Practicing (Which is Different Than Following)

Recently, I watched a YouTube video of three teachers (each with several decades of teaching experience) demonstrating a sun salutation together.  One of them, a  warm, humble, thoughtful person, cued the other two through each part of the sequence, as if the two associates were encountering it for the first time.  Of course this is the norm; it’s how most, if not all of us, were taught to teach.   But for whatever reason, it struck me as odd and triggered two related memories.

The first took me back to the late 90s when I inadvertently annoyed a group of students who had been regularly attending a Sunday morning Yoga class I taught.  I asked them to complete three sun salutations by themselves, without me guiding them, and then I promised to pick up the proceedings from there.

Two students walked out (‘they didn’t come here for this’).  Those who remained begrudgingly went through the motions – or some of the motions.  Even though many of these students had been led through 100′s of sun salutations in their lifetime, more than half practiced hesitantly: repeating a left or a right side, skipping portions of the sequence and/or mixing up their breaths and their movements.

I hadn’t meant to offend anyone.  And I didn’t expect I’d mess up the flow of the class either. I figured everyone would have welcomed a 5-minute respite from me yakking at them and I didn’t think I wasn’t asking them to do something they couldn’t do.  Not wanting to hurt my all-important class numbers, I went back to teaching the ‘regular’ way: calling out the posture names and noting a few details about each one, regardless of whether the students in front of me were hearing that information for the first or the five hundredth time.

I also remembered encountering a similar situation a year or so  later. I joined two hundred other participants taking a workshop with T.K.V. Desikachar at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY.  Some of my fellow retreatants had been students of Yoga for a few months but many were accomplished practitioners and teachers with years of study under their belts.

To kick off the first session, Mr. Desikachar drew a stick figure of dvipada pitham (bridge pose) and asked us to create a short practice using it.  Many went to work on the mini-assignment nonplussed but the reaction in the room also included a mix of panic, frustration, confusion, and annoyance (‘we didn’t come here for this.’)  The discontented faction tipped the agenda.  The assignment was scratched and for the remainder of the weekend Mr. Desikachar led us through group practices.

These days, it’s rare that I talk clients through postures, breathing or meditation techniques. I mostly work with individuals who want encouragement or guidance in crafting a personal practice. Together we create practices that the client will explore for days or weeks at a time. So, naturally, one of our objectives is to make sure they feel confident and safe working on their own. When we meet up again, they share their observations on their practice and sometimes show me sections that they have questions about or want feedback on. Their feedback, our discussion and whatever their current condition is, drives the next iteration of their practice.

But I don’t work exclusively with individuals.

In fact, moments after watching my colleague’s video, I popped into one of the two group classes I still teach. For the next hour I lead and they followed. I took this group (a group I have worked with for fifteen years) through various postures and breathing techniques that each of them already knew. In the process I probably repeated instructions or reminders they had heard hundreds of times.

In many respects, I think it’s a balanced, thoughtful class. I try to be smart about the movement palette we use (we liberally adapt classical postures to make them relevant for this diverse group whose ages range from 45 to 80 and who are tasked with sitting in chairs most of the day). I encourage them to maintain their focus on the quality of their attention and on the feel of their breathing. And I regularly receive feedback from the participants about how supported they feel and how appreciative they are that our class has continued for so many years.

So it’s a balanced, thoughtful class that tries to meet the participants where they are, is appreciated by them AND it all takes place within a context in which I lead and they follow.

Doesn’t that ‘I lead, you follow’ piece strike anyone else as weird? The more I’ve thought about why I was giving instructions to people who already knew what they were doing – and why they’d want me in that role – the more it makes me wonder why most group Yoga classes embrace this teaching structure. It’s a bizarre strategy that seems even stranger when applied to other contexts:

  • Imagine playing a round of golf with a teaching pro who talked you through every aspect of your address, backswing, downswing and follow-thru..  And can you imagine if she – or her teaching pro in training – did hands-on corrections to you during every putt?  What if ‘playing golf’ really meant ‘being talked through a round of golf’?
  • Or what if you and your friends took a baking class with a chef who directed ‘cracking the eggs,’ ‘opening the bottle of milk,’ ‘scooping out the flour’ and ‘sifting it into the bowl.’  Would you expect those kinds of instructions on day one?  Would you be surprised to be receiving more or less identical instructions three weeks, three months or three years later?  How confident would you feel making a birthday cake on your own?  Would you feel as confident using a recipe other than the one you were taught?

When my son learned the alphabet, there came a point when his teacher stopped saying the letters with him, when he and his classmates were left out there, all alone, with the task of identifying the letter that followed ‘K.’  Like all of us, he may have hesitated or fumbled at first, but eventually, he confidently arrived at ‘L’ and thus, was one step further on the path towards a lifetime of reading and writing.

True, some group exercise classes are also ‘led’ but in many other movement forms (dance and martial arts, e.g.) the teachers don’t provide, nor do the students ask for, such an extended period of verbal or visual codling.  Instead, those teachings are shared in environments that embrace ‘not-knowing’ as part of the process and that encourage their students’ bumbling along towards mastery.

And of course, I’m sure the language in most group Yoga classes embraces ‘not-knowing’ so what I’m wondering is whether the structure of the learning environment undercut those heartfelt words? With the exception of Mysore-style astangha classes where each student is tasked to work on (by herself) whatever part of the first, second or third series she is up to, every other group class I am familiar with features an instructor leading the students through a series of postures, breathing techniques and/or meditation instructions.

