Why I Do Not Train Yoga Teachers and…Yoga? Dangerous?! ~ Ben Ralston

Via on Feb 1, 2012
Swami Vishnu - he flew over war zones in this plane throwing flowers out the window. A true hero.

As a child my heroes were the khaki-clad men and women who gave their lives in WW2 (for a cause greater than themselves). I was completely in awe of anyone who put their own comfort and safety aside in order to ‘fight the good fight’. I believed there was no greater life to be lived.

Many years later I travelled to India for an intensive Yoga Teachers Training course. It was the most challenging thing I’d ever done – physically, emotionally, mentally, and above all, spiritually. I wrote about it here.

On that course, I found new heroes.

The ochre-clad men and women who gave their lives, day after day, for a cause greater than themselves.

The Swamis are the people we may thank for the access that we now enjoy to the ancient wisdom of Yoga. For thousands of years they have taken vows of brahmacharya – mastery of the senses, and renunciation of the fruits of the senses  – as they put their personal comfort and ego safety to one side in order to transform the world. There is no greater sacrifice.

Towards the end of my time in India I resolved that I would one day be a Swami. 5 years later I did indeed give away all my ‘stuff’: my old man got my ipod. My brother got my Raybans. A recent TTC graduate got my small yoga business including 20 yoga mats, my classes, students and mailing list… and with just a small bag of clothes I entered an Ashram and began training. Why am I not there today? The fist person I met in the Ashram that day was the beautiful Goddess who is now my wife. But that’s another story…

Altogether I taught Yoga full time for almost a decade.

I taught Yoga in exclusive hotels and gyms, hostels, schools, and festivals, to Hollywood celebrities and millionaires and old age pensioners. I once taught a guy who’d (to coin the wonderful Ram Dass expression) ‘been stroked’. The whole left side of his body was paralyzed. So in Sun Salutations he would grab his left leg with his right hand, and put it into position. It took a long time, but he did them, and he loved every minute of it. I’ve never met a more smiley and determined person in my life, and it was a great privilege teaching him. The classes he was in were some of the most memorable I’ve ever taught.

I must have taught many thousands of people during those 10 years.

I never had a single student get injured. Not one.

And my style of Asana teaching is dynamic and physical! So how is it that some people believe Yoga to be ‘dangerous’?! Many times over the years I’ve been asked this question:

“Why don’t you run your own Yoga Teacher Training Course?”

In our materialistic society it seems to be a real no-brainer! After all, that’s where the money is in Yoga! We all know that. So why not do it? I’ll tell you why:

I won’t pee in the well.

The well of pristine ancient wisdom kept by countless generations of Swamis.

Swami Sivananda - a Hero

Swami Vishnu-Devananda had a vision in meditation of the world in flames. It was that vision that led him to create the Sivananda Yoga Teachers Training Course (the oldest TTC in the West – around 15,000 graduates over 40 years). His main intention was not so much to create yoga teachers – rather, he intended to create world leaders with integrity. He wanted to create a generation of yogis who would be able to steer the world away from its current crisis with integrity, compassion, and service.

In India, before I realized I wanted to one day be a Swami, I knew without a doubt that I would try to honor Swami Vishnu’s intention – I would do my best to repay the debt I owed him.

So when I’m asked why I don’t run TTC’s what I say is this: there are places I can send my Yoga students to become Yoga teachers. Places run by people who are completely dedicated to doing just that. People who haven’t got kids, aren’t in relationships, and don’t go on vacation. They just train Yoga teachers. Day in, day out, all year round. Total heroes.

So how could I take it upon myself to train other people to be yoga teachers, when I know that I would be depriving them of the best training available? I would feel that I was cheating my students, and betraying the lineage that I am honored to be a tiny part of.

That lineage comes from a land whose entire culture is founded on spirituality.

Our entire culture is founded upon materialism.

Different worlds.

So I understand completely what has gone wrong – people who lack a profound understanding of the spiritual essence of Yoga are running TTC’s.

So the graduates of those TTC’s are even further removed from the lineage. The pond is polluted further and further.

No wonder there is endless controversy in the Yoga ‘blogosphere’. No wonder there are articles suggesting that Yoga may be dangerous. No wonder people really are injuring themselves!

I’ve seen many suggestions that the reason yoga has become dangerous is that not enough attention is paid to anatomy.

