-needed remodel.

Back in those days, there were no yoga studios in town. There were about a half dozen yoga teachers—I knew them all—teaching out of rented rooms, university and school gyms and classrooms (where you had to move desks out of the way before practicing), church basements and the like.

Like me, my students practiced yoga to calm their nerves and settle their minds. We wore whatever was most comfortable in the service of mobility. There was no yoga “scene.” Rather, there was just a committed group of students who relished the opportunity to be quiet and mindful, to slow their lives down for an hour and a half a week.

We moved slowly, mindful of each micromovement that made up each pose. We stayed a while in poses, to allow our bodies to settle in to the point where we were no longer doing, but being the pose. People came to practice because even though the poses were sometimes challenging, they left feeling a little smoother, a little quieter, a little happier than when they came.


The Pace Quickens

When the yoga boom happened, suddenly the intention for practice shifted. Yoga had to pick up the pace in order to fit into busy Western culture. Instead of practicing around a dozen poses in a class, we did a dozen poses per minute. We turned up the volume: Somewhere along the line, soundtracks combining popular music with the burgeoning genre of yoga music accompanied our practice.

We turned up the heat: Inspired by the popularity of Bikram yoga, studios of other types began turning up their thermostats to induce sweat. We turned up the fashion quotient: Pricey yoga clothing became a “necessity”—no more T-shirts and sweats. And Savasana, once a 10- to 15-minute respite designed to quiet the nervous system and allow for integration, was reduced to a two- to three-minute afterthought.


Why I Still Teach Old-School Yoga

While I’m happy to see yoga get the widespread recognition it deserves, I sometimes long for the simplicity of the old days. I wish I could say I still knew all the yoga teachers in town, like I did when there were fewer than 10 of us. There are literally thousands of teachers in my town as of now. I know my classes seem like an anachronism, slow-paced with only the soundtrack of our own collective breath, in comfortable temperatures and with little attention to fashion other than for comfort. I’ve often wondered if I were to conform my classes to the Western evolution of yoga, if I would attract large numbers of students as the studios do.

Then I realize: probably not. Because the yoga that rings true for me and for my body/mind is old-school yoga. For me, yoga is not about burning calories, sweating or getting my butt kicked. Life already kicks my butt, as it does many of the people who attend my classes. Most of us are over-scheduled; we spend our days running from one appointment to the next. Most of us are over-stimulated and distracted; if we’re not actively distracting ourselves with electronic input, we are subject to electronic stimulation from others’ devices.

In other words, life kicks our collective butts enough already. Yoga practice is my time to replenish myself and relax my edgy nervous system. While it seems to work well for a whole lot of people—most of the population practicing yoga—fast-paced, sweaty yoga with loud music and high heat feels like the exact opposite of what I need.

I can only teach from my own practice. It would be completely out of integrity for me to teach a type of yoga I don’t do myself simply because it might bring in more students. I’m sure I wouldn’t be very good at teaching a fast-paced class either. It’s not my nature. And although it may be a much smaller population than the mainstream, there are still people who do seek a calm, quiet, subtle practice.

I teach old-school yoga because that is the yoga I love. It is my passion. My simple, slow-paced practice never fails to clear my body/mind, to make me feel clean, calm, energetic and easeful. My morning practice sets me up to meet my own wall-to-wall days from a deep core of peace.


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.

38 responses to “Why I Teach Old-School Yoga”

  1. Avatar J. Brown says:

    Amen to this. I’m so with you. lndeed, life is challenging enough already. All the pushing to be our best has hit its diminishing marginal utility, hasn’t it? Here’s to an old school revival. Cheers.

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Thanks for your comment, J. Brown. My quiet yoga practice is a sanctuary from busyness. The last thing I want for my yoga practice is for it to be one more thing to stress about.

  2. Avatar Joanna Colwell says:

    hooray for old school yoga! trends come and go in fashion, food, fitness, but what is truly beneficial for body and mind will always be relevant. thank heavens for all the sincere seekers, teachers and students, who value this amazing practice just as it is- no need to jazz it up with loud music or flashy clothes.