On the one hand, teachers tend to suggest that the students should feel free to tune out what they are saying and only take in whatever’s relevant. But do our preferences lie with ‘do what I say’ or on ‘pay attention to yourself’? When students liberally deviate from the given instructions for an extended period, what comes up in you (as the teacher or as a fellow practitioner)?  Is it really okay?  Or does it detract from the overall experience? If it was my expectation, as the teacher or as a practitioner, that we’d all be more or less working on the same things (with a little variation here) and then and someone broke into a flow practice in the midst of a restorative class, I’d be totally distracted.

But what if everybody coming together and doing their own thing – even if it was radically different mat to mat – was the expectation. What if that was the new norm of a group class.

In my 1-on-1 sessions with clients who expect to leave with homework, they don’t expect for us to have a ‘Yoga experience’ together. They expect they’ll emerge with things to work on for the days/weeks ahead. If they don’t leave with essential oils or sweat (or both) on their forehead or a post-savasana or post-meditative glow that’s fine with them because they can construct those experiences on their own (if they even want them).

What would happen if, instead of leading our next group class, we turned over more of the direction and flow of the class to the students and focused our energies on creating a supportive, safe and encouraging environment for them to begin developing an individualized practice?  What if the 7pm class was still wall-to-wall practitioners, but suppose each practitioner was there working on his or her own thing, in their own way.  The collective group could still draw support from one another’s energy and focus but instead of being a class where ‘they’ followed ‘us’ it would be one where individuals practiced together.

As teachers our preparation would need to be quite different from what it is now.  We would probably need to prepare jumping off points for class attendees, greeting each participant with a menu of options for them to practice. Or we might, as Mr. Desikachar attempted to do, post on the wall a posture, or a series of postures, and invite the attendees to construct and practice their own sequence for the next twenty minutes. Afterwards, everyone could reconvene and share what worked, what didn’t and what they might do differently the next time. Over time, clarity about what each person needed to include in her practice would emerge.

As practitioners, more would be asked of us, too.  Along with the freedom to practice what we wanted, would also come the responsibility to take closer care of our practice and of our attention during it. We wouldn’t be able to rely on someone else’s charisma, energy, shakti, or creativity to get us through.  We would, however, get to tap into and cultivate those very same qualities within us.  And I believe – and the clients I have worked with concur – that the benefits and the sense of empowerment that flow from crafting one’s own practice would far outpace the initial challenges.  I imagine that a room full of personal practitioners would be inspiring.

I’m not naive enough to imagine that it would eliminate Yoga-derived injuries or that it would prevent power imbalances between practitioners/teachers but perhaps a more collaborative model would give practitioners a greater voice in announcing why they are there and what their hopes are.

Of course, in shifting paradigms, I’m sure we’d annoy some people. I’m sure some would announce ‘they didn’t come here for this.’  But I bet many others would happily bumble along with us.

46 responses

  1. It is wonderful to read this article after having discussed it in class yesterday. I think the concept is interesting, and yes, would require some teaching. It is a big leap to go from verbal cues for every posture and breath to none at all. I was aware yesterday that you were asking us to “do 2 more of those”… so giving us a nudge in the “non-cue” direction. Maybe we start with 5 minutes of “freestyle” during class and build from there.

    I see an interesting correlation to my work at Green Team Spirit where I help organizations transition toward sustainability. The early stages of the process often take leadership and staff out of their comfort zone to confront “business as usual” and adopt new ways of working. Resulting systemic change takes time, encouragement and guidance.

    Who better to lead us out of our comfort zone than you?

    • I agree Dani that there is a leap from being cued to self-direction – towards a self-sustaining personal practice. Being cued is a challenge unto itself (hearing, processing, acting upon, etc.) which develops a certain quality of attention. Being cued certainly creates a particular kind of relationship, a certain kind of attention and listening. You also raise an interesting point re: the journey from being cued to being self-directed – would the goal be to change a “cued group” into a “self-directed group” or to carve out a new space/time slot/expectations/learning process for those who want to hop on that path. As you say, this parallels your work… so I’m counting on your leadership here, as well!

  2. Thank you so much for your beautiful affirmation of my own desires in a yoga class – both as a student and a teacher. This approach IS radically different from most group yoga classes and may not appeal to everyone, but I would love to see how the world of yoga would evolve if more and more yoga classes looked like this. (There are some teachers who do take this approach in their classes, at least to some extent. Angela Farmer and Erich Schiffmann come immediately to mind). Thanks again for this thoughtful piece!

    • Thank you Claudia, I’m glad to know there are others pondering (and taking action) on these and similar thoughts. I wholeheartedly agree that creating a space for personal practitioners need not replace the space for those who would rather embark on a shared practice. But I suspect, as you do, that all practices would be impacted by the option to craft personalized practices. I’m curious to hear from your colleagues and your students as well!

  3. Very inspirational. A call for more pro active, less passive, yoga? I do want to feel the yoga more directly in my body. I sometimes lose that connection when I follow verbal instructions comingfrom the outside.
    I feel I have the vocabulary, but don’t yet feel confident putting sentences together. Or paragraphs!

    • I love how you’re thinking about this Iris… “you have the vocabulary but don’t yet feel confident putting sentences together, or paragraphs!” Let’s get you up and writing, already! The more tuned in you become to a practice that draws on the inspiration in your life the more you’ll uncover and the more that will impact the rest of us. Let’s keep this conversation going.

