June 4, 2018

How Much of this is Actually Yoga?

Prior to becoming a yoga teacher, I used to religiously attend Vinyasa classes at the same yoga studio. It was during this time that I found a completely new outlook on yoga.

Perhaps my view of Vinyasa yoga had been a tad presumptuous—like Bikram or Ashtanga, classes were pretty much the same anywhere in the world—and I assumed that everyone’s experience with this style of yoga was somewhat like mine. Hence, it was quite a surprise to find out from fellow trainees how varied and different their Vinyasa yoga experiences had been.

It sparked a sense of curiosity and inspired me to explore the different styles, teachers, and classes available. For a few months, I trekked about London, visiting new places and attending classes with teachers I’d never learned from before. It was a wonderful experience and period of discovery, finding out about new things, some of which I felt an affinity for while others less so. More importantly, it got me thinking about my own journey as a teacher and what I stood for.

I found myself wondering about the significance and relevance of yoga lineage. One of the biggest questions to emerge was, “How important is it to have specific disciplines to follow as a yoga teacher?”

Vinyasa yoga is a modern-day style that has evolved from Ashtanga yoga. It’s loosely defined by its dynamic approach of linking movement to breath and transitioning from one posture to another. Other schools have also developed from Ashtanga yoga, such as Jivamukti and Forrest yoga, which include a flowing style and encourage practitioners to adapt to a new set of beliefs.

Each school of yoga abides by their yogic philosophy, some more traditional than others, which informs how a class is sequenced and taught. What sets Vinyasa yoga apart is that it doesn’t belong to any school and has no set rules to adhere to. So while you can often anticipate the type of lesson you will receive at a Jivamukti or Forrest yoga class, a Vinyasa class can differ so extremely from one to another—it can be almost impossible to know what to expect, even from the same studio.

Quite recently, I went to a Vinyasa class with a teacher who was new to me. Halfway through, I found myself feeling rather irritated. It was quite an atypical class: the sun salutations traditionally used to warm-up the body were altered to become a more gentle flow, which defeated their purpose; and the teacher led us through completely made-up poses, including “the Jedi” and one that involved picking up your leg from Downward Facing Dog and kicking it out front like a street dancer. There were also movements which resembled a combination of dance and tai chi, such as the snaking of the body or the waving of the arms and fingers, all of which required a level of grace to execute beautifully, but felt awkward and rather self-conscious for me.

I did come away with quite a crucial observation into my role as a yoga teacher however. As I moved through the class begrudgingly, it dawned on me how implicitly most students trust their teacher. While I was questioning the relevance of this practice to yoga, the rest of the class—both men and women—were utterly committed and making their best effort to follow along. It became clear how much we as teachers carry the responsibility to lead and deliver a practice that’s beneficial, deserving, and, more importantly, authentic to yoga.

My belief is that this class had become the manifestation of one teacher’s creativity and expression, but it felt more akin to dance than yoga. Absent of lineage, there were no rules or traditions to observe. As such, Vinyasa-style teachers may find themselves with the greater duty to apply yogic discipline and guidelines to ensure we are still offering a genuine practice.

To stay true, I’ve been using some of these points as a way of checking in with myself when preparing for a class:

1. Service
Practice Karma yoga by approaching each class without any personal intentions. Instead, consider the benefits you can offer to the students in your class. There’s even more of an opportunity to do this with small classes or private sessions that can be tailored to support your students’ personal lives and environments.

2. Consistency vs. Creativity
We feel the need to be creative as yoga teachers, especially when we experience a class from a fellow teacher that’s dynamic and amazing. I confess to feeling the pressure of not wanting to repeat a class, but there’s no reason to feel guilty. In fact, consistency is good as it gives students the opportunity to familiarize themselves with sequences and explore the poses more deeply.

3. Reference to the Origin
Since Vinyasa yoga is an evolution of Ashtanga, I try to use the latter’s primary series as a framework to create a sequence, typically building up to a peak, then cooling down to a finish. It starts with integrating the student, both spiritually and physically, into the moment—from raising their focus and awareness to gentle stretches in preparation for a more dynamic practice. This is followed by sun salutations, a vigorous flow of poses intended to warm-up the body, which leads to a series of standing postures culminating in inversions or challenging backbends, and then slowing down into floor postures and, finally, relaxation.

4. Balance and Counterbalance
In yoga, each of the different poses can be grouped according to the physical and emotional function they support. Part of the aim of yoga is to find stability in oneself, both physically and spiritually, and the means of achieving stability is through balance. To find balance, every pose has its counterbalance, and, as such, backbends are countered with forward bends or standing and balancing poses with inversions. It’s therefore important, as a teacher, to always consider the yin and yang of a practice and not steer too much toward one element or the other.

5. Highlight a Focus
The general intention is to create a well-balanced class. But within each lesson, I’ve found it beneficial to students to have a physical focus as it adds another dimension to the practice. For example, we can encourage students to focus on their core regularly to ensure it’s engaged throughout the class.

6. Honor a Tradition
A balanced class isn’t simply about a well-rounded physical practice; it should also encompass the spiritual side of yoga. As a teacher, I’ve been tempted to skip parts of the practice that hadn’t been well-received in the past, but now look for other ways to introduce it more seamlessly. What sets yoga aside from a gymnastics class is the history and philosophy involved, which is why it’s important as teachers and keepers of the practice to uphold certain traditions—to consciously offer breath work and meditation, or share yogic philosophy and ideals—that ensures yoga’s legacy.



8 Blunt Truths About Becoming a Yoga Instructor.


Author: Hongyi Huang
Image: Nik Macmillan/Unsplash
Editor: Nicole Cameron
Copy Editor: Catherine Monkman

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