Controversial

When being a yoga teacher isn’t enough…

Like so many people, I’ve done a yoga teacher training and went off teaching, full of enthusiasm and always delighted when a class made a student feel good. I love seeing the smile on their face when they get out of final relaxation – how many people can claim that they made someone’s day?

But there’s a downside to it. Students come back, and regular students start trusting the teacher. They start asking very general questions:

“I have this lower back pain, what do you think it is?”

“My knee is painful, what should I do?”

“I get headaches after yoga, where do they come from?”

Sometimes, it's not just about the mental aspects of yoga...

Sometimes, it’s not just about the mental aspects of yoga…

Yes, I can give some advice, try a few things and point in the right direction. But yoga teachers aren’t doctors, and they aren’t physiotherapists. They know a lot, but not all of their knowledge evolves around the human body and its bones and tissues. As a yoga teacher, you’re absorbing a lot of knowledge; we read the scriptures, learn about the postures, about the history of yoga, the philosophy – and yes, every training has an element of anatomy to it, and yes, yoga teachers are committed to continuous education and study.

But the truth is: A yoga teacher cannot always diagnose and heal, particularly if the student’s issues are very general. Lower back pain could have a myriad of reasons and it’s not possible to sort it out in a 5min Q&A session between two yoga classes.

I’m not sure what’s the solution. Do people get injured in class because they overly rely on yoga teachers and their knowledge, assuming they can design the “ideal” class for an ever-changing group of 30 students? Should students be more discerning – or should yoga teachers aim at adding another qualification to their portfolio?

Yoga teacher training is just the tip of the iceberg...

Yoga teacher training is just the tip of the iceberg…

It’s frustrating to tell people that unfortunately I cannot solve their issue in a few minutes, and possibly not at all. But it’s also dishonest to pretend that I can. In many cases, “doing the right thing” means sending them to someone who has a medical degree.

I wonder if this is a a problem of our own making. Yoga is such a competitive industry that class prices keep dropping. The only way how a yoga studio can make any money is by offering teacher trainings. In turn, more students graduate (sometimes after just two weeks of training), and more teachers mean that teacher’s pay and class prices drop even further. It also means that not all students are prepared to pay more money for a more experienced teacher.

Did we get it all wrong with yoga? Can only the few celebrities survive on teaching yoga? I’ve read somewhere that first we’ve turned yoga into a competitive fitness, and now there’s another transition happening: to the world of yoga celebrities.

So what’s going on and what should a teacher do?

Let me know what you think!

~ Andrea

Featured image credit. Blog post images here and here.

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15 replies »

  1. Hi Andrea,

    I’m a teacher of 15 years and a physiotherapist of 20.

    Students also come to me at the end of the class and look for answers for their bodies. I too direct them to other health providers. We’re on the mat with them for the yoga – not to settle their L5 disc bulge ( or whatever else their body throws at them). And when students let go of the physiology answers they’re looking for – the healing often comes.

    Have a list of trusted people you can refer to. It’s a great business strategy as it often works both ways. IE new students for you.

    I’m happy to offer suggestions if you have tricky questions or get stuck.

    Love rachex
    Rachehelyyoga.com.au.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Rache,

      Very good point! Yoga teachers should focus on what they do best, and offer a yoga class (not a physio session). It’s important to be clear when communicating with students so they know what they can expect to get out of a class.

      Interesting to see that you first worked as physio and then trained as yoga teacher – I know a few people who did it the other way around because (like me) they felt yoga TTC did not provide anywhere near the anatomy knowledge required.

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting!

      Andrea

      Like

  2. Great article Andrea – it really resonates with me! We really can’t know everything and that’s ok. I’m going to give a quick example here that is not yoga related…I was sent for an MRI by a well known neurologist who thought I had had a stroke. He has done years and years and years of study. And he still got it wrong (i.e. no stroke but a complex migraine triggered by chronic sleep deprivation). He is an awesome neurologist and I’m grateful he got onto things straight away…but my point is that even with years and years of study, we won’t always be able to know how to ‘help’ a student. I’d love to know why you’re considering physio. I have a nursing degree and a post-grad degree in public health plus my diploma in yoga teaching. I started yet another degree thinking I needed to ‘know more’. But it is expensive and time consuming and well, the reality is, I’m not going to know everything. I’m finally in a place where I can say, you know what? I don’t know the answer. But I suggest you go to XYZ as a starting point (this might not necessarily be a medical doctor). Happy to chat about the physio idea too, my hubby is considering it too!

