Why I Teach Old-School Yoga. ~ Charlotte Bell

Via elephant journal
on Jul 4, 2013
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balasana yoga pose relaxing

I began practicing yoga in 1982 at a modest studio behind the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas. The teacher was June Bains, a trim, 60-something woman whose studio space had a pink, plush carpet and no yoga mats, music or art on the walls. Still, it was a dedicated yoga space—something that was quite rare in those days.

What made me fall in love with yoga was the profound peace I felt when I left the class. After my very first class, I remember getting into my car and turning it on only to be overwhelmed by the loud music blasting from the stereo. I immediately turned off the radio. The peace I felt was far more compelling than any music could be.

My next classes were in the social hall at the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City. Eliot Hall is a spacious, heavily used and well-loved space with a sprung maple dance floor. When my teachers left town in 1986, they gave me the precious gift of their classes. I continued teaching in that space until two years ago when Eliot Hall underwent a much-needed remodel.

Back in those days, there were no yoga studios in town. There were about a half dozen yoga teachers—I knew them all—teaching out of rented rooms, university and school gyms and classrooms (where you had to move desks out of the way before practicing), church basements and the like. There was no incense, no music, no yoga fashion. Like me, my students practiced yoga to calm their nerves and settle their minds.

We wore whatever was most comfortable in the service of mobility. There was no yoga “scene.” There was just a committed group of students who relished the opportunity to be quiet and mindful, to slow their lives down for an hour and a half a week.

We moved slowly, mindful of each micro-movement that made up each pose. We stayed a while in each pose, to allow our bodies to settle in to the point where we were no longer doing, but being the pose. People came to practice because—even though the poses were sometimes challenging—they left feeling a little smoother, a little quieter, a little happier than when they came.

When the yoga boom occurred, suddenly the intention for practice shifted. Yoga had to pick up the pace in order to fit into busy Western culture. Instead of practicing around a dozen poses in a class, we did a dozen poses per minute.

We turned up the volume: Somewhere along the line, soundtracks combining raucous pop music and the burgeoning genre of yoga music accompanied our practice.

We turned up the heat: Inspired by the popularity of Bikram yoga, studios of other types began turning up their thermostats to induce sweat.

We turned up the fashion quotient: Pricey yoga clothing became a “necessity”—no more T-shirts and sweats. And Savasana, once a 10- to 15-minute respite designed to quiet the nervous system and allow for integration, was reduced to a two- or three-minute afterthought.

While I’m happy to see yoga get the widespread recognition it deserves, I sometimes long for the simplicity of the old days.

I wish I could say I still knew all the yoga teachers in town, like I did when there were fewer than 10 of us. There may be close to 1,000 in my town as of now. I know my classes seem like an anachronism, slow-paced with only the soundtrack of our own collective breath, in comfortable temperatures and with little attention to fashion other than for comfort.

I’ve often wondered, if I were to conform my classes to the Western evolution of yoga, would I attract as many students as the studios do?

Probably not. Because the yoga that rings true for me and for my body/mind is old-school yoga. For me, yoga is not about burning calories, sweating or getting my butt kicked. Life already kicks my butt, as it does many of the people who attend my classes. Most of us are over-scheduled; we spend our days running from one appointment to the next. Most of us are over-stimulated and distracted; if we’re not actively distracting ourselves with electronic input, we are subject to electronic stimulation from others’ devices.

In other words, life kicks our collective butts enough already.

Yoga practice is my time to replenish myself and relax my edgy nervous system. While fast-paced, sweaty yoga with loud music and high heat is obviously working for a whole lot of people—most of the population practicing yoga—it feels like the exact opposite of what I need.

I can only teach from my own practice. I couldn’t keep my integrity while teaching a type of yoga I don’t do myself simply because it might bring in more students. I’m sure I wouldn’t be very good at teaching a fast-paced class either. It’s not my nature. And, although it may be a much smaller population than the mainstream, there are still people who do seek a calm, quiet, non-competitive practice.

I teach old-school yoga because that is the yoga I love. It is my passion. My simple, slow-paced practice never fails to clear my body and mind and makes me feel clean, calm, energetic and easeful. My morning practice sets me up to meet my own wall-to-wall days from a deep core of peace.


Charlotte BellCharlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice, and Yoga for Meditators (both published by Rodmell Press). 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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Ed: Dejah Beauchamp


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36 Responses to “Why I Teach Old-School Yoga. ~ Charlotte Bell”

  1. Mermaid70 says:

    Beautiful, beautiful, article. Thanks for sharing, Charlotte. You really nailed the disturbing trends in modern day yoga, American style that is.