  4. Just once it would be nice to see workshops called ‘Developing a home/solo practice’ rather than the usual back bending, arm balances and jump though.

    Love the Desikachar paragraph. The absurdity is that this is Yoga, the most introspective of practices, surely there’s an inherent absurdity to group practice. Teachers should be giving their students a bag of tools, then kick them out of the studio after a handful of lessons, let them come back once a week, then once a month perhaps.

    Thanks for this.

    • Love it. I think “back bending,” “arm balancing” and “jumping through” workshops can be wonderful tutorials especially if they contained “for” as part of their title. “Back bending for group classes” would teach me how to get through back bends in that context (eg, If there’s an unspoken agreement in group classes that we’re not going to stop the flow of the class to break down the details of back bending, but instead trust that you have previously worked on this material by yourself). Whereas “Back bending for personal practice” would empower me to explore back bending on my own, to play with hip extension, thoracic extension, or extension with lateral flexion, or extension with rotation, etc., with the understanding of how those motions/positions informed classical postures, how they created interesting breathing shapes, or how those motions might play a developmental, therapeutic or preventative role in one’s activities… It’d be amazing to have groups of students coming back after days or weeks of self-directed practice and see where that brought everyone else to as well.

  5. As many who know me can attest, I am not a proponent of change. I love your class the way it is. I love that I come and am instructed to do things that may be difficult, but that make me feel better. I don’t have to think about my movements, I trust that you are doing that for me. I only have to feel my body respond.

    I feel I have enough self-direction and responsibility in my life. Your class is a gift, that I do not want to exchange.

    peace, meryl

    • This is a great post Meryl and I suspect that your preference for not having to think about your movements is shared by many, many others. (I appreciate the trust you extend my way and also your generous image of how I have handled that trust.) I’m not convinced, as I’ve mentioned in other replies, that eliminating the group class as it is conceived right now is “the” answer, but I think what is missing is a new space for people to come together and draw support from one another as they practice. I’m sure we’ll keep this thread alive as we continue to work together… Thanks for taking the time out to share your perspective with me and others here.

      • I think it’s a great idea to offer “free style” time! I try to encourage my students to continue their practice at home during the week (one group yoga class a week really isn’t enough). I get the feeling there isn’t a lot of personal practice going on at their homes and it could be because they have no idea what to do unless they are led through the class. That being said, however, when I am led in a class I don’t have to think about what I will do next. It frees my mind so I can go into postures, listen to what my body is telling me, and appreciate how I feel. I’m free to focus on my breath, my intention for my practice, or connect on a more spiritual level. I hear what the teacher is saying but because my body knows how to it my mind can go off on its own path depending on how I feel that particular day.

        I’m new to teaching and you’ve sparked something in me with this topic. I may give it a few weeks and then offer some “free style” time in some of my classes. I will suggest that if anyone wants to try it, perhaps they could place their mats in a certain area so they won’t disturb others who would prefer to be led step by step. The we can all come back to our regular class and still close with our group “yoga dessert” time.

      • All right… you started the food metaphors 🙂 I actually started thinking about this in relation to cooking. In addition to loving to teach Yoga, I also love to cook. And, I love going out to restaurants where the chefs put a lot of attention on how the food journeyed to our plates… If I had to rely on chefs to make each and every meal, I would never know how to feed myself (even though I might really enjoy their creativity). Naturally, I (and few others) can afford to have a chef prepare all of my meals… Having someone cook for us is awesome… and having someone lead us through a practice (provided it’s well prepared) can be pretty awesome too (‘dessert’ as you aptly described it). I look forward to hearing how you freestyle it with your students in the weeks ahead!! Thanks for joining in, Al

  6. A very excellent and thought provoking article on how yoga should be thought . But we must keep one thing in mind that Self practice is not for everyone . It is only for the very serious practitioner who is willing to spend time and energy in discovering the postures for himself and only very few students are interested in such an approach . 90% of Yoga practitioners come to yoga expecting the teacher to do the work for them in the form of giving instructions , giving adjustments , giving motivation and they are not ready for self practice .

    • I agree Krishna Self Practice would not be for everyone. I don’t know what percentage of existing practitioners might want to drift in this direction but I suspect that there’s a broad pool of not-yet-practitioners who have self-selected out of group classes who might benefit by this new format. The pathway towards Self Practice seems to be a worthy one to sketch out…. I appreciate your thoughts and energy in this direction!

  7. I regularly teach a workshop called Developing a Home Yoga Practice. Many folks say that it is a great subject for a workshop, but attendance is generally low to moderate. I think that we have created a culture in yoga classes that implies that class is the same as practice. I don’t think yoga teachers can over-emphasize the importance of practice. One of the things I say at the end of each class is “Happy practice to you–whatever form that takes.”

    • Thank you for being on the front lines of this Paul. I know when I was first starting out on my Yoga journey I heard teachers implore me to ‘practice on my own’ and even when I went to personal practice retreats they were chock full of teacher-led group practices. Group classes are like farmers markets… they provide all kinds of wonderful ingredients that a person could use to make a delicious dinner. So you could go to them and come home with a bounty. But unless and until you know how to cook you’re going to sit around idly in the kitchen… I think many students are under the false belief that a ‘home practice’ needs to look like a ‘studio practice.’ I’ve found that my ‘home practice’ workshops tend to include a strong emphasis on the ‘strategies’ of personal practice (eg, coming with up with your own recipes for practice) and that there is sometimes less of a focus on the ‘techniques’ one might practice at home… How are your workshops structured?

