The Right Way to do Yoga. ~ Barbara Joy Beatus

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The most dreaded question in class from a student: “Am I doing this right?”

I used to dread this question because I wasn’t so sure if I knew the answer myself.  Maybe her foot should be in a different place and if only I knew where that place was, if only I asked enough teachers, took enough workshops, consulted enough books, I would know for sure or at least know who to believe (after all, there are so many differing opinions).

My teacher was big on alignment but gave no absolutes. I had no patience for frustrating responses like, “That depends; how do you feel?” So, even after teacher training, I was still plagued by the question: what is the right way to practice a pose?

Obviously, there were some things I knew for sure— always keep your hips level when you twist. But then I took Judith Hanson Lasater’s sacroiliac joint workshop and down (thankfully) went that theory. And don’t even get me started on something as seemingly straightforward as the breath. “Belly breathing” is often touted as the optimal way to breathe, but what about incorporating the bandhas like in an ashtanga or vinyasa class? And is there really a wrong way to breathe? People seem to think so— they often ask me about it.

It all comes back to the fundamental desires we as humans can’t seem to escape:

One—we want to be perfect or act perfectly (whatever that means), and usually, it relates to a bogus set of criteria determined by society and culture.

Two—we want answers; we want black and white. We want absolutes.

I see it all the time in students and teachers, new and experienced. The striving to get it right; and believe me, I’ve been there. But then I was lucky enough to find my teacher, Leslie Kaminoff, and I remembered why I came to yoga in the first place: to be free.

Oh, right. After all, I didn’t become a yoga teacher to make sure someone’s foot was in the right place. What a relief to be reminded!

Now, I’m not knocking alignment. Practicing physical alignment (whatever that means for you) can be a powerful tool to connect with your body, go deeper into yourself and discover tendencies that may no longer be serving you. Furthermore, I still think it’s dangerous to practice sarvangasana (shoulder stand) without blankets and believe turning your back foot out in Warrior One will twist your knee.

But even so, is that really true for everyone? My students constantly remind me no two bodies are alike. So, do I, who is not you, really know the answer to that question?

That’s the beauty of practicing yoga. It’s not about anyone else. It’s always been and will always be about you, about unchaining yourself from whatever enslaves you.

Unfortunately, we become so obsessed with getting it “right” that we use yoga to further enslave us instead of moving towards self-discovery and freedom. Trying to be right or perfect is just another shackle. And if we continue to fall into the same trap of “fixing ourselves,” then we miss the entire point; we blind ourselves even more to what we already are— whole and intimately connected to each other and the universe.

There is nothing wrong with us; we are not broken and don’t need to be fixed.

This is what I’m forced to remember whenever a student asks me if s/he’s doing it right, and why I’m usually propelled to answer with the infuriating: how does it feel? Teaching becomes a constant reminder that I’m not trying to “fix” someone or change them to be better, but to guide them further into themselves.

Svadhyaya (self-study) is a discovery into what it means to be human, to move our bodies, to move our minds, to breathe, to feel on every level. That is beyond right and wrong. This is what advancing in our practice means, when we move past what we think people and society expect from us and look for the answers within ourselves. And no one wants to hear that. Even I don’t a lot of the time. But wanting to be perfect and right is based on the fundamental misunderstanding of what yoga is.

We don’t do yoga, we are yoga, and as human beings, that means forever imperfectly perfect.


Barbara Joy Beatus is a yoga teacher and writer with a fondness for cupcakes, cheesy jokes, the Brontes, and beautiful heart-wrenching prose. When she’s not editing her two novels, she can be found teaching breath-centered yoga, trying to think deep thoughts and then trying not to think at all. She blogs about writing and yoga at The Writing Yogini–

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Editor: Cassandra Smith

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anonymous Jan 11, 2013 12:09pm

Hello Barbara. Thank you for doing all the work it took to bring your words to me. I feel very lucky to have you on our team of instructors. Namaste.

anonymous Jan 2, 2013 9:44am

[…] […]

anonymous Aug 16, 2012 7:38pm

[…] […]

anonymous Aug 9, 2012 4:56pm

[…] became so obsessed with getting the poses right, I started memorizing how Carolyn led us through each one. I could sometimes even anticipate what […]

anonymous Jun 17, 2012 2:40pm

[…] The Right Way to do Yoga. ~ Barbara Joy Beatus […]

anonymous Jun 11, 2012 6:26pm

[…] Alignment always perfect and each pose must compete. […]

anonymous Jun 7, 2012 6:54am

It’s a shame you don’t have a donate button! I’d without a doubt donate to this excellent blog! I guess for now i’ll settle for book-marking and adding your RSS feed to my Google account. I look forward to fresh updates and will talk about this blog with my Facebook group. Chat soon!

