Decades ago the film, Annie Hall, embellished a famous quote about the art of teaching. In the film the quote went like this: “Those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach gym.” (The film’s embellishment is the second sentence.) The quote’s intention was to diss teachers, especially gym teachers I guess. For yoga teachers, it seems to be the opposite. The bendiest among us often choose to teach. We can perform all the fancy poses, after all. But is that always a good thing?
My dad was a gymnast, and I inherited his hypermobile body. So when I started practicing yoga with June Bains, an Indra Devi-trained teacher, I took to it right away. All the poses we practiced depended on flexibility, and in short order, I found myself able to perform everything the teacher offered—to extremes.
When June announced that she would be offering a teacher training, I immediately thought, this is for me. I loved how the practice made me feel. I could do the poses “better” than anyone in the room, I thought. This would be the perfect calling for me.
A few months later, before the training started, I moved to Salt Lake City. June’s training was out of the question. The teachers I found in Salt Lake City—there were only a handful at a time—taught Iyengar yoga. It was a whole new world.
All Standing Poses, All the Time
In every single class we did standing poses. I hated them. My loose-knit body was very unstable, and the loosey-goosey practice I’d been doing probably didn’t help. My body trembled under the barrage of alignment instructions, and from my overabundance of flexibility and lack of strength.
I can’t begin to recount the number of times I heard, “Lift your kneecaps!,” an instruction I was incapable of fulfilling. I’d been unconsciously hyperextending my knees for years and my quads were completely asleep. My quads slid down toward my knees 24/7. Engaging them seemed impossible. In every workshop, teachers called out my hyperextended knees as an example of what not to do.
I’m honestly not sure why I continued. The practice was such a challenge to my ego. But I really liked my teachers, Cita and David Riley, a physical therapist and doctor. Their knowledge was so vast, and I was learning a ton from them.
They brought many senior Iyengar yoga teachers to town: Ramanand Patel, Mary Dunn, Felicity Green, Judith Hanson Lasater, Pujari Keays. These workshops rarely attracted more than 30 people—a number that was considered to be huge at the time. In retrospect, it was an amazing time to be practicing.
Back to Square One
Mary Dunn taught me how to wake up my quads. She took me to the wall. She showed me that I needed to practice with the ball of my foot of my front leg a few inches up the wall and my heel on the floor, at about a 45-degree angle. When I pressed the ball of my foot into the wall, my quads would actually move upward a fraction of an inch. She suggested I practice standing poses this way for at least six months to build strength and intelligence in my quads. It took a year of practicing this way before my quads would engage with my foot flat on the floor.
During that year, my standing poses slowly became more stable. Other things started to fall into place in my standing practice. I found that when I stopped collapsing into my knee joints, my arches began to lift too. I was born with flat feet, and I was amazed to see arches forming. My calves also engaged, pushing my shins forward, which stabilized my knees.
As my legs began supporting me, my breath eased. I could expand in the standing poses instead of fighting just to hold myself up. I no longer found myself grumbling silently as Cita and David talked us through endless standing sequences. When Pujari Keays came to town with his special brand of intensity, I actually began to love standing poses and began to note a newfound stability in the rest of my life too.
The Power of Woodshedding for Yoga Teachers
When I first started teaching, I sequenced classes the way Cita and David had because it was what I knew. I taught lots of standing poses. And I found without fail that the instructions I gave to help students find stability were more thorough and helpful than any I gave for the poses that had been easy for me. Despite my troubled past with standing poses, I came to teaching with a far better understanding of them than the poses I’d found effortless.
Decades of observing my students’ struggles with the poses I found easy have taught me what to look for and how to teach these poses too. But my deepest, most thorough instruction is in standing poses. Having started at square one, I understand my students’ struggles and how to help them through those struggles.
How Challenges May Make for Better Yoga Teachers
So maybe the “Those who can’t do, teach” quote isn’t a diss after all. Maybe it’s those who had to learn the rudiments that make the best teachers. If yoga was about performing fancy poses and posting our prowess on Instagram and Facebook, perhaps the quote would have some merit. But it’s not.
The vast majority of yoga practitioners will never perform extreme backbends or slide their ankles behind their heads. Most people are just not built that way. Teachers who are “born on third base and think they hit a triple,” as the saying goes, have a lot of work to do to understand where most of their students are coming from.
Asana practice is about finding steadiness and ease in the pose you are practicing at this moment. A teacher who understands in her gut, from her own experience, that the journey is the practice will likely be able to teach the majority of students with empathy and understanding.