Experienced Yoga Teachers: What You Don’t Know Counts

This entry was posted on May 21, 2014 by Charlotte Bell.

I was not born with a lot of hubris. When I started teaching yoga, I knew there was lots more to learn. But I felt that the alignment instructions I’d learned from some very competent, knowledgable, experienced yoga teachers were gospel. Armed with instructions such as “lift your kneecaps,” “align your pelvis between two plates of glass,” and “ground the four corners 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 brought to asana practice. He was the first to emphasize the importance of alignment. He was also the first to devise yoga props that allow anyone, regardless of their flexibility, to be able to practice asana with structural integrity.

How Yoga Teaching Evolves

But years of practice—especially years of Insight Meditation—have taught me that there are no black-and-white answers to anything. “Lift your kneecaps” has given way to a more integrated way to address unengaged quads. Now I suggest adjusting the tilt of the pelvis to neutral so that the quads naturally engage and the knees can’t hyperextend.

I dropped “align your pelvis between two plates of glass” long ago—much to the relief of my hypermobile sacroiliac (SI) joint. Rotating the hip of your back leg inward in standing poses keeps your SI joint in a neutral position. 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 the alignment of my feet on the floor.

There are countless instructions and countless poses I’ve stopped offering. Some of these are poses I once thought were important—Eka Pada Rajakapotasana and Matsyasana, to name a couple. 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.

If Only You’d Practice More …

In my early years of teaching, I thought that if people just practiced enough, eventually they would be able to do “fancy” poses.  Urdva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose) with straight arms, often the benchmark for being able to join an “advanced” class, was one of them. One longtime colleague studied with experienced yoga teachers all over the world in the hope of loosening her shoulders enough to do a straight-armed 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 soft tissue flexibility was going to allow her to do it. 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. I’ve spent decades observing the countless differences in people’s structures, genetics, lifestyles, temperaments and intentions. I’ve learned that there’s no single instruction that applies to everyone. The more I observe, the less I trust proclamations that any “master” teacher’s  way is the only way. I’m also willing to reconsider my own ideas.

What Experienced Yoga Teachers Know

Chris Kourt, a yoga teacher living in Europe, once shared his concerns about relatively inexperienced yoga teachers offering “master classes.” I share his concern. But I wonder if this 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.

When we’re starting out, the best information we have is what more experienced yoga teachers have taught us. That information is important. But questioning it, testing it, and watching, and listening to our students is equally important. How do we respond when our instructions aren’t working for someone? Can we listen with an open mind? Can we let go of our opinions to open to what’s true?

This inquiry takes time—years, if not decades—and it never ends. Consider that even in his 90s, Mr. Iyengar was still constantly exploring. He was 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.

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.