The Role of the Yoga Teacher - are we blindly asking students to follow our lead??
Should we be present to share rather than to teach? To share is a natural process, dissemination of ideas which are by nature of sharing are open to discussion, adaptation, mutation?
Just as we cannot take on the path of another- we cannot emulate the way that others have found their spiritual path-we must encourage others to find their own way. We can of course help them on their way, encouraging and offering guidance if we feel equipped to do so, but the years of lessons and introspection from our own personal journey cannot be passed on as a ready-made, off the hanger garment for others to wear. We are misguided if we think that way. At the same time however, the classes that we host are undeniably ours in the sense that we have to hold the space; our personality will guide the feel of our classes; we teach what we feel is necessary in each session.
We should try to lead classes with enough freedom that every student can find their own level and way of practising. We remind them that they should rest out whenever they need to, to take a variation of their own that feels good or even take a totally different pose if they feel that they need it. Encourage some spontaneity, be lifted and not downbeat when in class there is a student who decides to do something totally different. They are truly listening to themselves and hopefully you have been a part of bringing this about.
Eventually the sign of success is that the student shouldn't need to come to class at all. Our bank manager might not like that, but it is a good sign of a job well done.
Yoga in the Modern World
It would probably be fair to say that in the last 50 years, the practice of yoga has expanded to include more people than all of the combined yogis that practised in the possibly thousands of years prior to that. ‘Yoga’ as we practice it today is no doubt very different to how it was practised in the past. There is a heavy tendency towards physical asana practice, to the extent that it is now for most people synonymous with the very term 'yoga'. This isn't to say that we are doing anything wrong, it is wonderful how everything we practice evolves, and there is no specific reason that we should stay stuck in methods better suited to other ages and civilisations.
We are so fortunate in the modern era to have available to us not only countless lifetimes of 'spiritual' teachings that have been passed on through the ages, but an absolute explosion of scientific and technological knowledge that has come about very recently, in a infinitesimally short time span. We now know that many of the concepts understood by the ancient yogis from an intuitive and experienced point of view can be verified by current scientific understanding. I say current because we should remember that scientific knowledge is changing all the time, it isn't concerned with proving facts to be true, but instead with disproving theories, which are very different matters. Good research is unbiased and ready to yield to new evidence that might arise, just as good yoga should.
So for the first time in human history we have an opportunity to guide our yoga practice, not only through hearsay and the word of gurus but though actual (hopefully) impartial scientific evidence. That is not to say that ether is more valid than the other; we can certainly see that the yogis and rishis of the past intuitively understood the benefits of certain yogic practices, not just asana but pranayama and meditation as well, however now we can draw upon sound scientific knowledge from particle physics to brain scans to confirm many of their suspicions. Moreover we are now also able to understand more about the precautions and contraindications of particular asana and so protect ourselves and others from possible harm. Because this huge bank of knowledge and understanding are now available it should be our obligation as yoga ‘teachers’ to pass it on. To deny any aspect of it would be both pointless and irresponsible.
Whilst the popularity of yoga has grown exponentially and the way that we practice has probably altered beyond recognition, I would question whether the way that it is understood and taught have evolved at all. In fact I question whether we are potentially going backwards in both our understanding and methods of teaching yoga. I don't believe that this is a result of the western world practising more physical asana or being less concerned with other yogic techniques. In fact I'm certain that it doesn't matter in the slightest what you are practising or what you are teaching; what I do think is important is how we are practising and it and how we are teaching it...in fact whether we should be teaching it in the sense that we do at all.
The Teachers Role
In an average yoga class teachers are more than often ready to give and students are expecting to receive cues and instructions: to breathe in this way; place the foot in that orientation; extend the arm in this manner and so on. We are, both parties, consciously or more often subconsciously reinforcing separation, whether we are the teacher or student.
If I am leading a class I try to remember that I am simply present to hold that space; to facilitate the practice of others, so that they might understand themselves better just as when I am practising alone I try to remember that I am simply present so that I might understand myself better.
Whatever way you look at it, there is no doubt that as a yoga teacher you are going to become, wittingly or not, willingly or otherwise, role models for many of those that come to your classes. Bearing this in mind we should remember that we are on show when holding the space and what we do and say will be examined by many who perceive us to be their guiding light in the ‘science of yoga’.