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      So true, Joanna. Yoga on its own, if we practice all eight limbs, is complete in itself. No need to try to fancy it up.

  3. Avatar piximon says:

    Yay! 3 old-school cheers for old-school (and true) yoga. Just saw a video of a quintet of yoga teachers going on tour like a bunch of pushy but sad wannabe rock stars. They look like day-glo plastic. It may appeal to the masses (just like junk TV) but keep giving me the old true blue. Thank you for staying real.

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Piximon: I just teach the practice that I love. I’m certainly not the only one teaching old-school yoga, but we are much harder to find than the fast-paced types of practice.

  4. Avatar Angela Ryals says:

    Great post Charlotte! As usual!! I’ll be sharing this on a couple of the studio pages I post for – hope that’s ok. Namaskar, friend. 🙂

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Thanks, Angela. Your kind words mean a lot. Of course you can post on whatever studio pages you like. Thanks for doing that. Namaskar to you as well.

  5. Avatar Lin Ostler says:

    Thanks, Charlotte, for being who you are, no apologies.
    With so many decades of teaching behind me, my practice/teaching certainly has the old school lean to it.
    I practice/study with lots of Yoga rock stars from time to time, and admit that it feels good to sweat, to feel the strength-building that I find there ( most recently 3 workshopt with Shiva Rea). I always integrate elements of those workshops into my form, yet remain more depth oriented. I’m certain my teaching style is more like yours than Shiva’s.

    Because I have taught 8 classes a week, for decades also, at a college, I get written responses to the classes –which helps because the classes are huge (they cap them at 40) and there is seldom much chance to chat, as I do in the additional studio and private classes I also maintain. Because I am often their first experience, it seems right that they don’t begin in a competetive milieu.
    Kudos to you.

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Thanks, Lin. You are a revered wise woman in our community. It’s great that your college classes are packed. I can’t think of a better foundation for younger people starting yoga than to work with you. I do understand why people are drawn to the fast-paced, sweaty classes. I don’t feel drawn to them, but that is just my particular orientation. I took classes with Richard Freeman for an entire summer about 20 years ago. He is a fantastic teacher and very committed yogi. But I found that Ashtanga was not a practice I wanted to do every day. I’m very sensitive to the ebbs and flows of my energies and there were very few days when I felt that that kind of practice was what I needed. If I want to exercise I prefer a brisk walk. For me, yoga is about unwinding, clearing and moving into deep silence. For my body/mind, slow movement is key. So that’s what I have to teach.

  6. Avatar Teri O'Connor, RYT-500 says:

    I love what you spilled out of your heart and onto paper. I began my yoga journey wanted to practice busy yoga and bored by slow flow. I’d wiggle during Savasana feeling like I was wasting time I could be “doing” something.

    I was glad there was a yoga like that then to reel me in – luckily as I went onto teacher training I found teachers that sprinkled the quieter moments in and they grew on me. As my practice grew I craved more & more quiet and realized as my life got cluttered with electronics & wifi I NEEDED a slower flow.

    Now with just the past 5 years of smartphone advances I think we all need your original yoga more than ever! I’ve shifted my teaching style choosing to make the moments of hearing the breath more important than my cool playlist. I love students that wear sweat pants and think that it’s sad to walk in a studio wear everyone matches.

    Peace, love & smiles to you, Teri

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Teri, thanks so much for your comment. I think it’s pretty common for people to start with a class that’s more aligned with what we’re all used to–lots of movement and intensity. As time goes on many people realize that there’s a lot of richness in slowing down. I think it’s easy for people whose lives are filled with distractions to think that slow yoga is boring because we’re all so used to being entertained 24/7. In my decades of meditation experience, I’ve come to realize that boredom comes from not paying attention. If you’re really paying attention, there’s a whole lot to see and feel in each moment’s experience. But paying close attention takes a lot of practice. It takes time to slow the mind down to where subtler sensations become satisfying. So it’s great that there is a faster yoga to inspire people to start.

