Tread Lightly, Teachers: Put Down Your Big Stick.

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 I was raised as a response to Hitler; or Pharaoh, maybe. Never give up and never forget and do not make yourself someone else’s bitch. If you can get a B there is no reason you can’t get an A. There is no excuse for doing less than your best. We cannot afford that. Be the best or be nothing. Add to that my father’s undertone of don’t fuck with me and my mother’s banner of nobody tells me what to do and someone reading this says that explains a lot but appearances can be deceiving.

For those of us of a generation still imbued with the work ethic handed down from a country begun by Puritans as well as the lessons of  immigrant parents and grandparents who escaped oppression, the pressure has always been on to be better, do better as human beings, to fix wrongs where we see them.

Now there is pressure from below to learn a system of living based on the paradigm of a global connection. There is the pressure to fix others when we ourselves are broken and thanks to the internet we know that more of us need fixing than don’t. The old, more physically present, order is largely gone but for its lingering poltergeist of try harder, do better, just do it. Now we are a mechanized nation, disconnected to ourselves while more connected to others, where the majority cannot give up, cannot do less, cannot relax because it will cease to survive.

Does that message that you can try harder and do better belong in a yoga class? Is it acceptable for a yoga teacher to encourage students past pain and emotional thresholds by pushing a party line that giving up on the mat is akin to and translates to giving up in a life? I got a taste of both on my recent foray into modern yoga. It was a small taste but a surprising one as I hadn’t realized that a message made popular years ago by Bryan Kest, later confused by other teachers in the way messages transform in the child’s game of telephone, had mutated and was still alive and potentially dangerous.

It can be acceptable to encourage students past a comfort zone if you know what you’re doing which is a huge if.  When you have someone like me in your class and you will because we will ask for a challenge, you will find someone who loves challenge and resistance equally. You will find someone who is practicing defiance as much as gratitude for being forced and it’s important to convey the allowable absurdity of that combination with a sense of humor and sportsmanlike conduct.

It is imperative foremost that the teacher be kind; not kind because she was taught to implement that as part of her teacher training course but because she is naturally kind. Anything less will fool only the most lost souls.

There is nothing sicker in a yoga class than a mean yoga teacher saying unkind things in a (not) funny way while she tells the class to smile and have fun. It’s akin to be raped by someone who tells you to enjoy it with his breath in your face.  It encourages resistance and fight but not in a way that serves a student ultimately seeking a way to come to peace.

It is not acceptable to guilt trip the crowd to leap from a cliff. Some members of this crowd have been standing at the edge of the cliff for a long time with weak spines broken by over flogging whether by their own hands or someone they trusted. You may be someone they trust. Yoga teachers are imbued with the misnomer of “one who can fix everything” which ranks at the top of the world’s most stupid conceptions.

Power Yoga originated as challenging classes accompanied by the banter of creator Bryan Kest who repeatedly preached that the hardest pose to do in that room was to lie down when everyone else kept going. He encouraged that in word though the undertone to work till you dropped was implicit in the very challenging nature of the class; probably because Bryan had mixed messages in his own head. All of our teachings are an extension of us unless they were bought at the yoga store.

I didn’t realize that a mutation of that message as;

You can do better, you can try harder.  If you quit here, you are a quitter,

is alive and well in yoga today. I will mention only one experience in a studio with this moniker because it was outrageous. Otherwise I would tell you nothing because my pilgrimage has revealed something about me as well.  Though I love to tell a good story, I do not relish destroying anyone’s reputation as much as my own.

I walked blindly into a nearby studio which had no indication of heat in its name. It was summer and hovering at 100 degrees and so was the studio as it turned out. Or it was 100 degrees on the floor and about 115 when you stood up closer to the low ceiling. I was on a yoga pilgrimage, exploring the current face of yoga and determined to be an open book doing yoga in any environment whether it pleased me or not and so I entered. The owner/teacher knew me from my website although we’d never met. I had been practicing yoga for as many years as she had been alive. I told her I was injured (another story) and would she allow me to care for that in my own way. She agreed. Then she forgot.