In this light it is probably wise to have our own codes of conduct as with any professional organisation. There are certainly plenty of yoga organisations out there that you can join if you choose to and they will all have their own sets of guidelines, some of which are similar themes and some of which are more specific to their system of beliefs.
Yoga is changing. There’s no doubt about that. Of course it has always changed to suit the times and the culture that it exists in but the change now is more dramatic.
I had already sensed this in the yogis that I knew; I kept coming into contact with more and more respected teachers who seemed to share a similar way of thinking. It wasn’t until October 2015 though that I realised how significantly it had changed.
I had been asked if I would like to run a teacher training course, something that I had up until then been very much opposed to. There are more yoga teachers in the world than we will ever need and I know very few people that actually make a healthy living out of yoga, so selling it as a ‘new lifestyle’ was not for me. The freedom to deliver my own teacher training, in the particularly anarchic style that I’m know for was certainly appealing, but the most significant incentive for me to actually start this immersion had been one of my most popular workshops ‘How to Develop a Home Practice’. I noticed that it was always full and with good reason. People expressed that even if they had been attending classes for a long time, they just weren’t sure what to do on their own, without someone leading them. They were ‘afraid’ to do the wrong thing, to get ‘yoga’ wrong. I found this truly sad and it left me worrying about the state yoga was in. Were we disempowering yogis rather than liberating them? Shouldn’t the point of classes be to encourage yoga as a part of life so that eventually they wouldn’t need to attend class anymore?
So I decided that I’d at least put the feelers out and gauge from the response whether to continue. So I posted a simple Facebook message, not an advert, not boosted, and as far as teacher training courses go it must have been the most negative advert ever.
I cautioned that trainees were unlikely to make a healthy living if any at all as a yoga teacher and pointed out that a piece of paper certainly wouldn’t make them a ‘teacher’ anyway except in the eyes of officialdom. I also encouraged that any motivation to attend should be for their own self-growth and indeed that an intention to be a yoga teacher was probably a very poor one indeed to start with. I waited about thirty seconds and the likes started rolling in, then the comments, then the messages and by the end of the next day I had over sixty firm enquiries from around the country. By January I had all but sold out, I added two more places and they were filled just as quickly.
So why were people so interested in this course? A course that effectively promised to teach them nothing but to give them a glimpse of everything.
I certainly wasn’t interested in making a ton of money, I had already invited 5 guest teachers to contribute and was looking at many difficult months ahead of me, putting together a course that effectively encouraged those attending to understand themselves, their asana, their pranayama, all from their own point of view, not from mine or someone else’s.
I had no desire to teach endless asanas with suggested variations and adjustments for them to remember, nor to teach fixed techniques for meditation, mantras and mudras. I certainly didn’t want to throw out all of the yoga teachings that we already have in such great abundance, those would be delivered in a separate manual so that they had all of the traditional teachings to draw upon as well. Yet at the same time I didn’t want to just regurgitate all of this second-hand information as if it were fact and then encourage these fresh new minds to go forth and redistribute it yet again to an exponential number of people in their classes. As advanced as we are in the modern world, with both a wealth of ancient wisdom and cutting edge scientific information to draw upon, we forget to think for ourselves. Many of us are more inclined than ever to take what we hear, read and see as fact, without investigating it, questioning its validity or checking to see if there is a maybe a better way; a more logical explanation or something that is simply more suited and resonates more deeply with us.
I discovered quite quickly that it is very difficult to write a teacher training manual with no particular ‘style’ – not Vinyasa Flow, Ashtanga, Yin or any other sub-division of yoga that we see today. It is very difficult to teach the anatomy of poses without specifically indicating the joints and muscles that we might want to position, engage or relax. To teach meditation with the most minimal of guidance so as not to encourage others to follow your own methods and to incorporate mantras, mudras and the significance of Om when you yourself don’t practice them because you think they are superfluous.
But of course that was the entire purpose of the ‘course’, which from the very start I had called an immersion, because that’s what I hoped it would be. I wasn’t hoping to teach them anything more than to understand yoga for themselves and then hopefully encourage others to understand yoga for themselves. So I set out to explain how to feel an asana for yourself, to see how it fits your body and the bodies of others and encourage others to find their own form; to understand the logical process of meditation, to realise that it isn’t ‘spiritual, mumbo jumbo or religious’ though it can be all of these; to see the relevance of mantras, mudras and om and why we have them as tools but to realise that they, as with all of yoga are a product of somebody else’s understanding that has been passed down through countless hands and mouths. Whilst we certainly do not need to reject anything, the techniques that we might arrive at through self-exploration can be just as valid and potentially more effective to us, as they are far more personal.