  7. Avatar Lois Kubota says:

    Charlotte, thanks so much for your post. I fell in love with old school yoga about 10 years ago. I was going to a studio that was primarily Bikram at the time (now they do hot vinyasa flow??) but there was this one teacher there who taught Iyengar style. She is still my favorite teacher and I drive 40 minutes once a week to take a class from her. Now I’m a teacher and I teach old school yoga too because I need the peace!

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Lois, thanks for your comment! I’m glad you’ve found a yoga teacher you feel so committed to. Both of you are lucky!

  8. Avatar B Dawson says:

    As someone who first learned yoga from “Lilas, Yoga and You” on PBS, this article was a breath of fresh air.

    I fell out of practice somewhere in college but recently connected with a wonderful teacher who emphasizes alignment and patience, takes the time to explain everything (without a sound track!) and leaves plenty of time for savasana. I too leave class profoundly changed and re-charged.

    Thank you for keeping the simplicity alive.

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      B Dawson, I also remember Lilias’s program. I’m glad you have found a teacher that you like who allows time for you to feel things and to enjoy savasana. I so enjoy the balance of calm and energy I feel when I finish a practice. Thanks for your input.

  9. Avatar Cynthia says:


    I could not have read this at a better moment!!! I am currently wrestling with lower attendance than my “fitness” yoga teachers at the studio I work in. I feel like people either want a work out or a guru or an entertainer and I just want people to slow down & notice their lives, their breath, and the meditation that is yoga. I struggle with the confidence that I don’t attract as large a number of students because of this and it saddens me as I adore this meditative practice.
    Thank you for sharing….it is so much easier to know I am not alone.

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Hi Cynthia, You and I are certainly not the only ones feeling the pinch. Lots of people I know who teach a meditative style of yoga are struggling. Before the fitness yoga trend began I was able to make a living teaching. Now, there’s no way I could do that. Still, I feel blessed by the amazing people who seek out a quieter kind of practice. I even feel blessed that there are not throngs of people as there are in the fitness-based classes. I can actually get to know my students as people, not just as numbers, and the more I find out the more I feel blessed. Please hang in there. There are people out there who want a meditative practice. It’s important that there be a place for them.

  10. Avatar Donna Mikesell says:

    OMG!!! I thought I was the only one left – your article moved me to tears – I’ve been doing/teaching yoga since the 70’s and have seen and been thru all the changes – and I cant change – Yoga gave me something LIFE couldn’t – Thank YOU for sharing!!!!!

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Thanks for your comment! You and I are not the only ones left, but I know our ranks are shrinking. I have no intention of changing the way I teach in order to accommodate the trends. My teaching will change, as it always has, because I’m always changing, but I’m pretty sure it will not change in the direction of fast-paced, hot yoga with loud music. If anything, I suspect it will get quieter.

  11. Avatar Shoosh Lettick Crotzer says:

    Bravo! I was just having a very similar conversation yesterday. You said so eloquently what I have been thinking for years. Thanks! Shoosh

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Thanks, Shoosh. I know you’ve been teaching as long as I have and come from the same tradition. As Judith says about all the “Yoga and …” hybrids: Isn’t yoga enough on its own?

  12. Avatar Alice Percy Strauss says:

    My sentiments exactly. I began studying yoga in the late 70’s, and I have loved every minute of it because it’s “old school.” For me, the mindfulness of old school yoga affords me a place use my body in an intentional way that releases tension and stress, while gaining strength, stamina, and balance. Additionally, old school yoga has never failed to help me mentally, and emotionally, settle down. It provides a lovely internalized spot that, more often than not, leads to profound self-observation. Old school yoga has presented me with one of yoga’s finest jewels,self-awareness and self-management. Bravo Charlotte!

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Alice, you’ve captured the essence of what I love about old school yoga. If I want to exercise, I prefer taking a brisk walk. For me, asana is about creating a sense of ease, space and quiet in the body so that my mind and heart can live in a peaceful environment. While newer more vigorous styles of yoga affect people in ways they may also enjoy, for me, they only create a lot of agitation. Here’s to old school yoga!