I will offer a disclaimer for her right away. I believe her ego got the best of her in this instance. She is unseasoned. That is why I went back one more time after this experience. I couldn’t leave her with the taste of her own bad medicine.

I had committed to going to every studio more than once as I know how lousy it is to be judged by one class should it be the wrong one. I had entered the room to the smell of Nag Champa, was sung in by Lady Gaga and later sung out by a reggae band accompanied by a lovely scent of peppermint. The class was a brutal mix of sorrow and fear and an attempt to cheer lead anxious new folks into believing that it didn’t matter what they did to their bodies as long as they were having fun because all yoga was good. I will say no more on that despite the many devilish descriptions dancing through this memory where the incense and peppermint gave me false hope.

The next time, the room was crowded for a special class. I was stuck in the middle as I’d waltzed in at the last minute hoping to hide in a corner. Damn it.

My nerves were quickly fried between the heat, the race to each posture and the uneven sequencing. I imagined myself in a torture chamber and calmed my mind with amusing anecdotes trying to push away the constant lecture on how my behavior here was a reflection of my entire life if I gave up. I watched the other students flair miserably around apparently unnoticed. I idly wondered what joints on the knock- kneed, flat -footed, over -arched, slump- shouldered, depressed looking young teaching assistant would inevitably go first. I ought to know.

Suddenly the teacher was nipping at my heels or to be accurate, one heel, like a Jack Russell hurtling toward the bacon in my pockets.

“Push my hand”, she ordered. I looked over my shoulder.  Excuse me, are you talking to me?

“Extend your heel”, she demanded. She would demonstrate that she had skills to teach the teacher.

I turned to look at her crouched on the floor by my lunging back foot and said quietly, “I cannot do that today”. She walked away but not for long. She was grinning. She wore a grin that must have worn her out by the end of that class. It never wavered.

A balancing sequence was starting. I was slick with sweat and my hurt leg was trembling. I used my polite Iyengar student voice.

“Do you mind if I use the wall for support?”  

“No you may not!”, said she, still grinning.  I didn’t react because I didn’t believe her.  I just stared and didn’t move.

“You are a yoga teacher, Hilary, you should be able to do this!”, she shouted. Gee, I hope none of your students missed that highlight for your celebrity reel.

Now I know that right there, anyone who knows me just took a breath and hasn’t let it out. Yes, I could have killed her with my mind alone and that would have been a no brainer but I didn’t. I just didn’t give a shit, which is worrisome in a different way. I reminded her that I had an injury and said I could hurt myself so I would sit it out and she said, no, again. She would help me and offered me her arm in the way a Boy Scout would walk an old person across the street. I still didn’t kill her. So go ahead and breathe.  In my new zombie pilgrimage mindset I place my hand on her arm, which was not steady or serious about the job. I finally had enough of letting her use me to show off and told her to go away.

As she walked away I looked to the side wall and saw the image of a woman outlined in the shadow in the way people see the face of Baby Jesus or Mother Theresa in a scone or a potato chip or something. She was a vision of feminine grace. She was astonishing. I couldn’t stop staring. The teacher looked at me looking at the wall and I whispered; do you see that? But she did not.  When the lights were later dimmed, the face disappeared replaced by a halo of light. Crazy, I know. Maybe I had heat prostration.

Years ago I had a student who later became the keeper of my words. The first time she came to class was the first class I taught in Nashville. She asked me if the class would be hard. I told her it would be hard enough. She left without a word. I figured it was the last I’d see of her. She came back for the next class and said in a trembling voice, “thank you for being my teacher, thank you for moving to Nashville, thank you for teaching this class.”

She was one of the most complicated people I’ve ever met; sensitive, intelligent, creative, tough and fragile, nervous and brave. She wrote music that rivaled the greatest poets, she wrestled with eating disorders, she had a general and fierce disdain of almost everyone and x-ray vision for bullshit.

