Confidence from Curiosity: Becoming uncertain yoga teachers

Yogis in the Dark

Creative mover Diane Bruni recently posted an article called “Tolerating Uncertainty — The Next Medical Revolution?” from the New England Journal of Medicine about the stress and costs of demanding clear-cut knowledge from doctors where learning curves would be more helpful. It suggests that, when helping people, the helper needs to be able to be vulnerable, to not know all the answers, and still hold a safe space for patients.

Medical and fitness worlds have heavily influenced how modern yoga defines itself, especially where yoga has become almost exclusively a physical practice. Yoga teachers have become unlicensed points of reference for people looking to understand “what’s happening” with their bodies, from injuries to stress to how bodies “should” and “shouldn’t” move.

Shining the Light on Yoga

It’s an important step in yoga’s evolution to have teachers who want to learn more about the details of bodies in motion. Teachers of modern physical yoga need a solid understanding of the human body, and to move beyond calcified reverence for Original Teachers whose teachings were based in mystic, intuitive, regimented, unquestioned and often poorly-informed perspectives. That doesn’t mean there isn’t valuable insight in these historical teachings, but they fail us often in our physical practices. Good teachers are acknowledging this and extending their learning beyond Iyengar, the Primary Series for All, or the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. We’re brushing up on anatomy, kinesiology, biomechanics. We’re getting interested in the science as well as the art of yoga.

Standing in the Gap of Uncertainty

The challenge I see now, especially as a yoga teacher trainer, is that yogis and yoga teachers are seeking – and trusting – this new knowledge haphazardly. For many, this is part of the delight of the yoga journey: personal exploration, insight, and freedom to discover organically. In one’s personal practice, this can be a healing, joyful process. As teachers, what I often see is a problem between process and delivery. Teachers randomly explore an article here, a video there, a workshop or two, and then present their learning as evidence-based advice to their students. How many times have you been in a yoga class where the teacher offers an instruction or information as fact: “You should” or “It’s wrong to” or “Actually …”

I’ve done it. It was kind of a first step toward translating my learning into my teaching. I was so excited to share new information that was changing my own practice that I didn’t recognize how often I was talking about ‘some stuff I read / tried’ as though it were time-tested, evidence-based truth. I’ve been unlearning that habit, and getting curious about how to “teach” yoga without it.

But then how do we share the new knowledge we’re acquiring? How do we teach others without misrepresenting our expertise (or lack thereof)?

As rebel yoga scholar and think-geek Matthew Remski has pointed out, there is no defined scope of practice in yoga. There is no panel or board, no peer reviews, no central knowledge base, no objective perspective to create a check-and-balance to our exploration with yoga. When it comes to the joy of expanding creativity, personal learning, or just enjoying stretching in a yoga class, that freedom is fabulous. But increasingly, people are coming to yoga on the recommendation of their doctor, and are getting medical-sounding advice from teachers that hasn’t been vetted in any reliable way (and if you think the Yoga Alliance does this, THINK AGAIN). In other words, there are no clear boundaries or guidelines on how to share knowledge. We don’t clearly define what we know/believe and don’t know/believe, and what we do and don’t do as yoga teachers, so we’re always in the “grey-scale space” of uncertainty mentioned in that medical journal article.

So what’s a yoga teacher to do? What happens when teaching the same postures gets old, when people have new questions, when you seem to be evolving out of the practice you love, when the pains emerging from dedication to a practice begin to overgrow the original passion for it? Remski said something in an article in Yoga International recently; I think I can safely extend its application here:

I think you broaden your definition of yoga. Language is like movement. It opens pathways, but soon it loses its shine: It becomes rote, liturgical, staged, performative. The greatest poetry in the world ends up getting rattled off by bored priests paid to be bureaucrats instead of artists. Repetitive movement is the same: What begins as joy becomes bound into ritual and then boiled down into social control. You get a lot of bloody feet in pointe shoes, and busted shoulders from endless sun salutes. All because people think the form is more important than your life.

I think we break free of rote repetition, including the desire to repeat our own new learning to reinforce our own expertise. I think we stop trying to enforce anything. I think we go (back) to uncertainty. We get comfortable with saying, “I don’t know.” We get better at asking questions instead of firing off ill- or uninformed opinions as answers. We stop trying to pretend to be the kind of professional we’re not. If medical doctors with all of their training need to exercise this new muscle, how much more so do we as yoga teachers?

More Questions than Answers, Please

Pranalife Yoga Teacher Training with Asia Nelson in Waterloo Kitchener Toronto

The moment we free ourselves to say, “I don’t know” we release ourselves from requirements that are beyond our skill set. We can re-frame what we learn as story rather than fact: We can, as Remski suggests, change our language. We “broaden our definition of yoga” TOGETHER, through exploration and curiosity.

We can replace truthiness, medicalese, and anxiety about having to have answers with sharing information about our own learning journey: “I’ve started getting curious about this latest research which says …”

We can soften our hard-line perspectives by realizing that experience is not the same as objective fact: “I can’t say what this will be for you. When I went through it, here’s what I found …” or “I have no proof of what god is. Here’s what I believe …”

We can place our learning in context: “It used to be that yoga teachers would say, ‘Soften your glutes’. We’re not sure where that cue came from but we all taught it. Well, now we’re learning from other movement practices that this isn’t a great cue.”

We can embrace the vulnerability of uncertainty: “I didn’t know this until recently, and it’s been a really helpful change in my own practice. Let’s try this new approach and see if it feels better in your body.”

We can re-discover the freedom of questions and suggestions instead of having to be right:

“What movements create your pain?”

“I’m not a medical professional so I’d defer to what they tell you, but I can suggest trying this: Take Pigeon Pose and deep lunging out of your practice for a few weeks and see if your pain goes away.”

“What do YOU think god is?”

The Next Generation of Uncertain, Confident Teachers

When I train yoga teachers, I don’t teach what postures to do; instead, we explore WHAT POSTURES DO. It’s often frustrating for these eager learners at first because they feel like they’ve paid me to give them answers. But I’m not a Buzzfeed teacher, with a refreshed page of the Top 22 Ways to Teach Yoga Better Than Anyone. I’m a guide. I don’t tell them where to go; we walk and I help them avoid pitfalls or cliffs, or getting hopelessly lost while they explore. We review what yoga has been – the postures, the Sutras, the history of teachers and students. We pare their practices down to the bare minimum and I introduce them to experts like back biomechanics pro Dr. Stuart McGill, so these fresh teachers have new and old tools for (re)building their *personal* practices.

And we get really good at asking better questions: Why are you taking this shape? What’s the purpose of this pose? How can you change this posture to be safer, and still get what you wanted from it? What does it mean to “be more free” and how can you find more freedom in each asana? How do you actually balance strength and ease? How do you empower people to move themselves? What does it mean to “open” your hips, and do you actually want to do that?

And there’s a delightful paradox in the outcome: Teachers emerge from this training full of more questions and more CONFIDENCE. They’re relaxed. They enjoy their practices. There’s no pressure to know it all, to measure up to some external standard of How Yoga Is Done and Taught. They’ve developed a comfort in the grey area of not knowing – where they explore, change direction, learn, stay curious, and create safe spaces for others to do the same.

I hope this is the future of yoga.

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