  8. Hi Al! This is a wonderful thought, and I love that you’ve taken all of the recent criticism and controversy and proposed a worthy creative solution that is so in line with your way of teaching. I love the idea of students in a group class directing the conversation inwards. I find that some of the most connected moments in the room occur when students are moving at their own pace through sun salutations or any creative movement their bodies call for. I like to have them close their eyes and let their intuition drive their movements, it makes for a nice break during the mostly lead class. I think there are many creative ways to weave this intention into a group class, and I’d love to hear from other teachers how they’ve experimented with it. I have also been in group classes with a 7-10 minute segment of “open practice” (usually inversions or backbends are suggested) where the teacher provides support to the room while everyone works on their own thing. It can be a challenge to us all after a long day, but ultimately it is very rewarding to make the choice for yourself.

  9. It seems (I can only speak from my experience) yoga has been infused with that good ol’ American competitive spirit. The teachers’ ego competes to be the most popular with the students and the students’ ego competes with everyone else in the class and most disastrously with their true inner selves (spirit/soul/universal consciousness). All of this leads to injury and unethical student-teacher relationships.

    I have found my ego becoming more apparent the deeper I go into the physical practice of yoga. I think Desikachar talks about it as one of the obstacles to yoga….and Iyengar too. The motivation has to be correct.

    In the end, a yoga teacher and practitioner must be constantly keeping their ego in check…guiding toward the mode of goodness and avoiding the modes of passion and ignorance at all costs.

    Thanks for including me in the loop Al!

    All best,
    Jennifer Mulhearn

    • I’ve been reflecting on this observation since you shared it this morning Jennifer. It’s an important one. For me your thoughts have coalesced into the question: Does the environment the teacher creates for the practitioners’ learning experience serve the needs of the practitioners or does it exist to serve the teacher? Thanks for this.

  10. Hi Al
    I enjoy being talked through a series of moves and would not like to lose that experience entirely, especially when trying out new movements/poses. Its also provides a (perhaps therapeutic) break from the responsibility mindset of a workday.

    But a while ago I read an article about the atrophying of people’s navigational skills due to reliance on GPS while driving. So I understand that its good when I can own my experience with yoga and take it with me out of the classroom. Although I don’t have a structured yoga practice, I use the moves and the principles that I learn in class often outside of class.

    • Maggie, the freedom to check out, or rather to choose that the point of your attention will be an instructor’s voice, seems like an important one for many people, not just you. And I love your pondering about one’s navigational skills slackening due to an overreliance on GPS devices. Great!

  11. Thank you Al for considering yoga as a work to be pursued on your own. For myself, yoga is a door to help me correct myself in physical and mental imbalances. Several years back my teacher offered a home practice series that I took. We went over pros/cons of each pose; how to get into and out of some more challanging poses; basic anatomy review; and some of how to progress within ourselves. While I agree with Jennifer, the ego plays apart in competition but also the learning aspect. I teach yoga but as an extension of both my journey in yoga and to help individuals explore themselves. The class is made up of individuals who want to be led safely through pose after pose with the verbal cueing and some adjustments. They are also given things to help them feel better when their individual issues arise which they sometimes practice.

    For me, class represents a narrative journey into myself while being instructed by my kind, knowledgeable teacher. I teach with this in mind to help my students progress inwardly and with the hope that they too will want to begin a home practice.

    • Dawn, you help us remember that there are many different reasons people come to the practice of Yoga. It’s wonderful how a room full of people, with different interests and needs, can have enough of them met to return again and again. I think that’s the ‘magic’ or ‘wonder’ of group classes; they obviously work on certain levels. I’m no intrigued by the possibilities that await for those who seek them, to write their own practices in and for a context that is specific to the specific rhythmns of their body and their life. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

  12. Really great post ~ and worthy of consideration. I no longer teach yoga, but when I did, personal practice was always a consideration. I had a small group of regulars, so it was easy to gradually encourage more and more ‘personal’ practice within the group context.

    It is interesting to note that while my students appreciated the freedom to practice on their own within the class, I found that (as others have noted above) there was little interest in a workshop on how to create a personal practice at home. I do like your idea of workshops that teach something with ‘for’ in the title, eg arm balances for home practice.

    I may return to teaching at some point, and your post has certainly given me food for thought… thank you.

  13. Dear Al,
    A beautiful, well articulated, wise article. Thank you! I have been teaching Yoga for over 20 years and have a similar intention for my students to develop their own true practice. Your words regarding private sessions, “Their feedback, our discussion and whatever their current condition is, drives the next iteration of their practice.” really resonated. I always give “homework”, even in group classes, to whoever chooses to take up the opportunity. Often, I have a moment for the students to partner or assist each other in classes, so that the practice is fresh and they are engaged in Yoga as a living art. Its not so much about getting it all right but being fully there.

    There have been many times I wanted to explain to a student that our session was just a platform to develop something more personal, to bring it all home for in depth “research”. This can be tricky, as it requires real dedication and sometimes “checking in” with my students. I’ve even thought about having a “Yoga Wake up Call” chain where one practitioner calls the next to remind them to do their sadhana, and pass it on.

