Yoga Teachers are Control Freaks — & Why That’s Not Such a Good Thing. ~ Jay Fields

Via on Sep 23, 2011

Let’s be honest, we yoga teachers love to micromanage.

Think about it — being a yoga teacher is the perfect job for card-carrying control freaks. We tell people how and when to move —and they do it! We even tell them how and when to breathe, for pete’s sake — that’s some serious control! (Insert maniacal laughter here.)

I’ll be the first to admit it — I totally want to manage everyone and everything around me. Not in a blatantly bossy or Jedi-mind-trick kind of way. I’m more subversive about it; I try to manage the people around me through managing myself. This means allowing myself to say and do only the things that I think will elicit the response that I want (i.e., people saying and doing the things that make me feel comfortable and happy).  This essentially means that I replace my real self with the self who others will like and respond to in an equally well-managed way.

I’m aware of managing myself in this way with friends, family, strangers and my yoga students. For example, a few months ago when I came into the studio, I had an exchange with someone right before class that got me agitated — well, flaming pissed off, really. As I began my class, though, the manager inside of me said that it’s not OK for me to be angry, so I shut down how I was feeling.

Unfortunately, that shutdown turned me into a robot. I was so disconnected from myself—because my self in that moment was feeling decidedly combative. And since my inner manager deemed that it wasn’t OK to be angry while teaching yoga, I had no idea what to be and had no other choice than to teach class on autopilot. I’m pretty sure it sucked for my students just as much as it did for me.

This managing of ourselves is where I think yoga teachers take the cake as control freaks. How many times have you seen a teacher cry? Be angry? Be pessimistic or a total mess? For the most part, yoga teachers show cheeriness, love, faith and service.

I’m not saying that’s bad; it’s absolutely lovely to exude that—when it’s real.

But have you ever screamed in rage or sobbed heavily as you drove to teach your class and then walked in as if you were the embodiment of peace and wisdom?

Now you might say that it’s not appropriate to bring your stuff into the workplace, and I agree that our classroom should not be our own personal therapy office. But I’m also strongly suggesting that the studio should not be a stage for us to perform the role of blissful and balanced beacons of perfection.

If we can’t show up in the studio as human beings, then we’re teaching our students that they can’t, either. And then we’re only reinforcing the belief that yoga is a practice through which you manage your mess or bypass your shit, rather than a practice that’s really about being fully yourself.

I think this is one of our biggest obstacles to being truly transformational teachers — our unwillingness to accept that we’re human. Some of us thought we’d get the secret backstage pass to grace and enlightenment when we got our teacher certification. (And some of us strut around as if we actually did.) We think we can sutra, chant, asana, breathe, mantra and mudra our way around the muck, and we spread that gospel to our students in a way that keeps the studio one tightly-managed collection of people pretending to be someone other than who they really are.

Yoga isn’t about developing techniques to bypass the muck, it’s about developing techniques to give us the courage and humility needed to venture into the muck full on. Some of us know this and teach this, but I’ve seen very few teachers actually embody it in a real way. The ones who do humble and inspire me, because it’s one of the most vulnerable and loving things anyone can do for themselves or for someone else.

I’m not suggesting that we need to engage in demonstrative emotional outbursts when we teach, but I do think that we shouldn’t hide how we feel. The day after my automaton experience mentioned above, I was even angrier than I had been the day before. This time, instead of trying to pretend otherwise and getting all tight and shut down, I simply told my students I was furious at something and that I wasn’t going to try to hide it.

Just saying it made it OK for me to stay in my body. And what I found was that I could actually feel present, balanced and furious at the same time; it’s not my anger that makes me feel prickly and disconnected, it’s my resistance to feeling angry that does. I also found that about ten minutes into class the seething softened and I was able to feel the fear that was underneath, which was a sweet and welcomed revelation for me. And despite being mad and scared, I still taught a kick-ass class because I was present through it all. Thank you, yoga.

But the coolest part was all the emails from students I received that evening saying thank you because I had given them permission to be themselves, simply through seeing that I was a human being, too. And not only that, but also that seeing me be angry and present had expanded their idea of what yoga actually is and what it allows for.

Sure, it’s true that if you do yoga you can heal a shoulder injury. You can sew together tattered faith. You can open yourself to experience more joy. But this isn’t what it’s all about, and we need to be careful as teachers that we aren’t preaching and personifying only the fixes and the fluffy, comfy stuff.

Instead of trying to manage our students into playing the acceptable role of student by offering them yogic tools to get out of their emotional, physical or spiritual pain or discomfort, what if we offered them our presence that said “I see your pain and discomfort,” and then offered them the tools to be with it in themselves? To truly do this for your students, you have to be willing to do it for yourself.  So what would it look like if you managed yourself less? What aren’t you free to be or do as a teacher? What if you did it?

Jay Fields is a yoga teacher and writer who wears her heart on her sleeve and loves connecting with other human beings at their growth edge. Having taught yoga for over a dozen years and having earned a master’s degree in Integral Transformative Education, she doesn’t just teach poses, she teaches the whole person. Jay offers public classes in Portland, OR, leads workshops for teachers and students internationally and nationally, and mentors new teachers. To find out more and to read her guide “How Not to be a Poser: 12 Principles for Transformational Teaching” visit her at her website

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21 Responses to “Yoga Teachers are Control Freaks — & Why That’s Not Such a Good Thing. ~ Jay Fields”

  1. Tanya Lee Markul Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  2. Tanya Lee Markul Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Thank you for sharing this Jay! Some great words of advice. I suppose that if a teacher is feeling a low vibratory emotion like anger, it is probably a good thing to try and use that energy while teaching class in a positive way – perhaps more vinyasa and twists to squeeze out the emotions and try and reach some level of clarity. :-)

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Join us! Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
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  3. sarah m says:

    this was really good. the reason i like my "main" teacher so much is that he totally admits he can be a dick sometimes. and it just makes him more awesome. i think he's really good at sharing the reality of his life and his stress(es) in class in a way that's honest and funny but totally creates community, empathy and good feelings rather than bad ones. the reason i have stuck with yoga on a consistent basis (at least 3-4 days a week for two straight years without a break usually more) now is that i found a teacher dedicated to the practice who I totally believe.

