Let’s be honest—the world of yoga can be hard to navigate. The space, the teaching, the cues and the philosophy can often leave students a little bewildered. How many times have you found yourself in class, scratching your head, wondering, ‘What?? Huh??’ Are you supposed to Om at the beginning and end of class? Do I really have to close my eyes in Savasana? Socks off or socks on?
Please know that you are not alone. I’ve been practicing for 8 years and half the time I don’t know what’s going on (ok, maybe not half the time). To write this piece, I have spent time reflecting on what I think has been (or still is) confusing, and evaluating whether I contribute to this when teaching. Here’s what I’ve come up with.
Nobody owns yoga and it’s not a religion.
It’s important to remember where yoga comes from and what its purpose is. In fact, there is no single definition of yoga and that’s why you see so many different branches, types, and styles of practice. A lot of new students just think yoga is yoga, but once you get a little more involved in the yoga community, you start to realize the breadth and depth of the practice.
You start to hear names like Forrest, Rocket, Dharma, Kundalini and Ishta and I’m only naming a few! Given the number of influences in the practice, it’s only natural to find differences and perhaps even contradictions in the teaching. So, do your research. Does this style of yoga resonate with you? Does it make sense to you? Do you agree with the philosophy?
Yoga taught in gyms and corporate environments will generally be quite generic without much made of the philosophy and more esoteric aspects of the practice. However, when it comes to individual studios, they will normally specialize in a few styles of yoga and may even be quite forthcoming in the philosophy they adhere to. I have heard of some studios where being vegetarian is mandatory. Find out what the message of the studio is, what their influences are, and then you can decide whether it’s the right space for you.
Yoga is everywhere.
Let’s face it—there is just so much yoga available. With all of this yoga noise, it can be hard to discern what is right for you. Don’t get me wrong, I love that more people are rolling out a mat and giving yoga a go. It’s wonderful. But what we see now is a very confusing marketplace.
There is fitness yoga, yoga hybrids, cults, yoga celebrities and more. What happened to good old, simple authentic yoga? Well it does still exist and there are some amazing yoga communities out there. You just need to spend a little more time finding a space that is right for you.
Part of the yoga experience is community and I would encourage you to seek out a studio which supports you, a studio where you feel comfortable to be yourself no matter your age, gender, or religion. Yoga exists for all.
Yoga has its own language (and I’m not talking about Sanskrit).
Think back to your first class. Along with feeling tight, confused between your lefts and rights, and perhaps a little apprehensive, you may also remember not understanding a single thing the teacher said. ‘Lengthen your tailbone down to the ground’, ‘Lift your back ribs away from your hips’ and ‘Breathe into the back body’. Say what?!
Language is a big part of the yoga experience. Some teachers are really gifted in how they communicate cues and for others, it doesn’t come as naturally. The more you immerse yourself in yoga, the more comfortable you will feel with the language and it will start to make sense. Sometimes the language and cues are literal, ‘Put your right hand on your right hip,’ and other times it’s more metaphorical and is used to help heighten your awareness of an area in the body (e.g. breathe into your back body).
If you struggle understanding something the teacher says, then make sure you ask them about it. As a teacher, I love it when students ask me a question or challenge something I say. It makes me a better teacher as I often go away and reflect on why I say certain things or include a particular cue. As much as yoga teachers (myself included) may appear to always be fully present, focused, and in the moment, the truth is that sometimes in class we can go on auto-pilot. Teachers are still students too and it benefits everyone when questions are raised.
Teachers have varying cues and alignment philosophies.
As science continues to develop and as our understanding of anatomy and human movement grows, there will always be new alignment cues and tips to listen out for. This is why I think it’s important to know a little about your teacher—are they still studying and practicing? Are they up to date with the new developments and therefore able to pass that knowledge onto students in class?
A good teacher is not just defined by their understanding of philosophy or their ability to hold space in the studio. These things are important, but I do believe that teachers should communicate a message which is relevant and supported by science.
For example, the placement of the bottom hand in Extended Side Angle–this one comes up a lot. Depending on the teacher’s personal preference and their training, they may say that the hand must be on the outside of the front foot (Ashtanga style), but a lot of newer teachers will say the hand can be on the inside.
Does it matter, you ask? Well, this is where students must take some responsibility for their own practice and spend time discovering how the poses feel in the body. Personally, I think students should attempt the cue which the teacher gives (as long as it’s safe) and then if it’s not working or doesn’t feel great, they can return to the alignment they’re comfortable with.
Ultimately there’s only so much teachers can communicate in a group setting, particularly these days with class times decreasing, so I would encourage students to have some private lessons if they’re concerned or confused about postures. With time and practice, students will can develop a deeper understanding of their own body and may rely less and less on a teacher’s cueing and more on their internal physical alignment.
So, what are you supposed to do now? Well, I think we should consider the words of the great yoga teacher Sri Pattabhi Jois, ‘Yoga is an internal practice. The rest is just a circus.’ Roll out your mat, breathe deeply, withdraw your senses and learn to listen to the teacher inside of you.
Image credit: Odette Hughes