    May I quote you from your article in my newsletter?
    Thank you again. Om – Lea Kraemer / PRANA MANDIR Yoga

    • Thanks for your appreciation and for sharing your experiences with your students for all of us to consider. Carving out some ‘free exploration time’ within the flow of the group’s shared work is a great strategy. Finding ways to link personal practice back to the strength of a community – which seems to me to be part of what you are proposing with the Yoga Wake Up Call – seems like it could be helpful. I know that group support has been helpful in other situations when a person is trying to let go of certain patterns and take on others. Some practitioners might resonate with self-selecting a personal practice buddy who they would check in with and agree to be responsible to in that new habit forming process. I think the more the desire originates from the inside and is supported/stoked by aides on the outside, then the more likely it is that habits will stick. I’d be thrilled to have you share the post in your studio newsletter – and as interested in hearing the feedback they have. I’m happy to be in touch as needed. Thanks Lea.

  14. Thank you Al, for engaging soulfully with this subject. And for continuing a positive response to current conversations. I enjoyed reading the whole way through, my thoughts stirred to my own recollections of teaching and “leading” yoga classes. As teachers, we would love students to be independently focused but as you said, “only half of the regular students would follow their right foot with their left in your unguided Sun Salutation”. That does make it harder to have student practice follow their own lead. In defense of students, I remember an independent sunrise Astanga class where I couldn’t remember the series sequence, and felt less than sure. I like attending a class without having to decide my asana sequence. It is easier to lose myself in the movement. The other side of the coin recalls my chi gung classes with eyes closed, instructed to be the movement by our teacher (also a choreographer) to respond not to outside stimuli but to an inner awareness of energetic flow. A good thing youtube was not yet invented.
    Often our class will start with me saying, “Imagine that we just got up (if it’s a morning class). What might we feel inclined to do as a “first thing, still sleepy” stretch.” Whichever pose we choose, after a pregnant pause, is usually selected by me, true enough. But it includes the request to remember the initial 5 minute, 3 to 4 asana sequence, so that yoga practice can easily follow folks home and perhaps be at bedside tomorrow morning. Sometimes a student already on their mat will give a clue to how we start- why ask that person to regroup? Pretty much always, class begins with a reference from which to turn inward. It has been so tempting, over the past 10 years of teaching, to just once say, “we have silent meditation” and leave students to their mind’s own contortions for a half hour. It sure is necessary for a deep yoga practice but… there is a line across which yogis may be better served outside of group class.
    Believe it or not, I once started a class with everyone wearing their shoes, thinking to mix yoga mat mindfulness with the 5 minutes earlier before a student’s regular routine. Not every idea goes over big:). However, students are in class to have the advantage not re-inventing the wheel. This is why we come to yoga class- let the yoga teacher use their experience as a guide (but not repeat poses without benefit of their insight). A teacher’s instruction may be a constant taskmaster, or a repetitive mantra, or an old school silent follow the leader, but it still needs the fresh assessment of where we want to go.
    And we do take field trips to Buddhist meditation. I was inspired recently, perhaps NYTimes readers will remember an article about mindful eating, to begin class with two raisins, the 2nd one for the corner of the yoga mat. All in an hour’s class for a dedicated yoga teacher. So it makes me think, if students have a home yoga practice, then they already practice without a teacher during the week, ergo in class they can benefit from the instructor’s insights into flow and stillness. If they don’t practice otherwise, well, those are the yogis I like for your example of T.K.V. Desikachar’s written stick figure instruction to spend 5 minutes to develop one or two poses on their own. I may use this next week. For me also, longer teacher held poses allow everyone to spend needed time with their own experience, even in a group class. And there is always a way to modify- instead of an independent class, many teachers will ask students to continue a particular flow at their own breath rhythm or movement pace, at different times during class. The class challenge is for participants to find their own oneness by giving it up to the group, and for teachers to be in touch with the synergistic direction of where the students want to go. That is a wonderful group yoga class. Yes, teaching is not static or one sided, students grow through their own trials and teachers can not rely on formula if it doesn’t serve a student’s progress. Teachers need to have keen observation, a lot of knowledge and an abundant repertoire from which to form a class. Yoga is deep enough to have fun, to learn, to stimulate and to surrender. While poses may find themselves again and again, each day has new moments to explore, alone and together. )ohn

    • John, it’s nice hearing from you and I’m hoping this finds you well. Certainly it finds you full of rich thoughts and inspirations. There’s much merit I think to encouraging and challenging practitioner’s memory – your strategy of inviting them to remember the first five minutes is great. In my training with Gary Kraftsow we used to build our memory capacity bit by bit, needing to eventually recall and stick figure 90 minute sequences. It was then, and remains to this day, a skill that I am grateful for because its dividends go far beyond recording data. I remember in my mind and my body the experiences I had. Practitioners who attend the group classes I lead have talked about that ‘not quite sure what to do next’ sensation you described experiencing in the sunrise class. As someone who has spent extended periods of time meditating, perhaps you recognize that same disorientation can occur when sitting. To me ‘guided meditations’ were always fantastic, but once I was on my own sitting by myself, it felt like bowling without the bumpers and magnetically I was drawn towards the gutters… but over time I straightened out… Thanks for your kind words and your sharing, you’ve given me more to chew on!

  15. Erich Schiffmann has been experimenting with what he calls Freedom Style Yoga. In the last workshop I attended with him, for one song — maybe 4 minutes — we were able to do whatever poses we felt moved to do. He said in his classes at home he started with one song and is up to four. I have done this a couple of times at the end of my class at home, and most people are OK with it, though I notice them seeing what someone else is doing and doing that. So, they’re not really listening to their bodies for what’s needed. Anyway, interesting idea. Thanks for posting.

