Are You a Yoga Show Off? ~ Charlotte Bell

Via elephant journal
on Feb 4, 2012
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*This article has been adapted by permission from Hugger Mugger.

Walking Your Talk: Teaching Non-Competitive Yoga

One of the things I really loved about yoga practice from the get-go was the fact that it is not meant to be competitive.

My early teachers were all quick to emphasize that comparing yourself to your neighbors is not helpful. As a decidedly Type B introvert, I found this to be a relief. We Type B introverts do not always fare well in a world that celebrates getting ahead. We’re just not as good at it as our Type A friends, and when it’s not in your nature to strive it takes a whole lot of ungraceful effort to do so.

But yoga was different. Along with the lovely, spacious feeling I felt after practice, the de-emphasis on competition signaled that I had found my home in yoga. On top of that, I have always had a flexible body, inherited from my gymnast dad.

Flexibility has long been intimately tied to my identity. My two sisters and I all inherited my parents’ athleticism, but only I could fall into effortless splits. My bendiness was one of the ways I got noticed. There was no need to compete for attention with my extroverted sisters, a pursuit that was doomed to failure. Without having to say a word, I could get attention just by doing some crazy-looking thing with my floppy body.

So when I started practicing yoga, I realized that in certain classes I commanded attention simply by what my body could do. Sometimes my hypermobility brought praise, sometimes I became the example of what not to do if you like healthy joints. Even though I was not consciously striving and competing, I was heavily invested psychologically and emotionally in the fact that my body was capable of “advanced” poses.

This led to a cognitive disconnect in my teaching. I was sincerely committed to the idea of non-competitive yoga. I understood the wisdom of this—safety of the student, the way striving and discontent takes you out of the moment, the futility of comparing yourself to a genetically different person whose history is entirely different from your own. I got this—at least intellectually.

Cognitive Dissonance

Yet, at the same time I was telling students that yoga is not competitive, I was demonstrating the opposite. For example, 15 years ago, when I taught Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana (Pigeon Pose), I never failed to demonstrate the full version (see my photo), a pose that on average 90 percent of my students would never be able to do, simply because of the underlying structural realities of their lumbar spines, hip joints and shoulder joints.

I could rationalize demonstrating the pose by saying that I meant to inspire them, to show them what is possible. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the full version of Pigeon is not possible for probably most students. When I reflected some years later on my motivation for demonstrating “advanced” poses, I realized it was likely I did this to establish my superiority as a yogi—to use my bendy body to get attention and respect. At the time I would have chafed at the thought that this was my motivation. It went against everything I think of as responsible teaching.

When I finally owned up to my tendency to show off without meaning to show off, the realization was humbling and freeing. I had to admit that I was not walking my talk. Sure, it’s fine to show individuals whose bodies are capable of fancy poses safe ways to approach these poses. But I realize that demonstrating them for my classes at large is fraught with problems—for my students and for me.

The Problem with Being a Yoga Show-Off

When teachers show off, it causes at least some students to feel inadequate. Many will feel that they are not capable of doing yoga at all if they can’t do fancy poses. How many times have you heard someone say she can’t possibly do yoga because she is not flexible? Demonstrating fancy poses gives students the erroneous idea that yoga is about performance and that “advanced” yogis are the ones who do “advanced” poses. It may even cause some students to try to force themselves into poses of which they are incapable, which can lead to injury.

As a teacher, showing off fancy poses in class reinforced my attachment to my identity as a bendy person. That attachment caused me to subscribe to the “more is better” theory of flexibility. For almost two decades, my practice was about gaining more and more flexibility. This created an unhealthy instability in my body, a lack of balance that surfaced as I entered my 50s. And clinging to an identity as a bendy person, a stiff person, a happy person, a sad person, a smart person or a dull person—all these identities limit our ability to see the truth of our vast, infinite being.

Are your words congruent with your actions when you teach? How do you bring words and action together while encouraging your students not to be competitive?


Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice, published by Rodmell Press. Her second book, Yoga for Meditators (Rodmell Press) will be published in May 2012. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010. Visit her site here.


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30 Responses to “Are You a Yoga Show Off? ~ Charlotte Bell”

  1. Soloman says:

    One of the biggest misconceptions about yoga, even among those who practice, is that it is about flexibility. Cannot be more wrong. And many of those who "practice" are clueless about bandhas and drishti, and barely informed how the breathing in asanas really works. Go to any average yoga studio, or get one of the DVDs by "experts" and you'll see what I mean.

  2. ourworldtreeyoga says:

    "And clinging to an identity as a bendy person, a stiff person, a happy person, a sad person, a smart person or a dull person—all these identities limit our ability to see the truth of our vast, infinite being."

    This is indeed beautifully put!! I tell people that are trying to lose weight not to call themselves names, fat or skinny, because these are just identities. I am fat and I want to be skinny! This is will NEVER help weight loss because its just a name and surely limits their ability to see the truth in themselves.

    Thank you very much!! Oh and I have to say…I played oboe for only one year my Senior year of HS and I absolutely LOVE that instrument! Its a beautiful sound and a joy to play.

  3. Pkpzp228 says:

    As students of yoga it’s our aim to reconcile the battles of ego. As a teacher its not your responsibility to be concerned with what a student can and cannot do but rather teaching them that practicing within their abilities is exactly where they should feel comfortable.

    Obviously safety is a concern as a teacher both in terms of teaching and of business but you don’t cultivate safety through conservative teaching you do so by helping your students understand that yoga is about viewing their limitations with compassion. More advanced students will appreciate the demonstration of advanced technique while you should also offer a more gentil variation.

    Questioning whether or not you’re a show off in your teaching practice is an issue of ego between you and yourself and even if you frame it in terms of whether it’s beneficial to your students it’s still about you. Ask whether your students feel comfortable with their own limitations, if they do than you are cultivating their practice regardless of how advanced your demonstrations are.

  4. YesuDas says:

    I agree on all counts, OWTY; lovely and honest piece, Charlotte–thank you!

  5. Vision_Quest2 says:

    The answer is no. I practice at home now, totally. That is one of the more intellectually dishonest statements/justifications I keep hearing.

    If you want newer, older (in age), more size-diverse students of yoga (and not everything else under the sun), how do you attract them?

    Not with Briohny-like moves. And maybe not even with a "floating" jump-forward.

    Unless you think you are looking for the targets of this article:… in which case, go right ahead … !

  6. Sam Trewick says:

    I think this article starts in the last section. Up until then, the writer is essentially "demonstrating" — tho in this case it's how "enlightened" she has become, while in class she apparently was caught up in her own PHYSICAL flexibility. I'd like to see another take at this without all the autobiography — ax the first 2/3rds and we just might get somewhere!

  7. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    I'm not a show off at all! 🙂 🙂 I like that about me. 🙂 🙂 LOL

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

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

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

  8. Vision_Quest2 says:

    Yes, Tanya … for a discipline and a practice that is supposed to foster spiritual attitudes and being in community … at least in America, what does it say about being a show-off and showing parts of what should be your personal practice, to the more beginner class?

    If I wanted that atmosphere, I would be in a capoeira class … not a yoga class.

    Ironically, that perspective was reinforced at a gym … by a YogaFit teacher trainee … way back when I was doing a fusion self-practice that might have bored the hell out of the show-offs, (but it was MY practice) …

    Gym yoga does not necessarily equal contortionist yoga …

  9. Keith Hughes says:

    Thank you for putting my thoughts into writing! Under the guise of inspiration I have met ; since I returned to England after being in Japan for 25 years, teachers who fall into this style of teaching. Their students will never be able to do more than the basic level of certain poses; no matter how much inspiration they are given.
    Sincerely, Keith Hughes.

  10. I would have enjoyed this article more if it had touched upon the deeper issue of a yoga show off:

    This is pertinent due to the practice of yoga to be the quest for "no ego", and that was completely ignored in this posting, which, is why I have always stated yoga in the west should be relegated to physical fitness and the spiritual aspect ignored.

