Never miss out!

Connect and be the first to hear about our new products, specials, and other useful yoga information!

No thanks, Continue to HuggerMugger

Experienced Yoga Teachers - What You Don’t Know Counts

experienced yoga teachers Facilitating the Flow of Prana with a Yoga Block
Why Beginning Teachers are More Confident than Experienced Yoga Teachers

Yesterday morning one of my students asked me how my teaching has changed over the last 29 years. A few things came to mind: I no longer feel an ego need to demonstrate show-off poses. I no longer interpret “beginning,” “intermediate,” or “advanced” through the lens of what a person’s body can or can’t do. But most important, I’m a whole lot less confident that I know the answers than I was when I started.

I was not born with a lot of hubris. I’ve always erred on the side of humility. But when I started teaching yoga, while I knew there was lots more to learn, I felt that the alignment instructions I’d learned from some very competent and knowledgeable Iyengar-based teachers were gospel. Armed with instructions such as “lift your kneecap,” “align your pelvis between two plates of glass,” and “ground the four corners [inner and outer balls of the feet and inner and outer heels] of the feet” I felt as if I had a strong foundation.

And actually, I kind of did. I have tremendous gratitude and respect for B.K.S. Iyengar and what he has brought to the interpretation of Yoga. As Donna Farhi once said to me, he “cleaned up” the practice of asana. He was the first to emphasize the importance of alignment in facilitating the flow of prana, and the first to devise strategies that allow anyone, regardless of their flexibility, to be able to practice asana with structural integrity.

But years of practice—especially years of Insight Meditation—have taught me that there are no black-and-white answers to anything. “Lift your kneecap” has given way to a more integrated way to address lazy knees: adjusting the tilt of the pelvis to neutral so that the quads naturally engage and the knees can’t hyperextend. “Align your pelvis between two plates of glass” was an instruction I dropped long ago, much to the relief of my hypermobile sacroiliac (SI) joint. Letting your back hip rotate inward in standing poses not only keeps your SI joint safe, but it also balances the work between your front and back legs because it is a more efficient use of your skeletal structure. I still like being aware of how the corners my feet are aligned.

There are countless instructions and countless poses I’ve stopped offering. Some of these are poses I once thought were important—Eka Pada Rajakapotasana, Purvottanasana and Matsyasana, to name a few. I’ve found these to be difficult for the vast majority to practice safely. The potential for injury outweighs the potential benefits even in—or maybe especially in—flexible people, but that’s another blog post.

If Only You’d Try a Little Harder …

In my early years of teaching, I thought that if people just practiced enough, eventually they would be able to do the above poses, along with Urdva Dhanurasana with straight arms—often the benchmark for being able to join an “advanced” class. One longtime colleague studied with teachers all over the world in the hope of loosening her shoulders enough to do a Yoga Journal cover-ready Urdva Dhanurasana. I admired her perseverance and felt confident that someday she’d get her wish. That was before I understood that no amount of flexibility was going to allow her to do it, because the limitation was not in her soft tissue; it was in her joints. Now I understand that everyone’s bony structure is different. The configuration of some shoulder joints will allow straight arms; others will not.

The more I’ve learned over the years, the more I respond to my students as an open question rather than with a pat answer. Decades of observing the countless differences in people’s structures, genetics, lifestyles, temperaments and intentions has taught me that there’s no single instruction or set of instructions that applies to everyone. The more I observe, the less I trust proclamations that any “master” teacher’s  way is the only way. That goes for what I believe to be true in this moment. It could change on a dime. I know that absolute truth is actually quite slippery if you’re paying attention.

Knowing What You Don’t Know

Chris Kourtinatos, a yoga teacher living in Stuttgart, Germany, posted his concerns about relatively inexperienced yoga teachers offering “master classes” on Facebook a while back. I share his concern. But I wonder if this phenomenon is simply a stage we all traverse as teachers—that of not knowing enough to realize that we really don’t know that much. (Yes, I meant to say that.) Until you’ve taught for a while, it’s hard to see that the instructions you repeat, that work for you in this moment, may or may not be appropriate for everyone. They may not even be appropriate for you in a year or 10.