  2. Jann says:

    Absolutely beautiful post. Thank you.

  3. linda buzogany says:

    Oh do I long for a class like yours. You're like a fresh breath of sanity, Charlotte. Nice to meet you.

  4. Kathy says:

    I love this and can relate so much. Even though I was born into the yoga "scene" I had the good fortune of learning it old school.

  5. Kaffirlily says:

    Thank you! And come to Orange, NSW, Australia! I yearn for a quiet yoga class with a decent śavasana and perhaps even some time for pranayama, the way I used to be taught back in the eighties.

  6. Mia says:

    Actually here in Aus we do the fast paced Yoga class to. Music is blaring and the fashion is the most important part. When I first started teaching I taught a really slow pace and stopped the students once or twice to really explain and be direct about some alinment. No one does that now the classe just keep going and you might pick up on some alignment ques you may not. Many students left and even complained to the studio owners that they prefer the other classes and the studio owners asked me to make the class faster. I ended up quiting and now teach at the gyms.
    I teach that the transitions from pose to pose are more important than the pose itself. If we rush then we are not completly aware of everything that flowing through you and it could be a reflection of everyday life. Life does kick your ass and class should be about being human again. nOt robots.
    That studio I taught for does really well though. They get the students who have never tried Yoga 10-20 years ago like I did so they have never known the slow paced quality.
    Thanks for writing this though. Its one of the best articles I have read here.

  7. Wonderful article, Charlotte.

    Thank you.

    Bob W. Editor
    Best of Yoga Philosophy

  8. tytbody says:

    This was beautiful. It's a shame it got the title *old school* because that really is yoga. I want that yoga. I yearn for it but don't know where to find that. I thought it was me that was just getting into yoga and not ready for the pace. But I'm glad to see, I love old school but I don't know where to find it.

  9. Adam says:

    Yoga would never judge someone else's yoga.

  10. Melody says:

    I love this article! There are many of us old school practictioners and teachers all over the US. A friend recently called this group, "Adult Yogis." Beautiful article. Love, Love & Namaste.

  11. Aella says:

    I love this. This is the way that I like to teach yoga. I only received my certification last year, but this is how my teacher taught us to teach(glad I'm typing that sentence and not saying it; tongue twister). On my own I practice slow and mindfully. I just don't see reason to teach any other way, if I want more of a work out than a spiritual practice I do pilates.

  12. Still evolving says:

    When I began practicing 9 years ago in my early 20s, I preferred faster-paced, heated "butt kicking" yoga but over the years I have moved away from sweaty asana performance towards a practice that focuses on the more meditative and mindful yoga practices (and I have zero tolerance for unnecessary yoga culture b.s. No interest in another stretchy pair of pants or a cleanse, thank you!)

    My regular class is now an amazing hatha class at the Y that typically begins with 20+ minutes of savasana and pranayama. It is also well-attended, although not packed mat-to-mat like some yoga studios. I imagine there might be many practitioners who wish to continue to receive the benefits of yoga practice as their physical, mental, and spiritual needs change over the years . . . and bet there'll be a renewed interest in "old-school yoga".

  13. jenifermparker says:

    In the article, I was really curious about the idea that you are attracting fewer people or have fewer clients than your counterparts. I haven't had that be the case with me.

    Like you, I started practicing and teaching before the boom. I teach a mindfulness based, alignment-focused class. I can do that in nearly any setting, as the boom made me quite adaptable as I was called on to teach in a variety of locations (and thereby cultures).

    I was excited to open my own studio because I could really bring the aspects of both cultures that I valued to the table. It's mostly "old school" — but what I learned from modern yoga is how to reach people who want to find you and how to make what you do accessible to them. But the yoga — how I teach and the other cultural elements of the studio — is 'old school.' 😀

    We opened two years ago. We moved to a new city, and I had no established client base. In two years, we went from a 6 class schedule in a room that fits 12 people to a 20 class schedule in a room that fits 26 people. I'd say we are doing quite well — even without being all "new fangled."

    Or perhaps, what is old is new again? 🙂

  14. Mae says:

    i so agree, the Yoga classes in my area are exercise classes competitive at that. The simplicity and beauty is gone to consumerism and boutique clothing. Sad but true.

