September 10, 2011

What I Learned from a Bad Yoga Teacher. ~ Tara DeAngelis

Photo: Leo Reynolds

Let’s face it: There are a lot of bad yoga teachers out there…or so we think.

It was one of those days when I desperately needed yoga. For weeks I had been trying to forgive myself for not making the time to practice. The more I tried to forgive, the more I attacked and guilted myself into a tamasic, physically slow, uncoordinated oblivion. I ached from lack of awareness and inertia—and it agitated me. I did muster up the motivation to go; but why?

It was that memory cataloged within my cells of how I would feel after wards. Oh how that feeling would get me back on track!

Photo: euthman

“Attachment is the desire to repeat pleasurable experience, and aversion is the act of trying to get out of uncomfortable feeling.  One can sum up both attachment and aversion under the umbrella term clinging, because when you look deeply into attachment, you find aversion to what is not pleasurable. Attachment is aversion to displeasure, and aversion is attachment to pleasure.  Aversion is clinging to what is pleasurable. Attachment is the leaning into experience, and aversion is the leaning away from experience.  Most of our physical energy is spent flip-flopping back and forth, moment to moment, between attachment and aversion.” ~Michael Stone, The Inner Tradition of Yoga

So I went. I went with the expectation of going through that much loved drill that had become so familiar and comfortable I could do it with my eyes closed. The human brain loves repetition—especially mine. I expected to walk out of that humid room into a gust of fresh air and feel the tingling of evaporating sweat on my skin, blissed-out and floating for the rest of the day.

I arrived. I rolled out my mat, sat, and noticed a woman spraying excessive amounts of lavender sanitizer on her mat and scrubbing vigorously. I noticed people fidgeting, stretching and laying on their backs staring at the ceiling. Some were chatting. A fit and very tanned woman wearing a low-cut Lululemon top squatting to the side talking to a group of others. She was complaining. Her attitude was toxic—I could see it by the closed-off body language of those around her. And her breasts…they were obviously fake. What was that wrapped around her wrist?  Mala prayer beads? She had mala beads wrapped around her wrist! Was she really a true yogi? What was with all these superficial spiritual people?

Photo: lululemon athletica

Avidya: Not seeing things as they are; lack of wisdom, ignorance of one’s true nature; from the root verb “vid,” meaning to know, plus the prefix “a,” meaning not.

What are we yogis supposed to do in the face of an ever increasing flood of yogic chaos?

What I overheard her say went something like this: “I have just been so out of it all day. These college kids next door were raging it last night.  I couldn’t sleep because all I could hear was this massive vibration of this terrible new music called ‘dub-step’ that shook my nerves all night long.”

In my mind I am thinking, “Ok yoga lady, why not just practice pratyahara.

Pratyahara: The natural uncoupling of sense organs and sense objects during concentration; withdrawl of the senses from their objects; beyond the mind.

Then the same woman sat down at the front of the room, placed her hands in anjali mudra and announced, “Namaste, my name is Jennifer, and I am your substitute teacher.”

What? She? My nerves were firing with even more agitation than before. I was not going to take instruction from her! My jaw muscles were protruding.

Jennifer instructed us to stand at the front of the mat in “Todd-Uh-Asana.” She was pronouncing it all wrong! Where did she get her teacher training—24 hour fitness?—corepower? I assumed she would be the kind of teacher that would forget to repeat Trikonasana on the left side, or leave us in Eka-Pada-Rajakapotasana for forty five seconds longer on the right. I imagined myself walking out of class with a crooked spine. This was not good. I had to get out. For the first time in my life I felt the urge to actually storm out of class before it had really started.

“Most of the time we are not present or engaged with things as they are (vidya), because we are so caught in deep grooves of raga (attachment, dvesa (aversion, and our stories of self (asmita).”

The only thing that kept me on my mat was fear of hurting Jennifer’s feelings and making her believe she was a bad teacher. I remembered how my students must have judged me nine years ago: a 19-year-old, bleach-blond straight out of high school. Who was I to be teaching yoga? What did I know at the time (besides everything)? Yes, I actually had people walk out of my class. I admit my scar (see “Ego” definition below).  I became aware how harshly I was judging this woman. It was shocking because I realized my brain had physically backslid into old assumptive thinking patterns. Why? Because my anger was comfortable. Why? Because anger is a safe protective barrier to a suffering mind and tender heart.