  4. Margaret says:

    I don’t agree with this one. I see the value of letting go of a constant controlling nature. But as a teacher we are there to allow the student to feel safe and secure to express THEMSELVES. Teaching should not be about the fussing & fretting over the teachers emotions, nor a place for her to drop her own practice and let her freak flag fly, so to speak. Equanimity in the teachers approach lays the foundation for the student to explore. Just my take. Peace.

    • Joni says:

      I agree with you Margaret – I disagree with this article. I don't think that yoga class should be about the teachers expressing their issues, but rather a safe place for students to experience their own stuff. Also, the more in touch one is with the philosophy of yoga, the more as a teacher, you can "let go" of your stuff. Being present means stepping into the classroom and leaving an argument with your friend behind. Being in the present means not holding onto your anger for a whole day. As a teacher and a practitioner of yoga, it is my constant practice to try my best to let go of these things – not because I am a control freak, but because I realize that most things are not that important in the big scheme of things. And that an emotion like anger is a reaction of our egos. And yoga should not be taught from the ego.

    • greateacher says:

      I so agree Margaret. I hav eproblems with the title as it categorizes ALL yoga teachers as control freaks.. with such a sweeping brush that it discredits to me anything else said.

  5. Tanya Lee Markul Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  6. kathik says:

    Thank you for this, right on time for me. I’m so over the old yoga-teacher saw that a ‘perfectly’ controlled voice, sequence, rhythm and demeanor gives students ‘meditative space,’ or whatever. We can do so much more. THANKS for sharing this so eloquently!

  7. Julian Walker yogijulian says:

    yes.

  8. [...] recently posted a Facebook article about yoga teachers and senior yoga students being an artificial ‘embodiment of peace and [...]

  9. Brilliant! The blogs and the comments say it all. Thank you, Jay. This was a very insightful article illustrating your authenticity as a human being and as a yoga teacher (but of course they are one and the same).

  10. Deirdra says:

    This is from my facebook blog
    YOGA ROCKS!!
    scrawled by Deirdra Yoga SportsCoach

    I absolutely LOVE that on the whole I life a yogic lifestyle, study, study, study, always learn more, stay healthy and practise very hard. I also absolutely LOVE that I can do the complete opposite once in a while!

    I've lost count of the numerous yoga teachers and sports coaches who think they have to live up to a certain ideal and present a "perfect lifestyle persona" all the time even to the point of living "double" lives (trying to hide that they smoke is a big one)

    When I express that I "get angry" every so often, people will sometimes say "but you are a yoga teacher, aren't you zen…calm…chilled"? So it is often idealistic expectations from students as well. Granted when coaching in particular younger athletes you often have a responsibility as a role model but being able to show you can be hedonistic once in a while, have fun and let your hair down is coaching with more integrity and humility.

    So Coaches & Teachers ……Be REAL, Be HUMAN, Be HONEST. This all adds to your professional integrity.

    Yoga is about getting the best out of everything you do in life be it competing, having fun or relaxing.

    • Your husband says:

      "Be honest !! ". Would you say you we're being honest to your husband and kids whilst you were sleeping with your yoga student ? I'd say not, but it certainly shows you know how to have fun let your hair down whilst teaching yoga. .. Well done Deirdra !

  11. lena says:

    ps I found this blog by googling " yoga teachers + control freak " as I was starting to feel that there was definitely a connection!

  12. [...] in earnest. In the stillness of meditation, a bunch of things came up. One thing was, that I’m a control freak (I own that and it’s not likely to change anytime soon because right now it’s working for me). [...]

  13. Tanya Lee Markul Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Hi Jen,

    Sorry, but we like to inform writers when we've posted on Facebook, Twitter and acknowledge when they're Featured or Popular. :-) Just ignore my posts if you don't care about them. :-)

    If you let me know who you are, I can stop posting on yours. What is your surname?

    Thanks,
    Tanya

  14. For myself as a student, if a teacher seems perfect, I will feel inadequate. But if they talk about how they are still practicing, and sometimes it's challenging for them too, it helps me relax.

    I personally think telling people to just "let go" is misleading. Isn't the goal to accept things exactly as they are, including saying "Hey you know what? I feel really angry right now." The author says "….it’s not my anger that makes me feel prickly and disconnected, it’s my resistance to feeling angry that does" – this has been my experience as well.

  15. jay fields says:

    thanks for sharing your story, jenifer. a beautiful example of taking good care of yourself and your students without caretaking.

  16. jay fields says:

    Amen!

  17. jay fields says:

    If that's one of the main reasons you left, Michelle, come back! We need more yoga teachers who are willing to drop the act. You're not alone in stumbling through it.

  18. jay fields says:

    Thanks, Louise. Yes, the practice of "what now?" is the practice. Big bow to Erich Schiffmann for first introducing me to that one. If you want more on my take on guidance, check out the manifesto I wrote called Following Your Guidance is Not for Sissies. (because it's really not.) You can download it for free at http://www.revelationaryliving.com/

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