  15. Rogelio Nunez says:

    Charlotte, your approach and philosophy, if i can call it that reminds me much of MY practice and teachings, which are born from Iyengars/patanjalis….Quality not quantity… although classes can be demanding, physically and mentally, properly sequenced so that at the end we achieve what your goals are….restoration, quiet mind, peace….
    Old school is simpler but without the glitter and hype…..

  16. Well, now, that's a promising comment!

    Bob W.

  17. Susan Simon says:

    You are on to something Jenifer. 3 of the best teachers I know are now have decided to slow down and start teaching at their home and the classes keep growing. The classes may not be as large as the popular studio classes but the teachers don't have to split revenue and have the peace of mind of being able to teach the old school way without being made wrong or getting "into trouble". I don't begrudge the new way, just grateful that a few near me are doing it old school.

  18. Charlotte says:

    Thanks for your comment. I'm glad to hear that your studio is doing so well. I have a very committed base of loyal students, but there's always going to be attrition–people move away, schedules change, etc. A healthy percentage of my students have been attending my classes 10 years or more–some more than 20 years. But as studios have multiplied around the city they, by nature, have a higher profile than someone teaching out of a rented space. I think that those of us who are not in the studio culture have a harder time making our classes known to the public. And the tide in my city at least has been toward fast-paced classes, mainly because that's what comprises the bulk of studio classes. All this is to say that it's harder to replenish the students lost to attrition than it used to be.

    I'm thinking of opening a collective where experienced teachers of a quieter, more meditative type of yoga can establish a presence in one place. Currently, we are all over the city and not so easy to find. Your story gives me a lot of hope!

  19. Charlotte says:

    Thanks for your comment. The concept of judging has become a real no-no in yoga culture. It seems that any opinion that is counter to popular opinion is labeled as judging and "unyogic." There's a concept in yoga called viveka. It means discrimination. Buddhism also recognizes wise discrimination as a skillful quality. Viveka allows us to make choices that best serve the desire to live in as much a state of equilibrium as we can given the constant changes in our lives. If yoga is "the settling of the mind into silence," according to the sutras, my choice of practicing and teaching old school yoga serves that end for me and for the students that attend my classes.

    Consider this sentence from the article: "While fast-paced, sweaty yoga with loud music and high heat is obviously working for a whole lot of people—most of the population practicing yoga—it feels like the exact opposite of what I need." I do acknowledge that fast-paced yoga is working for a lot of people. It just doesn't serve my own intentions for practice. Fast-paced, hot yoga with loud music brings about edginess and agitation in my nervous system which in turn makes me respond to my life in an edgier, less patient and peaceful way. This is not the effect I desire from practice. As I say above, it is the opposite of what I want to glean from my practice. It's not judgment except in the sense that it is a choice I make that allows my yoga practice to support the results I desire. Because this practice feeds me, this is the type of practice I want to share. Does this make sense?

  20. anouscka says:

    Charlotte Bell, this is exactly my kind of Yoga and that's what I live and what I share in my classes…..you're not alone out there..and we're not a dying breed….when all are tired of all the noise and hectics, when people get pregnant, injured, sick, they always come back to less is more….! Love from Aruba,

  21. jenifermparker says:

    A collective is a great idea, but either way, the real trick is in the marketing — as you say, raising the profile so that you are on-par with the yoga studios.

    Before moving here, I basically started to market my classes at a local dance studio — only 2 of the classes that I taught — as if they were a single studio. This raised my profile to equal of other studios, and as such, I did see an increase in my client base. It was a great way for me to learn about how to market effectively to attract people to my classes (because people DO want this sort of yoga and they DON'T necessarily want to go to a studio . . . sometimes that is really intimidating).

    When i started my studio here, I only had 6 classes. It's a small number — hardly 'on par' with a full blown studio. But, the method of marketing and the process of expanding as need arose (which is a great way to rely or develop your collective model — even if you are renting a church hall or dance studio) is what created the larger profile that we now enjoy.

    If you'd like some help honing your marketing, just zip me an email and we can chat about it. It takes some thought, planning, experimentation and longevity for analytics, but it can make a huge difference. 🙂

  22. jenifermparker says:

    free of charge, btw, on the marketing help. i just like problem solving with people. I also have different ways of approaching collective models (as I've worked in different collective model and my current process is part-collective — long story). so, if you are interested. 🙂 just peer to peer discussion on how to make sure that the people who want what you do — and there are a lot of them — can really find you.