More than anything I wanted to free the participant from fear. The fear of exploring their practise, the fear of letting go of teachings that didn’t resonate with them, the fear of teaching in a manner that isn’t necessarily out of a textbook, written by some other ‘authority’ on yoga.
That was when I realised that there is a growing mind shift, a very noticeable ‘awakening’ amongst yogis today. Everyone that joined the course, almost without exception, noted that they had enrolled because they knew that this was exactly how I taught, or to be more correct, this was exactly how I didn’t teach and they knew that they didn’t want to teach in that way as well.
So ‘Yoga Like Water’ -formless, shapeless, boundless yoga- inspired by Bruce Lee’s similar approach to the martial arts was conceived. I hope that it delivers what it promises-nothing at all-and that more and more people will start to wake up to their own yoga practice rather than taking on someone else’s version for themselves.
On my 42nd birthday, I decided to post a little video of my average morning wake up and shakeup session that keeps me so young and vibrant......whatever. Moving, shaking, stabilising, handstanding, sitting in freezing water. All before breakfast :)
A few weeks ago Yoga matters interviewed me with some questions that really got me thinking. In case anyone is interested here are some of the not very profound answers that i came up with.....
How did you come up with the name 'Yoga Like Water'? What does this phrase mean to you?
'Yoga Like Water' was born from a number of sources, all of which were very important in my life. I had always loved water: I surf most days down in North Devon, I freedive, we raised our two children on a boat. My lifelong hero has always been Bruce Lee and one of his famous sayings was 'Be Like Water'. His philosophy was very similar to mine when it came to yoga and it all just fitted perfectly.
How do you see yoga as a very personal thing, an individual path, and how does this concept fit with all the 'schools' of yoga available today?
Yoga is a very personal thing. There is only one correct path for each individual and that is the path that comes from within them. No-one else can tell us what our path is and no-one can walk it for us. The various systems and schools of yoga provide a 'gateway' to set us on the path. The important thing is that we remember that they are just that..a starting point; they aren't an end in themselves.
You've said that 'yoga becomes life and life becomes yoga'. How has that been true for you in your own life?
I have always been very able to tap into the 'flow state'. I have done everything that I have ever wanted in life and I can honestly say that I regret nothing. Yoga is present in every aspect of life. There is something to learn from every second, every incident, every thought that we think or word that we say. We just have to listen out for the lessons and grow from them.
How is it possible for a human being to be 'formless and shapeless like water'?
I have no idea! The concept applies more to mental states. We don't attach to anything, we aren't fixed in our opinions, we can adapt to any situation, we can be strong as a waterfall or soft as a raindrop. It has a great deal of taoist undertones. The very concept is as elusive as water. If you try to hold onto it, it just slips through your hands.
You describe 'Yoga Like Water' as a 'non style' and an 'un-training'. What does this look like in practice?
That's a great question! We make a huge effort not to 'systemise' anyone, if that is even a word. We bring in teachings from not only yoga but a massive range of disciplines: asana, martial arts, slackline and parcour; meditation, the flow state, deconcentration and systema; pranayama, freediving. You name it, if it has value...and everything does...then we add it into the mix. Our only aim is that the students find their own authentic way of facilitating yoga and practising it themselves. The last thing we want them to be is a secondhand copy of us; we want them to be a 100% version of themselves.
What is the difference between a yoga teacher and a yoga facilitator?
You cant teach yoga, it's as simple as that. The concept that I could teach you something as internal as yoga is ridiculous. Sure, I can teach someone to sit quietly, breathe in a certain way, make amazing shapes and balance on their hands, but that isn't yoga. What I can do is facilitate and assist the journey of self understanding in others. Helping others to trust that they know what is best for themselves, not a distant teacher or guru.
What role does meditation play in your own life and how do you incorporate it into your teaching?
I try to practise meditation in whatever I am doing. Sitting down and meditating is all well and good, but like asana, it is just a means to an end. The ideal situation is that everything becomes a meditative process, whether you are washing up, eating chocolate or just breathing. Humans have an uncanny ability to slip into the 'flow state' when they are totally engrossed in an activity. That's why I return to climbing, freediving, surfing, skating and so on, because the complete concentration makes it so easy to merge in the moment.