She called me years after she’d left Nashville to pursue a law degree to tell me that she had almost lost her nerve on the way to take the Bar and the only thing that got her into her seat was the memory of the words I’d said in a class so long ago; “You can’t do this pose. This pose is crazy. You can only try.”

That is my last story to wrap up a tale of a new story. I tell it because there are fragile people out there under the disguise of tough people who will come seeking tough teachers to fulfill their destinies. They might be treated harshly by a teacher of any discipline, I just happened to tell it as a power tale today.

In this season that holds the Jewish New Year; the season of burning off karma, of forgiveness, of the acknowledgment of past transgressions, of prayer to be granted another year of life to do better, I’m the student who wants to be asked to give all I’ve got and assured that however that goes, I’m still worthy and so are you.

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Hilary Lindsay

Hilary Lindsay created the first comprehensive yoga program in the NFL with the Tennessee Titans, choreographed videos for athletes, introduced yoga and meditation to the Nashville public school system and continues to work one on one with private clients including the Nashville Predators. She has been covered by popular magazines and television shows and has worked for a variety of publications as a yoga expert. She authored a chapter in Yoga In America, a book published at the forefront of the discussion among yoga teachers about contemporary yoga in America. Additional writing can be found at as well as the Journal pages of her yoga site. Hilary teaches classes and workshops in consciousness through movement. Her medium is yoga. Her method is exploring the language of the body in light of the eight limbs. Find her at

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anonymous Jun 21, 2012 11:27pm

[…] Tread Lightly is a lot like Leave No Trace and offers a broad scope of information on many specific outdoors activities like camping. My family practices these principles, and I’d like to share some great guidelines we have learned about caring for your surrounding environment when you go camping. […]

anonymous Oct 27, 2011 2:54pm

A gentle force sounds so lovely and thank you for that description. Also, so good to see you here. As for the Titans…… I got them into yoga when they were a different team in a different time. I'll be forever grateful that I had the opportunity to become the first female trainer in the NFL and that I did that for the coolest group of athletes I've ever yet met. Now for that love revolution. See you there.

anonymous Oct 19, 2011 1:57pm

Thanks for the encouragement and the tale of Michael Moore, Sharona. A love revolution sounds like a day at the spa. I'm in. Love to you. Hilary

anonymous Oct 19, 2011 7:53am

Damn woman you’re good. I love the analogy of Baby Jesus and Mother Theresa to your vision on the studio wall. Bloody brilliant. You are like the fem version of writer David Sedaris. Keep writing. How is your essay going on the roofers working on your neighbors house catching a glimpse of your morning yoga sequence on your patio? Anyhow back to the mean teachers……I saw Michael Moore speak at our local university a few weeks back. He gently reminded everyone in that room that people have become very cruel and hateful toward one another as of late….in all realms…religiously, politically, socially, globally, culturally, etc. That we have steered away from the teachings of Jesus, Gandhi, Buddha, Mother Theresa and we have stopped loving one another. Even in yoga class. Time for a love revolution rebel yogi! Keep up the great writing and insights

anonymous Oct 17, 2011 7:35am

You know, this is one of the many reasons why I practice yoga practically entirely at home, at this writing. When I go to a class it is a self-sequenced vinyasa class (with no expectations nor assistance from the teacher). And it's a community class, by donation.

The backlash is happening right here and right now in New York City—one yoga teacher at a time, a few yoga students at a time.

The former Master Teacher of a studio that I once attended, which studio shall remain nameless … switched to spearheading a yoga style that discourages practically all physical adjustments, yet lets him show off and bull$hit to the class that they could be trying much harder all at the same time. There is a growing number of teachers who will straitjacket their overzealousness and sadistic attitude with a mild style.

Works for ME.

    anonymous Oct 17, 2011 2:10pm

    Wow, that sounds crazy.

