Saturday, January 29, 2011

Yoga – the practice, the teacher, the outcome….

Those of you practicing yoga for a while, already know that there are different styles and ways to practice yoga, that each teacher is his/her own flavor and the results you get form one class to another may vary dramatically. Yoga is showing up these days not only in yoga studios and gyms, but neighborhood lawns, and private living rooms, garages, the beach… There seems to be an abundance of yoga teachers, and there are always folks who are willing to try anything, and even more folks who are willing to sacrifice anything to save a buck.
This leads us to a peculiar situation where we have all this wonderful research coming out of many of the leading universities in America, as well as the medical establishment, who point to the incredible benefits of yoga – physically, psychologically and even spiritually, and at the same time people who say “I tried yoga, I got hurt. No thanks.” We get news of yoga teachers improperly using their position to take advantage of their students. Others, even committing unthinkable acts of violence, like murder and rape. Yoga seems to be main stream, main news, main controversy and mainly remains a mystery to this day.
Here are a few words from my more than a decade of teaching experience and even more than that, of practicing. Hope this is helpful to all.
First – let us start with the practice itself. Yoga is a very personal journey to becoming a healthier, happier, more compassionate human being. Through the varieties of practices it offers, one can address the whole mind – body system and develop mindfulness. This keeps everything from your bones, to your heart, immune system, brain and every organ, tissue, vessel and so on, healthy. It also gives the person an opportunity to learn about their mental, emotional environment, habits, hang-ups, dreams, inspirations, strengths and weaknesses. One, then, has the opportunity to let go of things and develop a different outlook, attitude and overall predisposition. So, one is liberated from the habitual accumulation of negativity, stress and drama and free to explore the freedom of being at ease with whatever comes. 
Second – let us see the role of the teacher. While yoga is a personal journey, because ultimately everyone of us does the work for our selves, the teacher matters. The teacher is one of your first gateways to the practice. One can read a book and get an idea of what is to be done, but the teacher is there to sort of guide you in the way in which it should work well for you. It “should” indeed, not that it actually “will.” For a teacher to be effective, he or she should know what they are doing. Doesn’t every yoga teacher know what they are doing? The sad answer is “No.”
Here’s a common scenario – a person starts doing yoga, takes a few classes, gets infected by the mystery and next thing you know they want to be a yoga teacher. All one has to do is call a few yoga studio and find a teacher training, pay a sizable price and a few weeks or a month later, emerge a “qualified yoga teacher.” Now contrast this to the way things used to be back when yoga was still in the caves of India where you would have had to follow your master for years and listen to everything he said, lectured and did so that you can collect the wisdom and the practice - one crumb at the time. Meanwhile, you were suppose to endure hardships, learn to serve others, let go of your attachments, commit and indefinite amount of time to the process and be willing to live a life in the fringes of society.
These days yoga teachers are celebrities, akin to movie starts. In the olden days, every bit of wisdom that came out of a yoga mouth was earned through experience and distilled in the fire of the practice until it is every bit embodied. Now, a yoga teacher plays rock & roll music in class that highlights our very attachments and faulty ideas about love and life. Now, a yoga teacher wears Prana or Lululemon or whatever brand of expensive clothing is out there, promotes the latest herbal supplements, special yoga shoes, or mat wipes…Yoga teachers mechanically repeat bits and pieces of wisdom found in books and movies and somehow can’t find a way to translate them into their own lives. Yoga studios make great money from yoga teacher trainings and so they are willing to take anyone who has the time and the money to commit to the process. The teachers, teaching the new comers are themselves, often questionably worthy of the role. So, the blind leads the blind…and the masses go to yoga classes wondering what happened to the promise of enlightenment, health and wellness.
So, my advice to every yoga student that leaves my Intro To Yoga series is – please shop around for your yoga teacher. Ask for qualifications. Try a few classes. Don’t take everything you hear for granted.  Ask questions. Try to get a sense for what this or that teacher is really like.
Third - know why you are doing yoga. If you are trying to rehab an injury you will have to be more selective of the teacher’s skills, the level of class or the environment to you go to vs if you are just working out.  If yoga is part of a stress reduction effort, or a part of your spiritual journey, or a combination of all these and more…you will have to be more selective with your teachers and environment. Yoga studios generally attract better teachers than gyms. Mainly because yoga studios, generally, are owned by people who love yoga, so the focus is different. Generally! Not always. Some gyms have good yoga teachers too.  Generally, folks who teach at home are teaching at home because the yoga studios and the gyms prefer not to have them. Generally, not always….so, you have to do the work of fining good yoga teachers. Generally, someone with more years of teaching experience will have more to offer, but sometimes, some new teachers are real gems. Ask of the person’s background. Ask of the person’s personal practice. Ask for references. Ask for credentials.  Try classes and teachers until you find what feels right, works right and is right for you. Feel free to go to more than one yoga teacher. One can be good at one thing and another can be good at another thing. You are not enslaved to your yoga teacher and I know some want you to feel that way so you can just follow them around – yoga teachers have egos and need money too, just like everyone else.
Find a class that serves your needs. Not all yoga classes are the same. Your needs may change on daily basis. You may have to attend several classes a week and they can all be different and with different teachers.  Feel free to experiment at home once in a while. Yoga is about self empowerment. You should not be totally dependent on your yoga teacher. What will happen if your yoga teacher does not show up one day? Will your yoga practice be doomed? This is one more reason to know more than one good teacher.
Cost should not be your sole consideration when you decide where to take yoga. Price often reflects quality. Have you tried to buy a BMW for the price of a Kia? Good luck. The smooth ride, the safety features, the impeachable mechanics are not cheap and the reason is because it takes years to develop that kind of standard and performance. If you want real cheap, you can go for a golf cart, but you won’t be able to travel very far or very comfortably.  Same with yoga classes – the class may be cheap, but the trip to the chiropractor’s office, or worse, the doctor’s office is not.
Accept that sometimes, even with the greatest of intentions and the greatest of teachers, things can happen – no one is immuned to injury. But if you chose your teacher well, go slow and at your own pace, do not compete with yourself or others, listen to your body, ask good questions and practice regularly, your chances of an injury are slim to none. In all those years of yoga practice I have NEVER had a yoga injury….except ones, when I was trying to go into a handstand from a too many times.  My arms got tired and I fell on my right shoulder, dislocating my collarbone….So, use good judgment in everything you do.
Ultimately, you determine the outcome of your practice because it is YOU, who finds the teacher, chooses the practice and chooses to practice.
Happy yoga days, friends!
Valentina Petrova is a yoga teacher & personal adviser. She owns Holistic Movement Center in Morro Bay, CA where she teaches group and one-on-one sessions. She’s the host of “Yoga for Life” TV program on Ch. 2, Charter. Call 805-909-1401, or visit the web at for more information.

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