When we’re starting out, the best information we have is what we’ve learned from teachers who are more experienced than we are. That information is important. But questioning it, testing it, and watching and listening to our students when they tell us our instructions are not working for them is just as important. This inquiry takes time—years, if not decades—and it never ends. Consider that even in his 90s, Mr. Iyengar was still constantly exploring, and quite willing to change longstanding instructions when he made new discoveries. Being comfortable with not knowing inspires deeper inquiry, which is sort of the point of this difficult practice we love.

So if you come to a point in your teaching practice when you feel overwhelmed by what you don’t know, consider that you just might be on a track that leads to greater wisdom.


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, published by Rodmell Press. Her second book, Yoga for Meditators (Rodmell Press) was published in May 2012. 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 schools and 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.

7 thoughts on “Experienced Yoga Teachers - What You Don’t Know Counts”

  • Shoosh Lettick Crotzer

    Charlotte: I am once again so pleased that you wrote this important post. I feel lucky that one of my favorite teachers is and has been for almost 40 years, Ganga White. He always says to "stand on the shoulders of your teachers" and create your own yoga. From the start, he gave me the freedom to explore without the boundaries of absolutes. And, as you so beautifully stated, as we age, we do recognize how little we can be absolute about! I also am indebted to Mr. Iyengar, of course, as most of us probably are, but being able to discover your own yoga, just as he did and continues to do, is sometimes missing in many classes these days. SO, thanks again for your inspiring words.

    • Charlotte Bell

      Thanks, Shoosh! I love the image of standing on the shoulders of your teachers. It's really true. My teacher, Pujari, also never gave me answers, but he always pointed me to new ways of looking at things so that I could discover what I needed on my own. I also so admire Mr. Iyengar for his endless curiosity and willingness to continue to learn. That, I think, is the mark of aging with grace.

  • Georgeanna Kavanaugh LMT

    Thanks for your sharing. I appreciate your years of practice and observations.I find that the hardest individuals to re-examine their practice are those who have been doing for a time and are unable to change what they are comfortable with.Comfortable may not be appropriate for their own well being.

    • Charlotte Bell

      Thanks for your observation. I think it's really easy to get stuck in what we are comfortable with and to not look any further. It has really helped me to have a teacher who wouldn't let me get away with looking at things through my preferred lens. His commitment is always to the truth, and that has been his gift to all his students.

  • Rogelio Nunez
    Rogelio Nunez May 21, 2014 at 2:15 pm

    Hi Charlotte, me again, i agree with your views, once we learn the basics of teaching, we need to mature from our practice and learn from our students....One of the best pieces of advice i got from a adv. senior IY teacher before my asssesment was, teach to the students in front of you...yes i had my list of things to say and do but the students will guide me to what to teach how to teach when....As far as the iyengars i find they are the first to be flexible enough to change things around as there practice and explorations reveal new findings...at 96 BKS is still doing that...in closing Prashant Iyengar, i call him the rebel in the family because he will take all those rules and break them, he doesn't teach much actions, he is more of a philosopher when teaching...he goes beyond the mechanics of asana/ pranayama...be well

    • Charlotte Bell

      Hi Rogelio, Thanks, as always, for your insightful comments. I so appreciate Mr. Iyengar's willingness to explore and evolve. Gandhi said, “My commitment is to truth, not to consistency.” For me, this sums up much of the discussion. Consistency requires us to be loyal to an idea. Truth requires us to look into each moment and respond accordingly to what’s in front of us. I’d love to study with Prashant someday!

  • Dan Waterloo

    Thanks for the post, it sort of confirms that as I continue my own practice, I find that there are things I can and can't do. It's usually very different than some others in the class.

    In the end, it seems we all have our own 'to-do list'. Because we all have different body shapes and capabilities, it seems natural that there are not any 'master commands' that apply equally to everyone.

Leave a Reply