That’s a side issue. It’s also something that householder Yoga teachers who run TTC’s will say to justify what they do (“I teach good anatomy so that my student teachers are safe”). But in reality, to teach Yoga properly only a basic understanding of anatomy is required. You don’t need a degree in anatomy to teach yoga, because

Yoga is not gymnastics.

Yogasana is intended primarily to prepare the body to be comfortable sitting for meditation. If it’s taught as such, with emphasis on breath and inner awareness rather than physical ‘shape’ and external competition then it’s totally, 100% ‘safe’. Actually, it’s more than safe, it’s healing.

It is also, of course, a wonderful physical exercise – but that is a secondary benefit.

Yoga is a spiritual practice.

There are true heroes on this planet.

Find them.

Because the world  needs one more.

If you feel it, share it. Please leave a comment. Spread the love!

About Ben Ralston

Ben Ralston almost joined the army when he was 18. When he was 32 he almost became a Swami. *** Now he is a healer, Reference Point Therapy teacher, and advanced Yoga instructor in the Sivananda tradition . His work as a healer acknowledges trauma as the underlying cause of almost all human problems, and resolves trauma at the causal level: gut-based survival instincts. The intention behind all his work is to empower others. *** Ben splits his time between his busy international practice, training therapists, and writing. As an experienced Yoga and Meditation teacher he also runs retreats, usually on the beautiful Croatian coast. *** Connect with Ben on Facebook. Read more of his writing on his blog Grounded Spirituality.

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77 Responses to “Why I Do Not Train Yoga Teachers and…Yoga? Dangerous?! ~ Ben Ralston”

  1. Atalwin says:

    I got your back, brother. Well said!

  2. Ansana says:

    I love the article and agree with it 100%. I have live all over and taught yoga and now reside in the south where I am currently teaching and yoga here is very dangerous. The teachers teach exercise not yoga. it is very disturbing and unhealthy.

    • Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

      Thanks Ansana for your comment. I also find it disturbing and unhealthy. Exercise is good, but the lines between Yoga and Exercise should not be so blurred.
      And it's just dishonest, to a degree. Why call something Yoga when it is not?

  3. Laura says:

    Bravo!

  4. Like that it's finally being understood: stretching is not "yoga," and someone who performs exercise is not a yogi or yogini. The more that definition is underscored, the less need there will be for articles that discuss how yoga does or doesn't harm….

  5. Padma Kadag says:

    Asana in Yoga is preparation for meditation…well said! And why is meditation so important? What you are desribing is true and important. I find it humorous that the "Swami" was only photographed doing asana in order to demonstrate those asanas. Mostly the day is spent in sitting or walking meditation. Westerners define themselves with being in asana pose in photograph saying as if this is the goal.

  6. Isabel says:

    It was important for me to read this.
    I had one yoga teacher who said that yoga is a sport. I couldn't continue with my practice there anymore. I'm just starting and discovering yoga little by little. I continue searching. Thanks, Ben!

  7. Juan Carlos says:

    THANK YOU!!!

  8. Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Spirituality Homepage.

    Braja Sorensen
    Lost & Found in India
    Editor, Elephant Spirituality
    Please go and "Like" Elephant Spirituality on Facebook

  9. Lyna says:

    Great article!

  10. Andrew Gurvey agurvey says:

    Wow, Ben! Great article! I'm in complete agreement with you on everything you said. Much of the area I live in is plagued with the idea of asana being the all-encompassing aspect of yoga. It is so refreshing to read an intellectually coherent article that goes way beyond the short-sighted scope of asana causing injury. Thank you!!

    • Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

      Thank you Agurvey – I think it's not just your area – it's Western society. As i said above, the foundation of our society is materialism, whereas in India it's spirituality. So anything we do here is going to be built, from the ground up, to reflect that. And that's why we see Yoga as Asana. Because the body is our material aspect…

  11. Valerie Carruthers ValCarruthers says:

    Thanks Ben for getting to the heart of the matter. Wouldn't it be interesting if Yoga classes in western society were structured with about 15-20 minutes of asana and the rest simply taken up with quieting the mind and sitting for meditation? More students would experience the true purpose of the practice a lot sooner.

    • Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

      Thanks Val. It would indeed be interesting. For a start, Yoga wouldn't be a tenth as popular as it is now, right? So I goes from that perspective alone the Yoga = Asana focus is actually a good thing?
      EditDelete

  12. Tanya Lee Markul Tanya Lee Markul says:

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

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Join us! Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
    Follow on Twitter

  13. Camm says:

    Thank you Ben. Maybe you'll find this interesting: http://camerongilley.com/whats-in-a-style/

    Be well and enjoy the ride.