    When I left New York for L.A. (and this dates me,) there was the Sivananda Center and Jivamukti was in a tenement in the East Village.There wasn't much more than that and if so it was hidden. It's hard to imagine the changes. I suspect and hope that there are also wonderful teachers and beautiful experiences available in pockets of the city. And clearly one of them is your home.

    Thanks for sharing that here. All the best, Hilary

anonymous Oct 16, 2011 11:53am

it's a well written piece and the comments back are again well thought out. backing off in asana is so underrated. i attend classes all over los angeles. i have been to many, many, teachers. bottom line, many don't do anything but asana in class and in life. so they teach what they know, which is fine. students will find what they need if they search.

    anonymous Oct 16, 2011 1:23pm

    Namaste, Namaste, the student in me sees the student in you, I recognize we are one student. Hey thank you for your comment about the post and for adding that students will find what they need if they keep looking. It can be easy to get stuck in one aspect of yoga and a worthy adventure to look beyond. Hilary

anonymous Oct 16, 2011 9:50am

And please, quit blaming others because you feel bad about yourself. You give yoga a bad name. Here’s a novel idea, if you don’t like a class, leave and don’t come back. I’m sure your negative energy won’t be missed.

    anonymous Oct 16, 2011 10:43am

    Thank you for responding. I was wondering why my posts never raise anyone's ire. They say if you don't get someone who disagrees with you, you may not be making a strong point. And I was.

    You may have not understood that I was researching classes. I was not there to like or not like but to observe and record my experience.

    I may have not been clear in the post that I was intent on being respectful and kind even though I otherwise would have left that class. Beyond that, I did not want to embarrass the teacher who I knew was new and excited to impress her students. I was being supportive by not saying a word or walking out. I never did say a word to her about it nor do I harbor ill feelings.

    I hope you do not take this personally as this post was hopefully not about you. Thank you, Hilary

anonymous Oct 16, 2011 9:43am

Get a grip Hilary.

Bob Weisenberg Oct 16, 2011 8:02am

Just posted to Elephant Main Facebook Page & Twitter.

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anonymous Oct 15, 2011 2:06pm

I once saw the face of Neem Karoli Baba in a scone. How did you know? And can we get a U tube video of your now infamous teacher's high-light reel? I'll post it under "Yoga Humor." Or perhaps we can film a reenactment of the scene- where the video cuts to different images of how you are quietly contemplating the homicidal tendencies provoked by the young and brash ego clouded and delusional sense of self standing in front of the class. And then after you make her head explode with only a single thought, the video cuts back to your unwavering smile and sense of calm. Classic.

I love reading your stuff. Thank You for posting. I hope your pilgrimage continues and that you find something unexpected and wonderful. I know you will.

    anonymous Oct 15, 2011 11:13pm

    If what we see is a reflection of ourselves I always want to see my work reflected by you. I thought that was pretty funny, myself and glad you see the humor in it. Now you have helped me to enjoy the experience by sharing it and I thank you for that .
    And, I did find something unexpected and wonderful. I will post that next. Hilary

anonymous Oct 15, 2011 10:15am

Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
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anonymous Oct 14, 2011 8:32pm

Thanks for this, Hilary. Maybe life is to be savored, not conquered. It, like yoga, is perhaps a journey of discovery, not a competition.

    anonymous Oct 15, 2011 10:53pm

    Lovely. A little fire can be encouraging but most of us are not interested in getting burnt. Thanks for the reflection, Kurt.

anonymous Oct 15, 2011 11:07pm

All true, Carol and well said.
Teachers are hopefully aware of and perhaps implementing the first limbs of yoga which are a guide to behavior. The only reason anyone needs a guide is to keep them honest in confusion.
So if we lack the grace or maturity or skill or attitude to teach a yoga class (and no one is perfect) we might at least consider our behavior in regard to the tenants of the practice we teach.
Thanks for your thoughts, Hilary