    anonymous Jun 8, 2012 2:27pm

    Hi Maddie, so glad you enjoyed this! there's a button above to donate to EJ– it's right before the comments

anonymous Jun 6, 2012 9:51pm

I'm in love with you, Barbara Joy.
That is all.

    anonymous Jun 8, 2012 2:33pm

    so thankful to share this with you Nadine… and i love what you're doing in the world (just checked out your great blog!)

anonymous Jun 4, 2012 9:20pm

[…] I’m being selfish in using this blog as my own online study course – doing self-study (svadhyaya) in a public forum. Living in rural New South Wales, Australia as I do, there aren’t a lot of […]

anonymous Jun 2, 2012 1:29pm

Really loved this Barbara! Thank you for writing and sharing it!

    anonymous Jun 2, 2012 5:41pm

    thank you so much Tanya. So grateful to be able to share it with you.

anonymous Jun 2, 2012 12:12pm

Thank you for sharing your insights and personal disclosure (wisdom) in all your writing. Your openness is an inspiration, and this article is a loving reminder to release ourselves from the grip of ego ~ aka our need for 'perfection'. True joy is releasing into a pose without self judgement…a reminder I need to keep telling myself 🙂 I miss you and your beautiful energy.

    anonymous Jun 2, 2012 5:40pm

    thank you so much Madelyn. Your words mean so much to me. I miss you too– your loving and peaceful energy is always such a gift to me; i can feel it through your words although we're far apart. xoxo <3

anonymous Jun 1, 2012 6:32pm

Wonderfully said! I often ask my students “how does it feel?” Is there a small adjustment that YOU can make to find your “ah” we don’t all look the same so one persons pose is not the same as another. There is no perfection, that is why it is called practice. We must practice to find what works for us.

    anonymous Jun 2, 2012 10:08am

    thank you Sarah! LOVE what you tell your students- they must appreciate that so much.

anonymous Jun 1, 2012 1:50pm

When thy mind leaves behind its dark forest of delusion, thou shalt go beyond the scriptures of times past and still to come.
When thy mind, that may be wavering in the contradictions of many scriptures, shall rest unshaken in divine contemplation, then the goal of Yoga is thine.
– Krishna

anonymous Jun 1, 2012 10:36am

So true… alignment and breath should help us feel more free in yoga… not stress us out! It is so great to be in a class where the teacher can recognize that people may need slightly different things.

    anonymous Jun 1, 2012 12:54pm

    thanks for your comment! definitely great to have a teacher understand that.

anonymous Jun 1, 2012 8:27am

This article perfectly summarizes why I have never taken to yoga. You may slowly be convincing me to reconsider and think of it as part of my self-discovery rather than something that I fail at.

    anonymous Jun 1, 2012 9:06am

    Steph, thank you for your comment. It means so much to me. There are so many teachers and so many practices- the trick is often finding the right one to resonate with you so you can feel safe and supported. you can email me at [email protected], let me know your location and I can suggest some places or styles that maybe you'd want to try. I love helping people find a practice that's right for them! all the best to you. B

anonymous May 31, 2012 6:19pm

This article proves why I am so lucky to have you as my yoga instructor! If a teacher can inspire her students (as you do), then the rest falls into place. Great piece, Barbara.

    anonymous May 31, 2012 9:23pm

    thank you sooo much jackie- you're the best! xoxo

anonymous May 31, 2012 5:56pm

Go Barbs! Your description of yourself is so cool. I already know you are cool, but if I was a stranger, I'd be like, "Man, that girl is cool." 🙂

    anonymous May 31, 2012 9:23pm

    haha! thanks! you're very cool yourself 🙂 xox love

anonymous May 31, 2012 10:53am

… beautifully said. And a wonderful reminder for all teachers.

    anonymous May 31, 2012 12:05pm

    thanks for your never-ending support ellen- love and miss you!

anonymous May 31, 2012 10:44am

OMGanessha I love this!!! thank you!!! 😉

    anonymous May 31, 2012 12:05pm

    thank you- so appreciate it!