    • Julie thanks for bringing Erich Schiffmann into the conversation. Its nice to hear what he’s up to and even more so how you, too, are experimenting with these ideas, too. Its nourishing having a community of people committed to deepening, enhancing and expanding one another’s practice of Yoga.

  16. Hi Al and thank you so much for this truly inspiring article. I myself have been playing around with this idea (in my head) for some time and not quite knowing where to take it. Having the belief that yoga is a personal practice and not one to be standardised or group prescribed has often led me to feel that my group classes are a compromise and one that I’m not always happy with. Yes you can personalise to a certain extent in a led group class, even so not to the extent, I believe, where the practice can be truly transformational. Like a couple of other posters I have also tried running “Develop a Personal Practice” workshops but unfortunately they haven’t been attended as I might like. Your post has inspired me to run another and to follow up with a weekly ‘personal practice’ class for those interested exploring this idea. I also would very much like to share your article in my newsletter and blog. Thanks again!

    • Thank you so much for following this blog and also for following through on your own desire about how to encourage personal practice. I’m more than happy to suggest some strategies for you to try using in your reboot of the Develop a Personal Practice workshop. I’ll be posting about them very shortly. I think practicing by oneself is a different kind of transformational experience than practicing in a group – some will prefer it, some, not so much. But I think the key to encouraging and inspiring others to take up a personal practice is painting a picture of what it is (what it doesn’t have to be) and, as you are suggesting, giving them opportunities to refine their understanding of it in groups. Please share my article as you please and let’s stay in the loop on this!

  17. This is a complex situation. I think the issue and the trouble is that you are trying to pose the idea of replacing something of one genre for something else of a very different genre. It would be like suggesting that you replace listening to pop music with classes on how to write a novel.

    Okay, here goes. What gets commonly called a Yoga Class is really a group fitness class. I personally don’t think there is anything wrong with this as long as you categorize it as what it is. The people who lead Yoga Classes are often referred to as Yoga Teachers although this is sort of a misnomer because they are not really teaching and they are not really teaching Yoga.

    Okay, so lets define teaching. When you are teaching someone something you are helping the person go from not understanding something to understanding it. The process is one where the teacher needs to understand what information is missing and help the “student” come to understand that information or material. So there is an element of problem solving in the process of helping someone go from not understanding something to understanding it a little better.

    Now in a group yoga class there are elements of leading people through a routine and then there is a small element of helping people go from not understanding, to understanding. At the same time, there is a learning process that occurs in a group class that is not necessarily based on what the yoga instructor is presenting.

    Now, I personally think the format for group classes is on some level, okay. I think the issue with people getting injured has more to do with the demographics of who is leading those Group Fitness classes that get called yoga classes and what goals they are inadvertently imposing on the attendees of the class.

    For a long time I have felt that the level of teaching out there, in the group yoga class world is stuck somewhere around the nursery school/ kindergarten level of presentation. I personally believe T. K. V. Desikchar and Kaustub Desikachar’s “teaching” is somewhere around the high school/undergrad level of teaching. And you can call what they present teaching because they are more concerned with teaching than with leading people through a group fitness routine. But it is still very dumbed down.

    Again, I personally don’t think that is such a big deal.

    I think the issue of making group classes safer and more useful to the people participating in them is a great and worthwhile issue. But it is worth listening to the statements of people like Meryl and Krishna. Not everyone wants the Graduate School level education of learning WHAT YOGA ACTUALLY IS AND HOW TO DO IT FOR YOURSELF.

    Many people want to just go to a forum where they go, they do the work that is asked of them, they do the breathing and concentration exercises asked of them, they finish, and feel better. I think that is a huge and valuable service. It is also, not what everyone wants.
    So lets distinguish two things. The people who want a routine that will make them feel temporarily better and create an experience that they can repeat again and again. And I would say, for this, the main issue is: how to make the work appropriate for the people who show up, so they are sufficiently challenged without risk of injury. Perhaps while doing this, it might be possible to open the door of interest to deeper learning as a result of these experiences. But not for all. And what does sufficiently challenging mean? There are some people who should work hard and it is good for them to work intensely and you can work intensely and stay injury free. How would one create a forum where people who lead group yoga experiences learn how to do a better job of keeping people safe, challenging people who need a challenge and encouraging people to back off when they should back off; which may or may not meaning working less hard. But practice can be soft, gentle, restorative, intense, challenging, hard, and still be safe.

    Now I have to be honest, I am comfortable with a lot of things. There are people who I really help learning what some of the deeper aspects of yoga are. There are teacher trainees who I try and help learn some of those things as well. Then there are teacher trainees who are not open to that info so I don’t try and impose it on them.

    With teacher trainees, with people trying to learn how to teach other people to practice, I try and explain to them that if they really want to be able to teach and help other people learn to practice they should do a practice on their own. An analogy I use for this is being in a city you have never been to before. It is easy to get lost and wonder around and not be able to find anything. If you know someone who lives in that city, you can get shown around and see a lot of stuff very quickly. But the next day you will still not be able to find any of those things yourself. This is what is happening in a group yoga class. You are getting led around the city. Now, say I am a tourist and I am only going to be there for a little while so my goal is to see as much as possible in as short a time as possible. Then it is fine to have someone take me around. This is what most people want when they practice too.

    Now, if you went and tried to find your way around the city on your own, at first you would not see very much. But the next day, you would be able to find most of what you found on the previous day and it would take a little less time. So you would have time to wander a little more and find a little more. And over the course of months and years you would be able to get to know the ins and outs of that city pretty thoroughly.