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    • Hi Nikki, thank you for your comment, much appreciated. I guess I am considering physio because after many years of studying with yoga teachers and teacher’s teachers (and working with two chiropractors), a physio finally sorted out my back pain. I don’t think this is representative but I was impressed with the profession nonetheless. I’m in Perth now but used to live in Melbourne up until a few months ago – nice connecting with you!

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      • Hi Andrea – it sounds like you have had a fabulous experience with your physio. If I found someone that could fix my back pain I would be thrilled! Well, I’m working on it with my pilates teacher who coincidentally does a lot of her training through a Perth based company called Art of Motion. The teacher there has some amazing photos and video clips to go with her work if you get the chance to check it out!
        http://www.art-of-motion.com.au/photos.html
        Also, I just realised you came through ‘lovingmylumbar’ and now I post through https://nikkiveliz.wordpress.com/ 😉

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  3. Wow, Andrea — that is some big topic!

    Speaking with the experience only as student, not teacher I reckon teachers should find confidence to say they don’t know more often! The tradition of the guru has an odd translation in our (anglo) culture where we want an authority figure to lean on (and perhaps abdicate some responsibility to), but at the same time we expect this to come with no strings attached, and at a very modest cost. I think the issue of inexperienced new teachers is a very real one (tho we all start somewhere, right?). But even with v experienced and wise teachers, they can only speak from their own experience. I think the best teachers are the humble ones who aren’t afraid of saying they don’t know, but more than this are willing and capable of helping the student to figure it out themselves. Sometimes this is with practical advice (go to a physio) and sometimes its in their overall teaching of satya and ahimsa etc, helping their students understand themselves and their bodies better. Through such understanding each student is more empowered to find their own answers. But that’s deep teaching requiring some commitment on both sides over a considerable period of time, not just a weekly hot flow class. My humble opinion…

    Just because magic can happen in class, doesn’t make your teacher a magician!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Love this – great points well made. In my YTT one of the best things we were taught was to know when to say, “I don’t know.” We can share our practice, our learning and make suggestions, particularly when we have relevant experience from our self-practice, but ultimately we cannot and should not diagnose. That said, as a teacher I am committed to learning as much as I can about anatomy, and how the body works on and off the mat – I’d love to add qualifications to my portfolio that support my teaching and hep me to serve my students better 🙂 x
      https://jadesyogapage.wordpress.com/

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Jade, yes, that’s such a great lesson: we need to learn and be confident enough to say “I don’t know”. I remember when I started teaching – I was just too worried about appearing incompetent whereas now I feel that knowing the limits of my skills and knowledge actually is a sign of competence.

        Liked by 2 people

    • I agree with all your points. And yes, that’s the other side of the coin I guess: sometimes teachers are able to help but it’s not an easy fix and students can get impatient, thinking the teacher is not skilled enough. But the main difference to the traditional guru system from India is that over there, a guru has one (or very few) students who live alongside them, typically in an ashram setting, whereas we think we can change things by taking a one hour group class a week…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Andrea, great post and very relevant. I think teaching is a continuous process of learning. But as you said, we are not doctors. I think the best we can do as teachers is have a very strong self practice, and pass on to our students whatever we learn from our own time on the mat. For the rest, refer them to specialists.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Juhi, how nice to hear from you – I hope you are well. Yes, so important to have a strong self practice and to practise what you preach. It’s hard for teachers though, most of them are so busy with fitting in as many classes as possible to make a living that unfortunately self practice seems like a luxury, not something essential. I wonder if it’s the same in India?

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      • Hi Andrea – In my yoga training I remember our main teacher saying that we really shouldn’t be teaching yoga if we don’t prioritise our self practice. Teaching classes won’t be sustainable down the track if we don’t have a self practice as luxurious as that seems sometimes. I do like asking other teachers what their self-practice looks like. I’ve had some great answers like “To be honest, I do something everyday but it might be one asana and that’s it. Other days I can give myself an hour. But regardless, doing something everyday creates that habit, that growth, no matter how small”.

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  5. This is a tough one but yeah I’d just advise them to seek medical advice and sort of avoid giving them any sort of medical advice. Although if they are sick, maybe tell them to do a yoga routine that is designed to sooth general sick feelings – there are a lot of those on YouTube. I have one teacher I love online and she does classes for period pain and for when you’re in a bad mood and this really works to fix me.

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    • That’s a good idea. I think it’s handy to have a sequence that works for headaches, period pain or other minor ailments (provided there’s no other, more serious, underlying condition). Yoga postures can help with many things, but not all of them and I guess that’s what makes a good teacher: being able to distinguish between these two!

      Liked by 1 person

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