    Most westerners become "show offs" and therefore become more entrenched in ego, rather than eschewing it.

  11. Jason says:

    Great point, Harleigh!!! And thank you Charlotte for opening up such a great topic!

    Coming from a physical therapy and athletic training background, I think pushing your students beyond their own self-imposed limitations through personal example can be both wonderful or catastrophic idea for a yoga instructor to do. Teachers need to realize more than anything that the physical well-being of their students is the utmost importance, and should take precautions to have them properly warmed up first (or maybe even having students show some type of measurable level of flexibility before pushing a few of the more extreme postures). While my own life was radically changed through yoga after shedding 80lbs. of sedentary weight from being immobilized by an injury that limited me from doing much else. Aside from the physical benefit, I was more excited to begin tapping into the more positive spiritual side of yoga, too. However, it seemed as soon as I began that climb I kept stumbling upon one after another "peacock" instructors who spent half the class randomly introducing such extremes that literally only TWO people – usually the instructor or their appointed "example" – could do them… Not that any of us were opposed to pushing our bodies further, but the entire flow of the class (you know… that point when you feel the collective conscious energy and rhythm forming in the room!) seemed constantly interrupted and it began to feel neither physically or emotionally beneficial. It seemed more of us wound up almost injuring ourselves, or looked halfway defeated and confused than expanding our practices. So, I think it would be wonderful if everyone just save some of the fancy personal aggrandizing for a student "appreciation/expo" day to show exactly how amazingly far one could take their postures, or to offer a separate "go beyond your own limits" class. But if teachers really feel compelled to interject their own "wow" factor into our practices…please remember to first help keep us sweating, breathing, and growing at the same time… but more importantly, keep us SAFE!

  12. jonathan says:

    "I have always stated yoga in the west should be relegated to physical fitness and the spiritual aspect ignored. "
    "Most westerners become "show offs" and therefore become more entrenched in ego, rather than eschewing it."

    That is absolutely insane. So you can't be spiritual unless you're Eastern? You can't "grasp" authentic Yoga?
    Your blanket statements about Westerners are mindboggling and YOUR ego in this post is massive.

  13. Dee says:

    Charlotte, I must love the honesty of your post and the universality of the theme. I definitely see your point – – that as teachers we should not be demonstrating postures simply for the ego stroke it brings us. But I do believe there is something to be said for being an inspiration to others. When I think of my favorite yoga teachers -they are the ones who practiced along with us and demonstrated the sheer joy and bliss of being in some very difficult looking postures. They made it look effortless and I wanted that for myself. Did they also get an ego boost from it? Probably. I don't think the ego boost means you are not a yogi. I don't think it means you are a bad teacher. I think it means you are human and as humans we all want to be recognized for our achievements.

    So my question to you an others is – – can we acknowledge our own need to be recognized for our achievements without being *attached* to the recognition. To me this is the true yogi.

    As far as what you said about pigeon (advanced version) – – I could not come into that posture if my life depended on it. However I've seen my teacher do it and that has inspired me to work towards it. I also don't think working towards a goal is un-yogic. It's how he/she approaches the goal which makes a person a yogi or not.

    I question this statement: I never failed to demonstrate the full version (see my photo), a pose that on average 90 percent of my students would never be able to do, simply because of the underlying structural realities of their lumbar spines, hip joints and shoulder joints.

    Where did you get this statistic? Many postures I thought I could never do, I can now do because of daily, focused practice. BTW, I am also a 50 plus Type B Introvert, like you. But in my case, yoga has taught me to go after my goals with an unwavering commitment and tenacity I never thought possible.

    Clearly we are all born with physical limitations and we are all different. And yes you clearly have the "bendy" advantage. Others of us have to *work* at being bendy. I thought the point of yoga was to transcend the self imposed limitations.

