Responsibility and the Yoga Classroom

During teacher training, my fellow trainees and I were treated to several philosophical lectures. These lectures ranged from the origins of yoga to brief overviews of related branches of thought, like Ayurveda. One image from these lectures stands out in my memory.

It’s a flower, drawn (poorly) in marker on a white board. At the base of the flower sits the Vedas, the Upanishads form the stem, and each petal contains the name of a philosophical discipline: Yoga, Ayurveda, Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism.

The image is so powerful because it expresses a complicated idea clearly and accurately. It would be a mistake to conflate these petals as each are distinct entities, yet they are also undeniably connected by sharing a common root and stem.

Similarly, the issues I’d like to discuss in this essay are varied. Thoughts, observations, and stories have been percolating in the back of my mind for so long, that they can no longer be expressed as a clear X vs Y issue (as my essays often do for simplicity). Instead, I’m going to weave together a discussion about several topics that share a common root: responsibility in the yoga classroom.

Who is responsible in a yoga classroom, and what are they responsible for?

In the yoga teaching community there seems to be a divide between those who believe the teacher is responsible for what goes on in the classroom and those who believe the student is, or should be, in charge.

Before continuing, it should be stated that both sides (or, more accurately, everyone on this spectrum) think it’s the teachers job to keep students safe. Knees passing ankles or collapsing in, hyper-extended joints, and spine protection is on ever teacher’s mind.

However, there is definite disagreement about what exactly constitutes a “safe practice.”

For example, I recently read an article in Yoga International called, “King and Queen No More? Headstand, Shoulderstand, and the Yoga of Experience and Evidence.” This article describes a studio in which students are asked not to practice headstand or shoulderstand (even on their own) because the senior teachers/studio owners believe it’s very difficult to practice safely and don’t want their students to do any long term damage to themselves by accident.

Here, the studio is taking complete responsibility for student safety. They’ve identified poses where the benefits don’t justify the long term risks, and banned them.

My initial reaction was one of shock and dismay. After all, many students find these inversions intensely liberating – an experience that “feet up the wall” just doesn’t provide. However, after pausing for a moment to consider, it does make some sense. These are poses where damage may be dealt subtly over time. The student, or their teachers, might not notice that the posture is unsafe for years and by then it could be too late.

Echoing this position are the many articles about yoga teachers being inadequately trained, injuring their students, and using the phrase “students should be listening to their own bodies” as an excuse to shrug off responsibility.

There is absolutely some truth in this assertion. I’m certain there are teachers who teach unsafely and say exactly that, which makes believing in student responsibility and the centrality of student experience so much harder to do. Yet, that’s exactly what I believe.

I was trained in a school of thought that describes asanas as “inhabited experiences,” not shapes in space. Alignment, therefore, is secondary to intention, the feeling a student gets when in the pose (as long as the posture is safe).

I strongly believe in allowing my students to have their own experiences – whatever shows up for them that day. As a senior teacher once put it to me, “Don’t be a sage on a stage, but a guide on the side.”

Let’s leave this petal alone for a moment.

We’ll circle back to it after examining it’s close relative: is a yoga teacher responsible for each student, or for the class as a whole?

Recently, a yoga teacher friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, told me a story that might shed some light on this question.

She was taking class at a relatively local studio, though not one where she taught. Now, this friend of mine has a very strong practice. She floats in and out of handstands in her vinyasas, and will generally take any amplification offered. On that day, however, after a few floating vinyasas, the teacher laid a hand on her shoulder and whispered. “Sometimes, less is more.”

I believe she also said something to the effect of, “please stop floating because it’s distracting the other students.” I can’t remember if she actually said it, or if it was just heavily implied. Either way, that’s what my friend heard, and definitely what the two talked about after class.

My friend was floored (probably not literally, but definitely figuratively). She is firmly affixed in the teaching philosophy that believes every student should do their own thing, listening to their own “inner teacher,” and generally try to ignore what everyone else in the room is doing.

(Obviously, this dictum doesn’t include students who completely ignore the teacher and go off on their own sequence, which happens, and is universally considered extremely rude.)

In this philosophy, however, a student adding little embellishes to a sequence is not only allowable, it’s positively encouraged. Especially, if you’re not in the front of the room where other students really might be distracted (and she wasn’t).

Because I share similar teaching roots with my friend, her story shocked me. I would never dream of saying such a thing to a student for fear of exactly what happened – she was thrown completely out of her practice, and went through the rest of class in a kind of daze.

Yet, in the context of our discussion, it’s easy to attribute several positive intentions to the teacher. As far as I know, the teacher didn’t know my friend, so although it’s clear from my friend’s practice that she’s very controlled, the teacher might, justifiably, be concerned for her safety.

A firm believer in “less is more” would see the ostentatious floating forward and back as unnecessary and unsafe.

At the same time, she is taking responsibility for the rest of the class’s experience. Wanting everyone to feel comfortable and welcome is certainly an impulse I understand.

In fact, in my own teaching, I frequently find myself “teaching to the lowest common denominator.” I mean, I set my class at an appropriate level for the least experienced person in the room.

Sure, I offer variations to make things a little more challenging for the veterans, but I will also skip challenging poses or sequences if I think I have students in the room who just won’t be able to do them.

Now, you might think this contradicts my earlier assertion that students should be responsible for their own practice, and, to some degree, it does. If I were at the furthest extreme of that spectrum I would shrug and say, “If they don’t want to do something, they can take child’s pose.” Some teachers would probably even argue that I’m doing my new students a disservice by assuming they won’t be able to do something. After all, you never know until you try, right?

I think both of these are valid points. Yet, I also think it’s important to cater a little more to new students.

In the articles that accuse teachers of neglecting their responsibility, the author will frequently point out that new students are not used to “listening to their body” – at least not in the way yoga asks them to. Coming from our “no pain, no gain” exercise culture, it’s very easy for new students to push themselves into an injury.

However, here’s why I don’t think teaching to the least skilled practitioner in the room doesn’t contradict my belief that student’s should be in charge of their own experience: I trust my students – especially my veterans – to have a good practice.

In an old article called, The Danger of Teacher Proof Students, I talk about how some students are going to do well no matter what I do. I’d like to revise that. I think most students are going to have a good practice no matter what I do.

The yoga asanas are amazing. They will ensure my students get what they need.

All I do is provide a pattern for my students to fill out with their own practices.

I also provide a safety net for those who need it, which tend to be the new students.

So, who’s responsible in a yoga classroom?

The only answer that makes sense to me is: everyone.

Like the form of class itself, the question of responsibility is a dialogue between the students and the teacher.

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