  23. mike says:

    THANK YOU! Im trained in Hot Yoga & always get more response & positive feedback from what is completley opposite to the Yin Yoga. Our lives are just so Yang…bring on the Yin!

  24. clare says:

    Happily, where I teach in villages in the UK, the 'old school' yoga you describe is exactly how it is. I teach in 5 Village Halls, no frills, just lovely yoga with a great bunch of people of all ages and abilities. And I think it will stay that way for a while longer, although the studio model is just creeping into my nearest city, 20 miles away. I'm sure though that it is embedded already in London – so feel blessed to teach yoga where I am.

  25. Sara says:

    Hey Charlotte, i love this article. I live in rural Australia and the yoga classes in my home town are still old school – but I have been watching with interest how yoga is evolving in other parts of the word…and it's kinda weird, to me. Each to their own though, right? Kind of yoga crossed with aerobics…not my thing at all. i like to practice yoga at home, which is the only way to really do the yoga that suits you, but when i go to class, i go to an Iyengar class that I have been going to for 13 years. It's all about the postures. It's challenging, it's attention to detail, and everyone gets so much attention. i love it. You just got to teach the yoga that is right for you, and trust that it will be right for others too!

  26. Jennifer says:

    Charlotte, Thanks so much for your beautiful article. As a young yogini who spontaneously moved to an Ashram nearly 7 years ago in my early twenties, I am so thankful to have met and studied with old-school yoga teachers. I've been teaching for nearly five years now, and at 31 years of age, I would definitely consider myself and old-school teacher. And the beauty is watching the transformative effect is has had on all my students. Thanks for honoring yourself and sharing.

  27. MartinNYID says:

    My first teacher said: "So you can stand on your head…so what?" – Exactly. All this yoga branding, yuppie yoga, and overuse of the words 'ashtanga' and power' – people can do what they want, but I too learned to 'be' in the asana, so I could learn how to 'be' in life better.

    And I simply cannot go to a class that isn't based in a credible lineage of spiritual teachers – I have seen some horrifying things in classes, and I can't take self-proclaimed gurus. Even if I don't follow the particular path, give me an Integral, Sivananda, or if I really need a challenge – a Iyengar. At the very least, there should be a perfected structure.

  28. Niki Widmayer says:

    I totally agree! Love this post. If I wanted to work out, I would go to the gym. My daily morning practice is old school too, as I am a 61 year old instructor and trying to be mindful about how I move. Nice slow asanas, followed by pranayama and meditation. Takes about an hour and a half but it is worth it! The rest of my day just flows!

  29. Claire says:

    Love this! As a someone who has been on the power roundabout for a long time, it's a long time realisation that I actually don't need that kind of practice in my life. My heart sings when I practice at a slow, steady pace. My brain fights the concept, but I'm enjoying the process.

  30. Charlotte says:

    Hi Jenifer, I'd love to talk to you. Thanks for the offer. I'm not sure how to reach you. Maybe we can friend each other on FB to connect?

  31. amphibi1yogini says:

    No, I'm no longer technically old-school. The pace of my yoga got a little faster, and there is a lot of pilates fused into my practice – with push-ups, crunches and twisty downdog knees-to-nose. But it is totally inversion free. There are a few challenges left, but not for the purpose of training for a "photo opportunity".

    And savasana lasting a dozen minutes at the end.

    After all, the first impression Yin Yoga made on me at a tender age decades ago is hard to shake. And I would not want to, I've seen the new wave and it literally does not agree with me, either.

  32. jenifermparker says:

    I'll zip you a line. 🙂

  33. Marie says:

    Hello, Christine! I also studied with June Bains in the early 90's and am so sad to see that you live in SLC! I'm trying to find an "old school" yoga class to no avail! Do you happen to know of anyone in Vegas who still teaches? Thank you!

  34. Marie says:

    Oops. I meant Charlotte. Sorry!

  35. mylo says:

    I've have a yoga book my father handed down to me in 1962 which i turn to now and again. It's the real Yoga even more so then old school. It has pictures of postures todays students of Yoga would run away from.
    Try holding a posture for 30- 45 minutes.

  36. Jackie says:

    This is an exceptional explanation to the claim that judgment is "not yogic" – which I have heard many times now. I have also heard that anger is not yogic either. My sense tells me that anger is a normal and natural human emotion and has the potential to be very powerful when it initiates righteous action. Anger is not the same as hatred. In my mind, anger seems closely related to the skillful discrimination that you describe. Thanks for this!