*This article was originally posted on the now defunct bentoutofshape.com in 2012. It has been re-posted here with no changes or edits*
Here we are back again to one of my favorite topics. I am a firm believer that students need to have the best information available to them when choosing a teacher to study with, and for that reason I am compiling a list of things to watch out for, i.e., signs that a teacher might not be the right one for you, or at the extreme end, that a teacher is unsafe to practice with. If you haven't read Part 1 yet, I encourage you to do so (at least to read the part where I ask no one to get angry with me) but nevertheless let's carry on.
This fits more into the category of Yellow flags. Although not a blatant safety concern, an overcrowded class can tell you a great deal regarding that teacher’s skill level. I’ll be the first to admit that there is a really exciting quality to a packed class. The energy level is high, which can carry you through moments of struggle, and it's a shared experience with others that can be very connecting. But are crowded classes safe?
It can be difficult for newer teachers to know how many students they can safely teach at any one time. Try this next time you are in a crowded room: How many people can you watch simultaneously? I don't mean how many can you see at once, but how many can you pay close enough attention to such that you will notice if one collapses the inner arch of their left foot, has an unstable right knee, or externally rotates their legs in upward dog? Most instructors struggle to watch one person at a time that closely. Yoga teachers are trained to expand that awareness, but by how much? And how well have they trained in that regard? I have been teaching for 11 years now, and have probably accumulated something close to 2000 hours of yoga teacher training in addition to being a massage therapist for close to a decade. I have taught classes with as few as two students, and as many as 150. I know from my own experience that I can safely teach a room of 25-30 students at the maximum. Beyond that number I start to lose track of exactly what everyone is doing. Without the awareness of what the students in the room are doing, the yoga classes are much more risky. In large classes, the teacher simply cannot protect you as well as they can with smaller numbers in class.
One of my teachers, Hart Lazer, who has 35+ years of teaching experience, and is possibly one of the most skilled yoga teachers in the country, has told me the maximum number of students he can maintain awareness with is 40-45. Anymore than that, he can begin to lose sight of what students are doing too. There are those who might disagree with me but I’m confident saying that there is no way a junior teacher can watch more than 15-20 students at a time, and that's being generous. So why is it so common to see huge classes with inexperienced teachers? Crowded classes happen in most studios (mine included), and are the result of a number of factors. It's expensive to run a studio, and while it is sad to bring yoga down into the world of business, a studio still has to pay its rent, so studios are hard pressed to turn students away. Add to this the fact that junior teachers are paid less than advanced teachers. Sadly, it comes down to making money. As far as the teachers themselves go, many are too new to realize yet what their own limitations are. They have good intentions but don't recognize how much can get missed in those large classes; especially how many students are potentially hurting themselves. Furthermore, when yoga students get hurt they rarely blame the teacher; they blame themselves. So, teachers are often unaware that a student was hurt in their class.
Unfortunately there isn't much that a student can do in this situation, but it is a very good sign when a teacher or studio limits the number of students in the room to match the teacher’s experience and skill level, rather than going by how many yoga mats can be crammed into the space. Students should also make an extra effort to watch their own safety and alignment in those large classes, as it's not likely that the teacher will be able to spot everything (or much of anything for that matter).
Teachers who are not open to a dialog
It baffles me that there actually are yoga teachers out there who take their so-called authority, know-it-all attitude, and/or fear of change, and translate it into a dogmatic approach to their teachings. Any teacher who thinks that he/she has a "one-size-fits-all" yoga practice to offer should be avoided. Even worse are the ones whose method is the "right way," and methods that deviate from their “right way” are simply “wrong” or not part of the “club.”
There are many questions that should be saved until after class, but if something hurts or feels unsafe to you, then it is your responsibility to quietly and respectfully catch the teachers attention and ask for help in a way that does not disrupt the rest of the class. If a teacher is not open to addressing your concerns and/or is not open to questions after the practice, then that teacher should be avoided. There are ALWAYS alternate postures or modifications available to adapt the practice to your needs. No student benefits from being pushed into a cookie-cutter dogmatic practice.
Push until it hurts
I mentioned it before, in part one my issue with the "no pain, no gain" mindset in yoga, but after hearing this instruction in a class, I feel the need to address it again. In this particular class the students were in a kneeling backbend called camel pose (ustrasana), and the instruction was given to "push your hips forward until your back hurts." Not only is this wrong from both a philosophical and pedagogical point of view, and not only does it break the first rule of yoga which is ahimsa (non-violence), but it's just plain dumb. An instruction like that will wreck your body! There is no wiggle room here, no alternate opinions or alternate arguments that should be considered. I will go so far as to say a class with an instruction like this ceases to be a yoga class altogether. If you hear a teacher say this in the room, get up, leave, and demand your money back.
If you could get the same practice from a video or audio tape that you are getting in the class, then that person is not teaching yoga. Set sequences are great, and have many benefits in addition to the challenges they can present. Having said that, the language that a good teacher uses is not a scripted set of memorized words. A teacher will respond to the needs of the students who show up, so no two classes are ever the same. If a teacher uses exactly the same language to teach a class each time, you should question if you are in fact learning much of anything. You should also question whether that teacher is practicing. If he/she is practicing, is it a mechanical rather than a deep and mindful practice? Great teaching develops not only from quality training, but also from personal experience with the practice. You may feel great, and have a nice experience, but part of the title "yoga teacher" requires actual teaching! If a teacher is not going to do that, then maybe they should call it something different like a yoga recital, or just be more up front and pop a DVD in at the start of class.
Stay tuned for part 3
Until next time, keep practicing!
"We are all beginners, it just takes some of us longer to realize it."
- Chuck Miller