Fast and Furious
Updated: Dec 11, 2021
“Note that a common misunderstanding among teachers and students alike is the notion that a fast pace is somehow more challenging or ”advanced”. Moving slowly and consciously with smooth and spacious ujjayi pranayama is actually more physically (and mentally and emotionally) challenging than the extremely fast-paced “yoga-robics” type classes. ”
p. 142, Teaching Yoga, Mark Stephens
I recently experienced a first: a student, during class, requested that I pick up the pace and move more quickly in a flow class I was teaching. (Luckily, this comment was in a livestream chat that I didn't see until after class.) However, it got me thinking about a few things.
We've come to a point in the yoga industry where the teacher is seen as a commodity expected to deliver some kind of distraction, entertainment or product meant to meet the student's expectations of what they've come to understand as yoga. Unfortunately, as Mark Stephens states in the quote above, for many, the only yoga they've encountered is this type of "yoga-robics" and anything that is done differently or at a slower pace is scoffed at, regardless of the fact that moving slowly is actually more effective at building strength, flexibility and focus.
I also remember a student's look of horror when I mentioned that we were going to do some breathwork before moving into our asana practice, as if this was some foreign concept they'd never heard of. As a yoga teacher, I was greatly discouraged. What are we purporting to teach when we use the term "yoga"? If students don't know that breath and movement are key to a posture practice, we are failing as yoga teachers.
"Yoga-robics" also tends to strip away philosophy, chanting and other more esoteric aspects of the yogic path. As Rolph Gates so eloquently put it in Meditations from the Mat: "Yoga is not a workout, it is a work in." There are plenty of gyms and online fitness programs for working out. Yoga is not exercise - it's a spiritual path that happens to include movement practices.
I recently read an article by Vinay Menon of the Toronto Star about recent Grammy nominations for Dave Chappelle and Louis C.K. that stated the following: "Good comics make you laugh. Great comics make you laugh and think."The same is true of teachers (maybe not so much the laughing part, although a few well-timed jokes never hurt). Good yoga teachers will provide a satisfactory movement practice. Great teachers will provide an environment for learning and self-reflection. They are more concerned with imparting meaningful teachings than with being liked. They don't pander to whatever is trendy in the moment because that moment will pass and trends change - just look at fashion. Yoga was never meant to be fashionable but tell that to the multi billion dollar industry now built around it.
Don't get me wrong - I think it's great that so many people are practicing yoga. But we should remain vigilant, especially those of us who are teachers, to ensure that the teachings and traditions of yoga don't get co-opted by the fitness industry or get lost in slick marketing campaigns.
Back to that student commenting during class: this brings up another issue, one that spills over into many realms beyond yoga: we are living in a time when everyone thinks they're an expert, regardless of background, education or level of expertise. With the advent of the Internet and social media, the assumptions are: if I've done an Internet search or read it on social media or watched a couple documentaries, I'm now an expert on said subject, equal to the person who's devoted countless hours to education, study and training in the same subject. So, students now believe they know just as much, if not more, than the teacher, and therefore feel perfectly comfortable advising us on how to approach our classes. If you'd like to read more on this general mindset, check out The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols.
I've received a lot of feedback over the years, and I've come to value constructive (as well as positive) feedback - it has really helped me improve as a teacher. And I certainly understand that students have preferences and I'm not everyone's cup of tea. However, there's a difference between a student sharing an observation or partiality post-class and one who feels they can suggest I switch course mid-way through a class because they don't like the pace. I know this trend is also occurring in post-secondary education where students now feel they can tell the teacher what they should and should not teach or even what speech they should and should not use.
The teacher's role is not to keep the student happy and comfortable - it is indeed the opposite: to challenge the student, expose them to new ideas, approaches and practices, and encourage them to move beyond their self-imposed limitations. All we ask in return is that you trust our expertise.