There’s yoga and there’s yoga

I’m away from home for a couple of weeks and have the opportunity to try out some new classes. I’ve practiced yoga consistently for over twelve years. My main form of yoga for which I have had outstanding instruction is Iyengar yoga. My teacher since the beginning has been Karen Major. I lucked into this style of yoga through word of mouth. What good fortune!

Tonight, I decided to try a drop-in yoga class at the gym in the place I’m visiting. It was just called “yoga” on the schedule. I had no idea what it would be. We had a young, energetic instructor–the paradigmatic yogi who could twist herself into every pose. The class took place in a huge gym with super loud fans circulating the air. So right from the get-go the noise made me feel un-yogic, maybe even a little irritable.

The instructor wore a portable mic.  She announced at the beginning that we were doing a vinyasa flow class. I’m familiar with the flow from moksha hot yoga. That made me confident I could keep up.  She described the level as “moderate.”  I take it that means that someone with twelve years of high quality instruction and a consistent practice should feel comfortable with the material. Wrong.

My main complaint about the class is that it lacked instruction. The teacher called out poses, with some demonstration of what, in Iyengar yoga, we would call “the final pose.” The final pose is what the pose looks like if you are already a pretzel or a very advanced student.

Some of the poses were extremely advanced (like going from what she called “crow”–bakasana in the Sanskrit–an arm balancing posture, into handstand–unsupported by any wall–and then jumping back into chaturanga dandhasana).  If you’ve done any yoga at all you will know that this series is not for your average yogi.  I’m in an advanced class at home. We still do full arm balance (handstand or vrikshasana) with the wall for security.

Introducing these sorts of moves without providing proper instruction is dangerous and discouraging to the students.

Knowing my own limits, I only did what felt safe to me.  But I am able to make adjustments of this kind because I have a solid background of training by knowledgeable teachers.  Iyengar yoga is not the only form worth doing.  But what sets it apart from many of the other styles of yoga out there is the quality of the instructors.

In order to call themselves certified Iyengar teachers, these instructors need to undergo years of rigorous training through numerous levels. Before they can even start the training, they must be a student of the Iyengar method for at least three years. Before they can start teaching anyone, they must take at least two years of teacher training. They need to pass difficult assessments in order to progress to the next level.

As they qualify through the levels, the repertoire of what they are permitted to teach expands.  My regular teacher, who is very advanced, is not qualified to teach many of the poses my young instructor tonight showed us. I say “showed” instead of “taught” because, as mentioned above, she didn’t teach them.

Anyone who has ever done an Iyengar class will be familiar with the emphasis on precise placement and alignment. Iyengar classes involve lots of props. The correct use of props (blocks, bolsters, ropes, straps, chairs) make it possible for people who are not naturally flexible to get the full benefit of a pose even if they can’t achieve “the final pose.” Props also keeps us safe. And good use of props deepens a student’s understanding of the poses.

Cultivating this deeper understanding is virtually absent from many other types of yoga.  So many instructors just take the class through a series of moves, not much different from any other fitness class except that the moves are yoga postures.

I am not familiar with all forms of yoga, but I do know that a lot of the teacher training out there is variable, sometimes involving just one month of face-to-face training. 

Iyengar yoga is not the only yoga I do regularly. But I am able to do other forms of yoga with confidence and a sense of safety because of the quality of instruction I receive in my Iyengar classes.

If you are considering starting yoga, I strongly urge you to inquire about the nature of training the teachers at the studio receive. If you want a guarantee that you will have high quality, informed instruction, seek out an Iyengar beginners class.

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