Ahamkara: A mechanism in the mind that creates a story of the self. Ego or egotism; literally ‘the I-Maker’, the state that ascertains ‘I know’. The sense that identification is occurring.

No person, no guru, no saint is immune to backsliding. We come to practice because we suffer.

“Yoga practice is about breaking free of the cyclic force of habitual activity and distorted mental and emotional forces that drive us to act in ways that maintain suffering.”

So I relaxed my jaw and the music started. No!  I had been taught that music should not be played when practicing yoga! Yoga is after all, to quote Patanjali, “Yogas chitta-vritti-nirodhah,” the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. How was I supposed to focus with the music? How was I supposed to become aware of my internal mind chatter? How was I supposed to really feel what was going on in my body and witness the mind? No music! No music! No music! My jaw clenched up again.

Photo: Shawn Chin

My heart rate was elevated. I could feel the anger pulsating in my face.

“Listen to the sound of your breath,” Jennifer said.

How was I supposed to hear the sound of my breath with this abrasive sound and a Barbie voice in the backdrop of my senses?

Jennifer continued, ” Notice any areas in your body where you are holding tension.”

My Heart-Neck-Jaw-Shoulders—yep. I concentrated on relaxing those places.

“Allow the tension to manifest in those places. Give your self permission.”

Wha Wha Wha What?  No!  I want to fight it!

I tried to soften the walls of my heart. The walls of my heart resisted softening.

I tried to soften the walls of my heart and they resisted—again.

It was then that I realized that this woman had something to teach me.

“Allow those tight areas to resist and contract more,” Jennifer said.

So I tried—and it felt absolutely foolish!  I couldn’t possibly get more angry or agitated when someone was telling me to.  It is like when you are fighting with someone and you both realize you are fighting over nothing and bust out laughing. Reverse psychology works. My heart (excuse the cliche) melted.

Who was I to think this is not good and something else is better?  Who was I to judge?  Everything happens for a reason. So what was the lesson here?

And then in the midst of this realization, the sound of electronic tribal fusion echoed over the speakers—I tried to hate it, but couldn’t. I imagined it as the rhythms of nature and chaotic events that happen off the mat. Noise distraction cannot be taken away in the real world. The voice in the background of the music whispered, “The question is: What is it that you believe you see?”

I believed that I saw a superficial woman wearing a spiritual mask. I believed that I was angry because of her and all the people like her. I believed that this one yoga class could physically cause my scoliosis to cement permanently.

What I did not see was that we are all in this together. That we are all doing our best. That we are all teaching each other. And that we are all in the process of moving upwards.

Although I did not end up leaving class with that feeling I expected and craved, I learned a powerful lesson about myself in allowing situations that feel uncomfortable to work on me and to watch the resistance I have to them with awareness. I left class feeling great love for this substitute teacher in knowing that the imperfections I perceived about her allowed me to see the imperfections in my perception as well. Thank you bad-yoga teacher.

Go ahead…I dare you, take your mat to 24 Hour Fitness. I believe there is much to be learned from this type of encounter.

Just make sure you go with the intention of self-study, svadyaya.

Oh yes—and to answer the question:

“What did I Learn from a Bad Yoga Teacher?”—I learned that you can become addicted to a good yoga teacher.

Note: Yes, I know I have stereotyped teachers working at large corporate studios and organizations. You know this is not necessarily true. You can still be a “good” teacher, no matter where you are “employed”.


Tara DeAngelis used to teach yoga. She has learned, and continues to learn from wonderful teachers but doesn’t feel like name-dropping. For now, she is focusing on other things like trying not to make plans and throwing paint on canvas. While she is not editing your submissions for elephant journal, you might find her writing in a Boulder cafe or working or exercising or satiating herself in silly shenanigans. You might even see her leading a skipping parade.



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