    Is there a *test* for who qualifies for the advanced version of pigeon as demonstrated int the photo? If so please let me know. I certainly don't want to waste my time, if I'm in that 90% category.

    I'm assuming you can fully back up this 90% statistic with some fact.

    And BTW — I love the post because it really shows how we all approach yoga differently based on our personal history, strengths and limitations. Ideally we all grow by learning and engaging honestly with one another!

  14. Dee says:

    Solomon, perhaps you are saying that most people place too much emphasis on the flexibility aspect of yoga and are not educated on the other aspects. I agree – especially since I started practicing here in the US in 1970 and never even knew that core strength was a part of yoga until sometime in the 90's when I took my teacher training!

    But I do believe there is something to be said for opening the chakras through the flexibility of the spine. I don't think we should discount flexibility as an inferior aspect of yoga. Ideally we find balance through all the different aspects of the practice – – flexibility begin one major aspect of hatha yoga but surely not the be all and end all.

  15. Dee says:

    Annie – – thanks for this. I tried to express something similar in my comment below but yours seems a bit more eloquent.
    And now that you showed me the way, I can try to be more eloquent in the future.

    I also believe that people need to take responsibility for their own hurt feelings or feelings of being inferior or inadequate.

    Hopefully the yoga practice gives us the space and permission to view our failings and faults with love and compassion. My message to my students is "treat yourself with unconditional self love no matter what."

    This way – – even if the guy next to you on the mat has his foot behind his head and you can't even touch your foot to your navel, you'll still be OK. My goal as a teacher is not to shield you from seeing the triumphs of others who may be more advanced in the physical realm.

  16. Dee says:

    Pkpzp228 – Brilliant response — My thoughts exactly! thank you! 🙂

  17. Vision_Quest2 says:

    Ah… but then it wouldn't be a "community" …

    I think with the wow factor, they are hustling for new private students, and/or vetting for precocious teacher trainee material in a world where yoga teacher training mills can spit out new graduates after a two-week vacation or three months part-time …

    So that they could have a deep-pocketed "community" along with the Community …

    You know when you are in a class like that. Fellow "students" warm up with advanced inversions before class (an "All-Level", not an advanced class that a beginner might be playing tourist at) …

  18. Vision_Quest2 says:

    "Is there a *test* for who qualifies for the advanced version of pigeon as demonstrated int the photo? If so please let me know. I certainly don't want to waste my time, if I'm in that 90% category."

    I flunk many tests. That does not stop yoga teachers from the old "yank and crank" private lesson shakedowns, where necessary … (of course, making sure that the position does not involve hip flexibility, in my case–they are looking for a private student and not a lawsuit plaintiff… that leaves a handful of inversions to stack me up in …. lol)

  19. Vision_Quest2 says:

    I see your point. I guess that is why I was attracted to a Baptiste Power Yoga knockoff and to YogaFit styles–counterintuitively, while not particularly spiritual, those styles did not get very rococo with the bendiness.

    The advanced students got their poses in. The more beginnerish (me with my internally rotated hips, weaker core and variable-strength arms) did not get intimidated by a teacher walking around and giving me the fish eye, or their nimble assistant also taking the opportunity to ambush me and yank.

    Usually avoiding inversions, in a class of this nature, I felt free to experiment. (At that time–small window of time that was–even headstand.) Those styles let me make errors, bad ones, and not call me out on them by name in front of the whole class.

    And NO adjustments–except some of the very bendy got them–that was OK because in those styles, adjustments were not a sine qua non or a marker of status. Frankly, the Baptiste style, in particular seems very breezy and phoned-in in attitude/patter/aesthetics–which is actually a good, performance-anxiety-reducing place to be. And, yes, we who are "average" at yoga get performance anxiety about it in a public venue such as a class–same as anyone else.