    This seems to be the type of teaching you are most interested in Al, so I would say that what you need is to try and create the forum for that kind of learning. As someone else said, most of the time when a workshop with a title like “Developing Your Own Home Practice” is offered, the attendance is often quite low which shows that, either there is not much interest, or, the course was advertised in the wrong circles to people who were not interested in that kind of subject matter. So the issue might be, creating a forum where people who are interested in that aspect of deeper practice can start to learn.

    I talked about teacher trainees, who I have taught. I have of course taught people who are teachers as well. But I have taught people who have no interest in learning Yoga, and just want to do a session where they leave feeling good as well.

    I have private clients who answer their phones in the middle of sessions. I would much rather they get a session and feel better after than not help them have less stress in their lives because they don’t realize that I think REAL YOGA means ignoring the phone. I have private clients who love being lead through their particular routine and have no intention of doing any of that work on their own. I have private clients who practice every day. I have private clients who are professional athletes, lawyers, diplomats, and do not want another discipline to add to their already busy lives. The time they spend with me is something leaves them feeling more relaxed and better able to face the other tasks of their lives. I will continue to respect that. Some of my clients want body work more than they want to do the work themselves. When I can help someone I try.

    But, the forum for higher learning is a real, important and valuable one. And when someone is interested in learning how to practice on their own, it does make my heart sing.

    So the two questions I would put out there are:

    1) How do we deepen the education of the people leading group classes to make those group experiences a safer environment so that people who are being led can enjoy that experience if that is what they want, without the risk of injury or having someone else’s goals imposed on them without those goals being appropriate for the class attendees?

    2) How do we create a forum for deeper learning where people who are interested in learning, a) how to do a physical practice that is in line with their needs, b) how to do some of the deeper aspects of physical practice such as pranayama and meditation in a way that is useful to the particular practitioner, and, c) how to get to understand and perhaps even experience some of the deeper philosophical and perhaps even mystical aspects of yoga.

    Not everyone is going to be interested in all 3 aspects of question 2 either. ☺

    Anyway, that is my two cents on the subject. I am all for people learning to practice for themselves, I am all for people getting to know some of the deeper aspects of the Yoga Tradition, which is vast beyond belief, and I am all for people who just want to go somewhere, do a fitness routine that they will call Yoga and leave safe, healthy and in a better mood than when they walked in. ☺

    Sorry for how long winded I am, but, you did ask my opinion. 🙂

    • Carl thanks for such a thorough sharing of your thought process on this. The final two questions (and their sub points) that you arrive at are really interesting ones. There certainly are several avenues a person could take when it comes to Yoga practice and I wouldn’t necessarily rank them so much as check in with people (on an individual level) and ask, hey, is such and such a way working for you? If so great. That’s a perfect match. If not, then, that seems like a moment for inquiry – could we tweak some things, or do we need to sit with the perfect-imperfection of ‘things being what they are.’ In being such a fan of personal practice and in supporting the concept of groups of personal practitioners coming together to work in one another’s company I certainly am not advocating that we do away with led classes – they are meeting a lot of people’s needs – rather, I am observing “hey you know what… if these other paths are important ones, maybe we need to do some work to make them clearer… maybe we need to do a little bushwhacking here and there so people who want to go down those paths know that they’re available and passable.

      You’ve put an awful lot of time, energy and thought into your comments and I appreciate that you’ve added your voice into this evolving mix.

      • Sounds good. 🙂 And it is always a good time to add new forums for deeper learning of such an expansive and complex practice as yoga is. And consistently checking in with people is a huge part of being skilled at helping people practice. For a long time I went with that thought that Desikachar presents that, if you care, that is a central part of being able to become a good yoga teacher: if you care for and about the practitioners you are trying to help. But I realize, while caring is hugely important, it is not enough. The word Empathy comes to mind. This computer’s dictionary gives this definition of the word empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. The ability to understand someone from their own perspective, or, at least an attempt to try and understand another his/her own perspective is something that goes a long way in helping people become better at the art of teaching whether, that is in the midst of a class where the teacher is leading people through a routine or in a forum where the emphasis is on real teaching of deeper and more subtle aspects of practice. The truth is that an attempt at empathy would be hugely helpful for anyone trying to teach any subject.

        Hey I was not quite as long winded. Peace. 🙂

  18. Hi Al,

    I enjoyed your story and understand as both a teacher and practitioner the importance of developing a home practice. I also love the approach of guiding students through a sequence for them to use at home. I often ask particular students to work with a particular pose (or series of poses) at home to encourage their growth and to help with particular issues they are working through.

    I do also feel that students should attend class regularly to ensure they are practicing safely. Even experienced practitioners may begin to rest in habits. We all have tendencies we fall into and having someone there to guide us is extremely important in developing our practice. We can then apply those lessons or that guidance in our own personal practice.

    Just like any other teacher, I walk through the regular directions (lift your knee caps, draw the shoulder blades down the back, etc.). Each time I do, I see new and experienced students draw their knee caps up or lift their chest (even though they already know they should be doing this). Even the simplest poses are extremely specific. Depending on the day, any student may be less aware of one or many of these nuances in any given pose. By coming to class, the mindful student can then become aware of patterns in their practice.

    As teachers, I believe it is our responsibility to create a learning environment where students begin to take in information in a way that they can apply it in future classes or at home. It is very easy for a student to come to class and walk through the motions, just to leave class and forget what they did or how they did it. By creating that environment for learning, we can get our students to think about what they are doing and those specific pieces of the pose start to come together in a way that allows the student to build a practice based on awareness.

