What Your Yoga Teacher Doesn't Want You To Know - Inconvenient Ethics
Value proposition I recognize that yoga is just like any other profession, mistakes are made for a variety of reasons. I myself have made mistakes over the years. I will never forget being invited over to a student’s house for an dinner (which was delicious) only to have said student profess their love for me…and they were married. These and other experiences were watershed moments in my career. I used them to develop a value system that I have fine-tuned over the years. Why do I use the word “value” and not “ethics”? Well in a sense that is the point of this article. For me, values imply something internal, developed over time and through experience, while ethics are generally external and often go the way of poorly maintained as a result of market pressures. Values are what teachers should rely on to maintain the safety and integrity of their profession.
Before going any deeper I want to acknowledge a reality, I have an agenda and an editorial bias - a point of view developed over 25 years of practicing and teaching yoga. My agenda relates to quality, integrity, and aesthetics. My bias relates to my own method of teaching and of teaching students how to become teachers. Essentially, I am not going to pretend to be objective or stay silent about some of the serious problems we face in contemporary yoga classes.
Yoga is a lifestyle brand worth tens of billions of dollars and there are NO, NONE, ZERO professional standards for quality, ethics, or training. Yoga is a completely unregulated industry (don’t even get me started on the Yoga Alliance). Because there are no standards in the industry, economy of scale tends to be what drives innovation while standards and ethics are quietly ignored at the back of the room. The result: teachers, studios, and entire “systems” designed around packing as many people into a class as possible, as often as possible. From the perspective of a student, the lack of consistency from one Power-Vinyasa-Flow class to another can add variety but more often than not it results in confusion and ultimately degrades the efficacy of the practice over the long term.
In theory there is nothing wrong with the McYoga model until the “instructor”, with two weekends of training, gets confused about the difference between a push-up and “chaturanga dan lasagna" and you end up with a torn rotator in your shoulder. Safety aside, there are few things more grating than paying $20+ for a class only to find you have been hoodwinked into watching a teacher practice on their mat at the front of the room with their back to you or listen to uninspired, message deficient, hip hop music playing so loud you can’t hear them screaming into the microphone (yes this has happened to me more than once, and I am still in therapy from the resultant PTSD). I know in yoga “you get what you bring”, but there is still this little thing called aesthetics and design and well, taste.
Wild Wild West
Few states have a board overseeing the training and development of yoga teachers and there is no real national standard for teacher trainings. This means that your yoga instructor, the one teaching you how to stand on your head and then wrap your leg around your head, might have received their training over a weekend or they might have studied for months, or they might be simply setting up shop with no real training at all and calling themselves a “yoga instructor”. The class you just took with the cute teacher in the ever popular, multi-colored-hypno-chic, $110, spandex, yoga pants…it could have been the first class they ever taught or, if you’re lucky, they participated in a training requiring them to actually teach and assist real students in real classes with a supervising teacher. Training alone will never be the sole indicator for what makes a great teacher great or an annoying teacher quack platitudes like “open your heart”. Nonetheless strong studio programs with sound teachers, emerge from trainings that rely on classroom practicums and continuing education.
Learn To Read
As a consumer and as a teacher, I expect a breakthrough experience every time I take a class…and yes, I am aware that some experiences are better than others and we all have off days…nonetheless if you are reading from notes, practicing “with me” on your mat, or are afraid or disgusted by adjustments, then you are not providing me with value or a return on my investment. Yoga, like dance, is an art form and teaching it entails no small amount of aesthetic appreciation for its grace and precision. Too often studios and teachers are busy pushing the next workshop, retreat, cleanse, spa treatment, or monthly special to fully engage with the art of teaching. The product that emerges in these studios, range from cirque de soleil absurd to awkward because no one ever explained how to project or even worse how to read a passage with emotion. Sadly, for the uneducated consumer, this is the standard they expect.
The ingredients for creating life altering, inspiring experiences that provide tools to shift people’s experiences from grief to hope, from self-sabotage to self-love, from addiction to freedom, and from abuse to compassion are based on sound principles. Yoga is an art form, it is a beautiful dance, it is as lyrical as a poem and when taught with a few simple but consistently applied aesthetic principles (like inspiring music or the sound of the breath) can move people to take the next step on their journey. Yoga has the potential to provide us with powerfully arresting experiences and alter our mood and our very perception of life itself. I believe the popularity of yoga has created some incredibly creative and powerful experiences…I also believe the lack of quality and ethical standards in the industry, means more often students are paying for a substandard experience, and far worse there are teachers who use yoga to prey on the vulnerability of their students.
Ethics Are Inconvenient
Because yoga is unregulated, there are no enforceable ethical standards. So on one hand, you have a community parroting the lack of safety inherent to certain practices or teachers or methods and on the other hand advertising yoga in conjunction with happy hour and cocktails (yes, I know we all love our cocktails sweetie, well not me, but advertising a class as detox/retox is just embarrassing for all of us). We are a community supposedly focused on not harming and being truthful, meanwhile we sit on the sidelines gossiping while teachers literally pray on the emotional vulnerability of students, developing romantic and sexual relationships that tear families apart and cause lasting harm. Even in studios where there are published ethical standards, I have watched married female teachers have affairs with students and then say things like, “Well I never agreed with your policy around romantic relationships in the first place”. I had a male teacher who travels “the world” teaching yoga classes tell me he had a wife and multiple female “hosts” in various parts of the country…wink wink nudge nudge! I am all for freedom of sexual expression but dating or having sex with your students, married or single, is a recipe for disaster particularly given the very real issue of SEXUAL ABUSE.
Equally problematic, in my opinion, are the teachers who preach purity and clarity and spiritual enlightenment…meanwhile back home they are drugging and drinking themselves into some variant of addiction. I have seen it all, heavy drinkers teaching classes “tipsy”, to hardcore drug use on and off the mat. The legality of recreational drugs aside, it just seems problematic to mix so many potentially disastrous elements together in any venue. Drug abuse is a real problem in our culture, it destroys lives, there is no value in mixing it with yoga. I certainly don’t want to be the student in a class with a high yoga instructor.
The main problem I see is lack of experience coupled with inadequate training both on and off the mat. There have been studies that show experts in any field require a decade or 10,000 hours to become masters at their craft. I agree with this assessment but would point out that in yoga, the vast majority of teachers are part-part time. They teach a few classes a week and have another job or they are the ever ambiguous “life coach” with yoga being just a piece of their master plan. So they may have been teaching for 5 years but it was only 5 hours a week, not 20 or 30 or 40. There are a few exceptions to this rule, some studio owners or full-time lifelong teachers but most yoga instructors simply have not put in the hours to be masters of their craft. They may say I have been teaching for 10 years but they neglect to tell you that for 5 of those years they were only teaching one class a week in between jobs or births. Nonetheless some of these very same teachers, that decided to be a yoga teacher after 6 months on their mat, are now, two years later, leading a “teacher training”.
My solution is to turn away from the ubiquitous power-flow-hot-restorative-chill-vinyasa and create a method that I know is based around value and aesthetics and integrity. The Merideth Method® is an efficient set of tools that can be applied both on and off the mat. The core of the method empowers students to be resilient and take what they learn in the studio and practice it wherever they are in their life...not just in the studio. For the teachers I train, I instill in them the importance of extreme professionalism, which is my terminology for putting in place a value system that encourages long term growth over short term fixes. In other words, the Merideth Method® is a contemporary training method designed to create brilliant teachers who are capable of thinking about the wellbeing of their students beyond their next class. Our teachers have taught and assisted in numerous real life studio classes with a professional senior teacher before they are even considered for certification. This is our minimum standard.