What is your vision for passing yoga onto the next generations?
Yoga is an organic process. It always has been and always will be. How we practise now is unrecognisable from how yogis would have practised 100 or 1000 years ago. That doesn't mean that we are right or wrong, it's just different. What we are leaning towards now though is a version of yoga often passed on by 'teachers' who don't really understand it themselves and many more who certainly haven't deeply investigated what yoga means or why they are passing on the things that they do. I want the next generation of yogis to be free, to realise that yoga isn't limited to a mat or a studio, that it is OK not to Om of you don't want to. They can rewrite the rule book because there is no yoga rule book.
HELPING HANDSTANDS..........After a weekend teaching 60 plus people how to handstand I thought id pass on a few things that i see time and time again that could make life a lot easier if you fancy playing with handstand...and lets be clear, there is no need to do handstand EVER. But if you want to its quite fun!
1- if your shoulders are behind your wrists before you begin you will find it very difficult to stack your body in a straight line as your bodyweight is too far back. You are trying to defy the laws of physics!
2-you need to stack hips above wrists NOT hips above shoulders necessarily
3-dont worry about straightening your legs until you can hold handstand with your legs in splits position (like a tight rope walkers stick ) or with your knees pulled into your chest. Both of these lower your centre of gravity and stop your pelvis from wobbling about so much. This means less forces moving down at the floor for the hands to control.
4-Once you can hold it like that for 30 seconds regularly , then worry about straightening your legs. Whats with this need to straighten the legs anyway? Seems to me its about recreating some picture we have n our minds eye.
5- you will have a slightly banana back because you are looking forwards. Don't worry about this, you wont get rid of that bend until you control the core more and drop the ears in line with the arms.
Once again a straight back is just our minds picture of what we think looks pretty, we arent doing gymnastics, it is about awareness not what looks nice. The lower back has a natural bend in it for a very good reason! Control it, don't allow it to hyperextend but you dont need to straighten it!!! Look at any of the old pics of iyengar or sivananda, they control the bend in their backs, they don't straighten out smile emoticon
6-Strength to adjust in the hands (this comes from the forearm muscles) is absolutely key, Develop this, get a finger strengthener, practice taking weight forward in plank. KEEP THE WEIGHT OUT OF THE HEEL OF YOUR PALM AND TAKE IT FURTHER FORWARDS!
Of course there is a lot more to it, which is why my workshops are several hours long but thats a good place to start.
Good luck and enjoy the journey, forget the destination! #yogalikewater#yogasansfrontiers
I am a great believer in First Do No Harm. Practising asana is pointless if your body suffers as a result. At the last few workshops I've done I have found it a shame to hear so many people say that they often suffer from wrist pain after yoga, especially if they practice as lot. Almost always this is due to poor hand alignment, over tight forearm flexors and weak extensors. We need to try and balance these out a bit better and spread the weight through the hands when we practice. I know for a fact that this has 'cured' the issue for a lot of people, even teachers that I have seen with awkward wrist alignment once i have explained what was going on. Although I'm not a big one for using specific strengthening, if you are going to do a lot of hand balancing then you could really benefit from fully engaging hasta bandha, I use this gripmaster device a lot and the strength in my hands is really helped by it. (Im holding it the wrong way in the photo, but you will get the idea). As a note, for someone who spends ages on their hands each day I never get wrist pain. #gripmaster #hastabandha #firstdonoharm
All understanding (we aren't talking about knowledge or skill here) can only be beneficial – it cant be right or wrong - and with enough dedication to understanding, we will be able to become the best version of ourselves that we cna be, right now in this very instant.
We can imagine this as a carpenter with certain tools and skills. As a young apprentice their skills are limited: they don't understand the material they are working with yet and they might not be able to control certain tools to work it with. Even so, with full application and concentration the young carpenter will still be producing the very best work that he can at that point in time; in fact it couldn't possibly be any better. With dedication he develops his understanding of the material as well as his skill with the tools and eventually he is producing work that is unrecognisable in quality from his earlier efforts, yet of course, it is still only the best that he can deliver at that point in time. With an attitude of acceptance and non-judgement he would have been just as satisfied with his earliest efforts as as he would be with those when he became a master craftsman.
That is why every time we practice it can only be perfect!