    • Paul, there’s a lot of really good stuff to follow up on further here for me.

      I’m really interested in how we can help our students ‘turn on’ their bodies in ways that will help make those ‘to do lists’ of this body part here, that body part there obsolete. My introductory training involved memorizing lists of things to say in every pose and most of it was geared towards cuing concentric contractions throughout the body… And yet as I’ve gone deeper in my own studies, I’ve wondered more and more about why I was inviting students to concentrically contract when that’s not how the body functions in ‘real life;’ it processes movements “e-concentrically’ which is to say through a combination of eccentric and concentric contractions. The more I’ve encouraged my students to pay attention to the way gravity, their mass and momentum, and reactive forces like ground reaction force effect their bodies while moving the less they have needed to keep track of what muscle was meant to being doing what and the more they’ve been able to focus on ‘asana’ that special way of being in their body. Much more to write about this, but again, I appreciate that you’ve helped cue it with your wish to ‘allow the students to build a practice based on awareness.’


  19. Hi Al,

    Thanks for a very thoughtful post. I’d be happy to bumble along in a new direction. You identified an area of my practice which I feel has been weak for me which is confidence. The new format you’re proposing might be a good way for me to work on developing my confidence but within a supportive structure. Looking forward to the journey.

    • It’s great having you on the journey Sean! I love how you’ve so succinctly identified two of the most important components of this process: ‘developing confidence’ and ‘within a supportive structure.’ Thanks for your clarity, Al

  20. I’d had little to no choice. I had to develop my own sequence. It is tougher than anyone could imagine if you practice vinyasa and soft vinyasa. DVD’s were not cutting it for me. I did not like working in response to a teacher very much (except I liked live classes better than videos and audios). The classes that were most geographically convenient for me were in too strong a style (even in their so-called “Beginners” or “Level I” classes. Since I could not financially afford to develop dependency on a yoga studio (and they try to foster this, at the cellular level), I developed my own go-to sequence that actually left me MORE grounded, MORE centered, and just-enough-worked-out as anything the studio could dish out, except on a fluke. I renewed my class pack only once more. Never went back to that studio (long story). My home practice skyrocketed when I’d gone to a studio that was more “old school” (much more alignment-oriented and milder than what I had experienced at the first venue).

    I now am a happy practitioner frequently to online instruction, upon which I (if a little too proudly) improvise and riff … oh, and of course, my own self-sequenced (if pre-sequenced) home vinyasa practice …

  21. I’d had no CHOICE but to develop my own home practice!

    Which is easier said than done if you practice vinyasa and soft vinyasa yoga.
    DVDs and audio CDs were not cutting it for me.

    I needed SERIOUS prehabilitation and cross-training for the studio!

    I’d gone to a studio that taught a harsh, bendy, excruciatingly-slow and over-the-top form of vinyasa yoga meant to encourage dependency on the studio’s “patented” square dance caller (the whole class) and half-the-class “the yoga teacher workout” demo techniques. With and without aggressive adjustments – this was not enough, at first with me, to foster actual biomechanical and physical dependency (at the cellular level) on the class– to keep the people coming back to class, they upsold me every chance they got. Financially, I could not afford frequent classes, so I spaced a class pack to their straining capacity with regard to expiration dates.

    But when their techniques of attempting to retain this student had become despicable (I got it out of my system with my own blog, including borderline physical assault – long story), luckily, the market has a way of taking care of teachers like that, but I’d left (to never return) before that had happened.

    Now, I follow yoga online frequently (interspersed with my own home practice); and improvise their offerings to death (if the online services only knew). Both approaches do what the former studio (my first of only 5 I’d ever tried – I could not afford many classes) rarely could, except on a fluke: CENTER me, OPEN my mind, and CALM me …

    • I may have realized a moment too late that I included two versions of your comment – but both are great, shedding different light through the prism of your thoughts on the matter. I appreciate that you thought had no choice – but it sure seems to me like you discovered something really wonderful when given the options in front of you (to turn away from Yoga entirely, to turn away from a system of Yoga that wasn’t working or to ignore your body’s whispers/urgent shouts and to stick with the square dance caller). You also remind me of long conversations I’ve had with people about Yoga class levels… (What’s a Level I? Is the level measured by the athletic challenge or measured by the challenges to one’s attention?) I’m glad you’re developing your ‘personal practice voice’ and grateful that you are sharing your voice here with all of us!

      • Maybe other people go to class to learn new poses or to supply themselves with the discipline to go through with a lengthy practice session that isn’t just a bunch of shazam or comfort asana … But I did go to a yoga class for the same reason somebody stereotypical would go take a workshop: they have an ongoing, comprehensive, lengthy and frequent home practice (OR, and this they were Kula members of a currently-disgraced school of yoga) but, in both cases, they just need some new approaches … could care less about “accomplishing”, “advancing” or getting anywhere, for the most part.

        I liken all this to being a student of piano, not having the discipline to practice (those “boring”) fingering exercises … thinking that all that home practice is, is practicing that virtuoso piece, just like they see in those demo videos …

        Maybe I talk this way because I’m not doing handstand to headstand to pincha after 5 years regular practice. But how many 57 year olds ARE?

  22. I apologize for the insinuations in the last post, regarding former Kula members and their possible practices.

    But., hat’s off to any practitioner discovering the true guru–the one inside and not always and forever the magnanimous (or megalomaniacal) fallible teacher outside …

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s