How Becoming a Better Yoga Teacher Made Me Stop Teaching Yoga (Mostly)
I had an interesting experience today- a pilates teacher whom I regularly take class with didn’t realize that I taught yoga. To be fair, I have a confusing identity: I’m a classical musician, which is its own set of training and expertise, I have a blog, and I mostly teach pilates (with a side of yoga). But how did that all end up happening?
I initially trained in yoga (with teacher trainers who were already a bit creative, thoughtful, and unique, before it was cool at South Boston Yoga) and I then took all of the Yoga Tune Up® trainings, which took that weird, creative, non traditional yoga thing into a whole new realm. At that point, I was almost exclusively practicing yoga and running, occasionally biking, with little else. I did my trainings mostly with Trina Altman, Sarah Court, and Jill Miller, who all have successful movement careers (Trina teaches both Pilates and Yoga, Sarah finished her Doctoral of Physical Therapy, and Jill Miller created Yoga Tune Up®). All of them encouraged students and trainees to explore different movement disciplines, to cross train, to be bad at new movement things, and to get geeky about movement, not just traditional yoga asana. They also all three had stories of personal injury, some from yoga asana, which really made me rethink some of the traditional marketing, messaging, and commentary about what yoga is, how often we should practice, what a yoga body looks like, and what the whole point of it is. To be clear, I don’t have any definitive answers, but I no longer practice yoga asana every day, and I started moving in all sorts of new ways.
While these new internal somatic learning experiences happened, I also won my job with the San Antonio Symphony, and moved with high expectations of teaching this new, better informed way of moving and teaching yoga, which had already served me well as a teacher in previous regions. This…was not the case. Not remotely. In my first year or so there, I had so many no show classes: I counted once. I was scheduled to teach 9 classes in a week, and no show’s for 5 classes. To be fair, sometimes that’s the time of day and not the content so much (i.e. a random midday or mid morning class, late night class or Sunday afternoon class). I found studios that were interested in hosting me for a workshop, and then they didn’t sell well. I was essentially frustrated and failing. I was not only trying to promote a smarter way of teaching yoga, I was also using massage balls in class, both of which were novel and useful, but students weren’t always interested in either.
For as much failure as I encountered, I did have students come up to me and tell me how much they liked what I was doing…they just weren’t consistent students or enough to make it a successful class time. I had a studio owner tell me that I was teaching mostly PT like movements in my classes, and needed to do more traditional poses. Conversely, I had medical professionals come to my classes because they liked that I knew anatomy and what the movements did. I stopped teaching chanting because it didn’t feel right to me, I taught less poses in sanskrit, and I eventually phased out of teaching group yoga classes almost entirely just because I felt like I didn’t belong, and I didn’t feel a part of a community.
In short, becoming more informed as a teacher, more intrigued by movement and science, and less interested in fancy asana, meant that the students and teachers of San Antonio, TX, were not particularly interested in my classes or me. Multiple ashtanga based studios near my home featured photos of teachers doing acrobatics, making intense physical adjustments, and repeating the yoga marketing tricks that annoyed the crap out of me; a student in an intense forward fold with a teacher putting tons of weight on their back, only pretty young people in photographs doing extreme poses, glorification of extreme flexibility, spiritual mumbo jumbo…needless to say, I didn’t belong. I knew this when I went to classes that made me angry: teachers telling students that if something hurt, they needed to stretch; teachers creating sequencing that made no sense for the students in the room; teachers telling students that they needed to do as many chaturangas as possible (while teaching to a soundtrack of Taylor Swift and Trans Siberian Orchestra techno holiday music). I knew I didn’t fit into the yoga community when I went to a studio meeting for teachers and the manager said that we needed to physically adjust every student in class, every time they attended. Immediately, my mind went, “WTF about consent? Are any of the other teachers here really qualified to adjust anyone after a 200 hour training? WTF about trauma, feeling safe, and embodying movement without external touch?” It wasn’t great.
So the shift happened. I stopped going to many yoga classes, only the one every week or so taught by my friend, Stephanie Carter, who shared my journey of creativity, new movement strategies, and thoughtful movement. I got to work with Stephanie and teach yoga teachers in training through the Esther Vexler Yoga School, which gave me the teaching outlet I wanted and needed, and I stopped teaching group yoga classes entirely. I started…working out and doing pilates. And it turns out that pilates is a totally different movement discipline, and yes, it has cliques and divisions and whatnot, but I almost immediately felt at home as a teacher and student.
Teachers were creative. Some of them were movement professionals in their own right. They used weird props: inflatable balls, foam rollers, therabands. They knew way more anatomy than most yoga teachers. They didn’t tell me that my tight hips were because I was holding onto stuck emotions. They taught fundamental movements as well as advanced movements, but most classes were pretty sane in their sequencing: students weren’t head standing on reformers or doing things way out of their ability set. The students were more diverse: yes, still most female, but with a huge range of abilities, ages, and health conditions. More importantly, I felt awesome doing pilates a few days a week and then walking+running, the way I had when I first started yoga over 10 years ago. That led me to become a teacher with Karen Sanzo and Erin Burnham of Pilates Unlimited in Dallas, which was an incredibly fun process. I felt comfortable as a teacher and with anatomy and cuing, I just needed to actually learn pilates movements and work with the apparatus. The closed kinetic chains of the machines made me so happy, and I found that my yoga practice was stronger and more connected than ever (on the one or two days a week I did do yoga).
And now I’ve moved to Seattle, and here, I have multiple identities which perplex people. On one hand, I’m a freelance musician, the other, I teach mostly pilates and a little yoga. In my first years of teaching pilates, I’ve realized that pilates clients and students are pretty open to whatever I have in mind, as long as they feel better than when they come in. There is less of an expectation as to what a pilates class or practice needed to look like: sometimes it might be a challenging traditional mat class, other times, it might be a restoring trapeze table session, foam roller class, or self massage session. Different clients need and want different things, which is so refreshing (and more engaging as a teacher). It’s amazing to teach a 40 year old man who wants to work hard right after an 82 year old woman with severe arthritis: they all want to move better and feel better, wherever they’re at, and sometimes that means drawing from yoga, pilates, and other creative movements. I have found a community of students in pilates that I never found in yoga, at least in Texas.
So to answer my teacher’s initial question this morning, yes, I teach yoga. It was my first movement love, and my first teacher training, and I’m so grateful that I did my training where I did and with the two amazing teachers I worked with. But at the end of the day, I just want to teach movement to people who want to become more embodied, who want to move better and more efficiently, and who are open to new things, regardless of the discipline.