  13. Avatar Laura Chapman says:

    Wonderful article.Thank you, thank you, thank you! Always being attracted to yoga, the comment about Lilias, yoga and you on PBS! Really rang a bell. Being certified at age 50 and teaching predominately to Seniors, I totally agree with the slow, gentle “old school” yoga approach. Love it, and my students do too! Peace.

  14. Avatar waltinseattle says:

    found this post from my yogini daughter who brought the taxation issue to me. taxing yoga like other calesthenic exercises. ugh. there goes the milleniums of tradition. there goes the mindfullness. and there goes the muscle nemory of doing it the best way for ones self. like trying to learn taichi at top speed and wondering why there is no power. no control. no do easy…

    fads come and go. hopefully this will go sooner. maybe if someone started an icecave session to dry wet towels…

  15. Avatar Ceci says:

    “Old School”. That’s how I was introduced to a group of young wannabe yogis, a few years ago. The words stung at first, as I realized I was the “oldest” being in the room.

    I’m 64 and yes, that’s how I roll 🙂 My classes follow the intuition…observing the body language of the students before class begins. That will determine our journey on the mat.
    I teach in a commercial setting, a gym atmosphere, but my classes do not subscribe to “no pain, no gain”. Chaturangas are not the be all in my classes.

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      I’m taking “old school” as a compliment, whether or not it’s meant to be! There are enough people being injured in the “no pain, no gain” classes that I have a feeling the tide will at some point turn back to a more traditional practice. Keep up the good work!

  16. Avatar patte says:

    what a pleasure to find this article this morning! i’m opening a studio in a few weeks – your words and experience speak directly my heart and affirm my vision of holding space for old-school yoga. love it! if you find yourself in the lowcountry of south carolina, please stop by. love and light. patte

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Thanks for your comment! There aren’t a lot of us old-schoolers but I’m so heartened to hear that we’re not alone. Good luck with your studio. Let us know how it goes.

  17. Avatar Andy says:

    Charlotte, thank you so much for posting this article. In the last year i’ve been getting more fit, exercising regularly and i’m interested in participating in this meditative style of yoga that you also teach.

    I will search for this style of yoga lessons near me.

  18. Avatar Anne says:

    Dear Charlotte,
    I’ve been practicing yoga for 42 years now since the days of Lilias on TV. Eighteen or so years ago I attended your excellent classes at the Unitarian church in SLC. Then I moved away. OI learned things back then that have informed and guided my practice to this day. I’m entertaining the idea of getting certified to teach. In my classes there will be the elements I always yearn for in a class and seldom find these days: no music- just breath, quiet instruction, attention to alignment, and a slow, deep, wide and tall practice with a guided and relaxing savasana. Thank you for those lessons many years ago that inspire me whenever I practice no matter who is teaching8-D


    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Thank you so much for writing. I don’t know what to say, except that comments like yours are what keep me inspired to continue teaching. While the majority of people in yoga classes these days are looking for something more aerobic and stimulating, there’s still a population that wants a more subtle practice. I hope you can find a training that speaks to you and the way you want to teach. I think we as a culture need a slowed-down, quiet practice more than we know.

  19. Avatar Joe Barker says:

    I am one of your students at the Huntsman Center. I really enjoy your classes and appreciate immensly your old school techniques. Like you, the hip yoga has not worked as well for me.
    Enjoyed this article & appreciate your teaching efforts and style.

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Hi Joe, Thanks for writing. It’s nice to hear your thoughts. The longer I practice, the more I enjoy a slow, meditative practice. If I want an aerobic experience, I go out and take a brisk walk. For me, asana practice is about something other than just exercising.

  20. Avatar Geri S Hoekz says:

    I found your website while searching. Your philosophy and classes sound wonderful – I wish that my area (Vancouver, WA – just north of Portland, OR) had a studio that offered something like this.

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