  20. Vision_Quest2 says:

    I hardly do that style at all, now. It's an influence to what I actually do (my own style at home) … a lot slower-paced and hardly any bendier … core-intensive (pilates-like moves) and I sometimes sweat bullets …

  21. […] born of emphatic gestures or a raised voice. It came across from the place of knowing. Given as a teaching, it swiftly took root within you, born from the experience of the teacher. Dharma opened our […]

  22. catnipkiss says:

    As one of the non-bendy people, I also appreciate this article. It reminds us that we are all different, all capable of something, and also capable of improving our personal practice. I have gotten more flexible through a few years of practice in particular poses; others have not changed much. Funny you should choose to illustrate Pigeon, as I recently wrote about that same pose:… But I certainly would do it if I could, it is SO beautiful! Thanks for the nice reminder 🙂 Alexa Maxwell

  23. Suzette says:

    Once you are a "show off" in anything…there will always be a problem.

  24. Prema says:

    In my first Yoga Teacher-training class at the Asheville (NC) Yoga Center in 2000, guest teacher Rod Stryker told us that Yoga was about flexibility AND stability, and that, of the two, stability was the more important. Boy, was I pissed. I was drawn to Yoga for a million reasons – some good and some bad – but certainly my naturally flexible body was among the top ones. Time has, of course, proved Mr. Stryker right. As I have grown as a student and a teacher, I have become more flexible mentally and more stable physically. The first lesson I learned is one that I still teach.

  25. Sasha says:

    Thanks for the honesty

  26. Dee says:

    Charlotte – – I totally get how hard it is to teach mixed level classes. But in the above example, (the backbend type pigeon), I would have them start with the elementary pigeon and then while they are holding it, you can always invite the more advanced students to go into the full posture. This way everyone thrives.!

    For example, I teach mainly beginners and most are seniors. I have then do shalabasana, and then I invite them to either repeat shalabasana a second time or come into dhanurasana. Many have asked if they could try bow posture using the yoga tie. One woman grabbed onto her pant legs. These students are determined! Even older folks enjoy being challenged! But I do see your point. With this group I would not bother demonstrating headstand – yet I will sometimes give them a free for all near the end of class and one time one of my seniors got into a headstand! Seeing that was a great motivator for others.

  27. Lola says:

    My teacher says that "advanced" is not about the shape of the pose itself, but the quality of awareness the yogi brings to it. That said, any pose can become an advanced pose the more subtlety is applied to feeling/experiencing the asana (no matter how it looks). I love this idea of "advanced" because it takes us out of external/ego-based validation (I'm doing an "advanced" pose!) and makes the practice about connecting to the Self, and beyond.

  28. Thank you so much for this post, everything you said resonated with me. Although I am not a yoga instructor I am freakishly hyper-mobile. While flexibility is something we are often told to strive for (not necessarily in yoga, but in general) in my case it has caused me a lifetime of chronic pain. I fear that I am a yoga show-off and am frequently at odds with my ego about whether I am showing off or simply competing with myself in an effort to expand my yoga practice. It is sometimes difficult to reach that truth within myself and I most often set humility as my intention at the beginning of class. Unfortunately, my body rarely says "stop" when I push it too far and even though I strive to focus on core strength, breathing, balance and stability, I often experience pain for days after one yoga class. When classmates sometimes comment on my flexibility after class I urge them not to compare themselves to me or anyone else, I was born bendy and in my experience it's more of a curse than a blessing.
    On a different but related note, I sometimes wonder if my beloved teacher is showing off or simply demonstrating the highest level possible for those of us who can achieve them. Whether we should is another story entirely. She always seems to take it one notch higher. I suppose it isn't really important in the grander scheme but it has been an ongoing point of curiosity for me.
    Again, thank you for sharing honestly about your own experience and journey.

  29. […] push themselves to master a something as hard as playing the violin without the incentive of “sitting at the front of the orchestra.” I certainly didn’t, nor have any of my students. And trust me, you don’t want to hear […]

  30. Anne says:

    "And clinging to an identity as a bendy person, a stiff person, a happy person, a sad person, a smart person or a dull person—all these identities limit our ability to see the truth of our vast, infinite being."

    This resonated with me. I am taking a class in which I feel my limits of my body … humbling!