  14. Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

    Couple of Facebook comments:

    Jennifer Wade That has been a major turn off for me when it comes to Yoga. The commercialization, the competitiveness, the despiritualization of it, essentially the Americanization of it.
    It saddens me. I'm grateful for Yoga of the mind. It is untouchable. For me anyway. I hope for most others, too. :)
    3 hours ago · Unlike · 1
    Catherine Kelleher I'm a teacher and studio owner and have often been asked if I'd put together a teacher training programme. I can't agree more with this approach. As a mother, business owner and manager I have way too many attachments myself to create teachers. I see my role as igniting the spark and being lucky enough to point students on their path. I wish more 'teacher training schools' were honest about why they run their courses (for money) and the kind of teachers they can then create.
    about an hour ago · Unlike · 1

  15. yogadivina says:

    Jai ma! I have been teaching for 10 years and like you I have a wide variety of students. I have been asked to do a teachers training, but I am rather old school when It comes to teaching, it take alife time of teaching and learning to be a great teacher. Certifications in 10 days and online.. not my thing. I am a teacher, a healer, a guide. I did not get into yoga to make money but to help others. I love what I do and would never give up helping others. The smiles on the faces of my amputee clients or those suffering from back pain for years .. is priceless.
    Thnks Ben :)

    • Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

      Jai ma to you too!! It's such a great pleasure for me to write things like this and as a result connect in some small way to people like you, and be reminded of all the good things that are happening out there. Thank you for your comment.

  16. angelleaping says:

    Yes yoga is NOT gymnastics. Some people who live in the West go for power yoga, pushing their important self to make their bodies do things it is not ready to do. My experience of yoga is breath, stretch, breath, go in..breath, stretch go beyond within. I have tried so many yoga teachers and studios to find them empty of the true inner spirit of the breath. Only one has been my guide. I use her teachings now at home.

  17. Jill Starr says:

    Thank you Ben! That was a wonderful article. I am currently in teacher training at a small studio in NC. Thankfully we spend much of our time on the philosiphy and spirituality of yoga. We have read and discussed the Sutras and the Gita to name a few. We study the chakras and pranayama and are reminded they can each be "a lifetime of study". You're right to express if someone is looking to teach yoga they should seek out trainers who are and have been taught by the Masters. Unfortunately they may not even know to do that. We can only hope somewhere along the way, the "knowing" that comes during a well balanced asana class, will peek through and lead them to want to learn and discover what that is. To discover they love this practice because of the connection to the Higher Self it cultivates and to spread that knowledge.

    • Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

      Thank you Jill. I agree with you, and it's a good point – even an asana-centric practice can lead to a much deeper awareness, and actually, in many ways, any kind of yoga is better than none – Yoga's so fashionable now that many millions are trying it, and finding perhaps more than they set out to find. So it's all good in many ways…
      Best of luck with your training – sounds like a good one.

  18. Ramon X says:

    Now that's what I'm talking about!

  19. angie says:

    briiliant. brilliant. thank you. I have been teaching for a while, and love sharing the beauty and healing and loveliness that is the yoga journey, but often get disheartened by the competition, the commercialism, the "achievement" and business-building that I see in the yoga world. Thank you for sharing this, it's so good to find kindred spirits in this journey. seems like there are a lot of us out there, in reading the comments :)

    • Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

      I'm also really really encouraged by these comments. Truth is, I suppose, that although we only see the glaring, ugly, superficial side of the Yoga 'Industry', far more people are doing good stuff behind the scenes. So It's wonderful to feel that in comments like your own. Thank you :)

  20. Helen says:

    Simply a truely wonderful article. Thank you so much.

  21. I agree – yoga is not gymnastics but I also feel that yogasana is more than just a preparation for meditation – it is a very real and tangible landscape to recognise your deep-rooted patterns of self-sabotage and dis-honesty. When we can engage honestly with ourselves we become empowered spiritual beings whose integrity shines in all that we do. We actually need MORE TTCs that come from this perspective rather than rely on other TTCs which don't come from this place. So if yoga is a deep and personal spiritual process of self-evolution for you, train teachers! This is how we reclaim the fullness (rather than the smallness) of yoga.

    • Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

      Hi Claire,
      thank you for your interesting and obviously passionate comment – I appreciate it.
      First, I agree that yogasana is more than just preparation for meditation – but it's primary purpose (the reason it was developed) was that. There are of course many, many (almost unlimited) other benefits.
      I also agree that asana is "is a very real and tangible landscape to recognise your deep-rooted patterns of self-sabotage and dis-honesty" as you say. BUT, without the other very important aspects of yoga, especially Bhakti and Karma Yoga, asana can all too easily become an ego-trap. So that actually what happens is that the self-sabotage and dishonesty take on another form and shape – the ego is very cunning.
      I am not anti-ego (see my comment to Tanya below), but I do see that many people practicing and teaching yoga are very much caught up in a complex web of ego and addiction. I agree that if Yoga is a deep and personal spiritual practice then you should teach – but with a deep awareness of what Yoga really is. And it's not just Asana, although to look at 99% of Western Yoga, you would think so wouldn't you?

  22. Tanya says:

    I totally disagree. I don’t want to learn only from a swami. They have no idea what my life is like. I want to learn yoga from people are immersed in the experience of the difficulties of trying to maintain a spiritual life in the midst of a material one. I love my ego. I want to be taught by people who love their egos and are still yogis. Yoga is about being whole, loving the whole, not having to put part of it aside to be able to find other parts.

    Also, if you study the history of hatha yoga, then you should know it’s ALL about making a strong fit body that will last for a long time. It’s also about accessing the power of prana so that one can be more effective in ones material life (original purpose of Hatha developed by the Nath Yogis). The recent development and popularisation of asana in India was intricately linked to the rise of Nationalism and the appearance of the Indian body as strong, fit and powerful in the face of oppressive colonial ideologies,, and had little to do with spirituality. The original Classical yoga asanas for meditation and contemporary Hatha asana have a separate history that came together only recently. Certain schools of yoga seem rather selective about teaching this. Swami Vivekenanda refused to do Hatha Yoga, even though he was told it could save his life, because it did not fit his spiritual beliefs. I was not taught any of this by the selective swamis. I learned from housholding yoga teachers who want to share everything there is to know about Yoga, not just those bits they deem “spiritual” by their own tradition!

    • Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

      Very interesting comment. It's true – many Swamis don't know what life as a householder is like, much less as a Western householder.
      However, they know ego much, much better than most. The life of a Swami – believe me, I know – is very, very difficult. It is not an escape route!! And when you renounce all simple pleasures the ego kicks back very hard. So most Swamis have a very deep, very intricate understanding of what the ego consists of, and how it works. Which is precisely the reason why they often make good teachers…
      I wouldn't say I 'love' ego, but I agree that it's not something that has to be fought with or destroyed. I am not anti-ego – (http://benralston.blogspot.com/2010/05/ego-versus-reality.html)
      But the fact is that most of our suffering comes about as a direct result of our over-association with ego. And when Yoga Asana strengthens that association, then it is doing precisely the opposite of what Yoga was originally intended to do!

  23. RachelFM says:

    Bravo, and thank you for this!

  24. Kanani Fong says:

    I hope you'll offer four free classes to your former group of camo-clad heroes: veterans! YogaForVets.org is a wonderful organization that helps you do just that. And if you ever do want to reach out, come and the come over and write for us. WarRetreat.org

  25. Tony says:

    Would you list those teacher trainings you recommend? Thanks

    • Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

      Hi Tony,
      The only Yoga teacher training that I can really recommend without hesitation is the one that I've done. Not because I don't think that there are other good ones – of course there are – but simply because I can't endorse anything that I'm not sure of, or don't have experience with.
      So the training I had was with the Sivananda organization – specifically I trained in their Ashrams in South India (Neyar Dam) first, then the Bahamas, and later on France and Austria too.
      It's an organization that remains extremely loyal to the original teachings, and was set up and created with the purest of intentions.

    • Gail Henry says:

      Thank you for making me think about important matters – to bring my attention and knowledge to an important understanding. I started practicing yoga for my body and now have the gift of spirituality. It's a great gift for which I am grateful every day. Also, I just volunteered to teach high school students in a school where I teach and, because I've had a gifted teacher whom I believe to be a natural healer, I am very careful about how I teach and make sure no one gets hurt. We all calm down as I stress the quiet. I am terribly, terribly grateful to the yoga I've been given. Thank you for this. It is more reason for more gratitude…. and knowledge.

  26. juliette says:

    thank you so much for your article, I feel less alone knowing other great teachers think the same as me and honor yoga with great respect!!!
    I love to teach and I love to give, and all the nice great moment of my yoga journey, a real spiritual path cannot be mix with materialistic bussiness
    Now a days a lot of yoga teacher train by bussiness people are not vegetarian and still drink alcool….some even still smoke….
    thank you aggain for your integrity to the teachings and the practice
    Sending you all some frizzing sun from Barcelona!

    • Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

      Ah Juliette, that sunshine feels so good – it's -10 degrees here.

      And thanks for your comment – i feel the same, having gotten 30 or so comments like yours, that it's good to know that there are many others out there quietly teaching with respect and integrity.

  27. Kevin Budd says:

    Yes. Thank You.

  28. T.A.H. says:

    Love this. Thanks. Sharing…

  29. [...] I Do Not Train Yoga Teachers and…Yoga? Dangerous?! ~ Ben Ralston 4 Feb Why I Do Not Train Yoga Teachers and…Yoga? Dangerous?! ~ Ben Ralston. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this [...]

  30. and now yoga says:

    true there are many real heroes and saints … and if one is a true seeker, s/he will find them…. Thank you for reminding the importance of lineage, parampara….this can never be over stressed. Without the blessings of your teachers, and your teachers teachers, where can you go? And with their blessings, everything is possible. everything. Stay blessed. Jeanine

    • Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

      Thank you Jeanine, I agree. It is important to keep an awareness of our teachers and our ancestors too. Our society has lost sight of this respect and reverence, and as a result we see many of the problems we see today. Thank you for commenting,
      Ben

  31. karlsaliter says:

    Nice perspective, Ben. I'm enjoying your stuff here.

  32. [...] This is what happens when spiritual practice is used as a vehicle for fame and fortune, when persona… (The link is to a post I wrote the other day about the corruption of Eastern spirituality by Western materialism, specifically – yoga teachers training more yoga teachers). [...]

  33. Dawn says:

    Thank you for this wonderful article. As a TTC graduate and teacher, I couldn't agree more!

  34. Gretchen says:

    Sivananda yoga healed my mother’s back, and it’s what I do to keep healthy so that (hopefully) I’ll never have back pain.

    Unfortunately I now live far from any Sivananda yoga classes, and am so spoiled having learned from Swami Narayanananda in Chicago that a lesser teacher would just be a letdown. So I practice at home, every day, using a Sivananda yoga book to remind me of the details.

    But yes, what I really miss even more is the satsangs/group meditations.

    • Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

      I hear you Gretchen. I'm very far from the centers and Ashrams too, but once it's in your heart it's in your heart, isn't it?
      Great that you practice daily. I'm out of practice lately, having just had a baby last year, but slowly getting back to normal.
      Thanks for the comment.
      With love, Ben

  35. James Vincent Knowles jamesvincentknowles says:

    "Yoga is a spiritual practice." ~ namaste ~

  36. tama says:

    how refreshing! thanks for leading by example. keeping your integrity in the pace of life these days can be challenging. slowing down through meditation is one way to gather insight into what is true and meaningful. cheers!

    • Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

      Yep. It's hard to maintain integrity – often it seems like 'selling out' is the only way to go. Somehow society supports that, and makes integrity a hard path to follow. But if we lose that path we really get lost.
      Thanks for commenting.
      Ben

  37. Priscilla says:

    Great article! Sadly yoga has become a fad and sadly people are going to these “yoga teachers” to get a workout and missing out on the beauty of a real practice.

  38. A yogi. says:

    Well said. Yoga is a spiritual practice sums it all up.

    Om Namah Shivaya.

  39. karlsaliter says:

    Just re-read. Beautiful. The article improves with age, Ben.

  40. Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

    Thanks Michelle, and I must say I'm encouraged your (and similar) responses. We might not make as much $ as we could teaching Yoga, but it remains, i hope, a joy to teach, and as we see our students growing gradually and surely with integrity, it'll be ever more fulfilling.
    You can't say the same of other teachers who try to 'milk' their yoga teaching business for as much as they can get. Then it is only business, and as far as I'm concerned, not very fulfilling. In fact, I would imagine, quite the opposite!

  41. Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

    That's beautiful Meredith – I think that what I feel in your comment and most of the other comments above is a kind of Bhakti. A devotion that you only learn through deep transmission, and it's rare to get that from anyone who isn't from a traditional lineage. I've never thought of it until now, so thank you for sharing, and helping me to see something new. I might write an article about it actually…

  42. Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

    Yes. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and unfortunately that's exactly what a lot of people are being given in many (perhaps most?) modern yoga ttc's – a little knowledge.

  43. Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

    Good to have your comment here Natalie :)
    Great points, and a great perspective.
    Prem :)

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