On my way home from Philly where I spent the weekend with Justicia and Shawn Declue and the awesome gang at Maha Yoga. This was the third year I have taught at Maha Yoga. It is amazing to watch the growth and evolution of the studio and the students and teachers who are involved with Maha. So many things could be said about how the studio has grown from a business perspective, as Justicia and Shawn have taken what began as their part-owenrship in a studio out in the suburbs and has evolved into a thriving downtown studio and community that now has two locations (one still in the suburbs) and is under their sole proprietorship and direction. But more impressive than the ways they have grown as a business (And seriously, in this day and age, where making it as a local, independent, boutique-type studio is harder than ever I do see that what they have done as business owners is super-impressive...) is the way they have maintained a high integrity in their teaching and in their relationships with their students and teachers while making yoga accessible, beginner-friendly and affordable. As many of you know, this is no small task.
I had a lot of fun throughout the weekend. We had three asana classes and two long sessions for teachers where we worked with Light on Yoga in the course I call “Cracking the Code.” I found after teaching sequencing to many groups over the years that the work I do in sequencing for practice and class rests on my knowledge of the postures in Light onYoga. I also realized that many folks simply do not know how to make use of Light on Yoga as a resource and so this treasure-trove of information sits on most yoga teacher’s shelves unutilized, undervalued and underrated. I started teaching a course to help people develop a working relationship to the Light on Yoga and I dubbed the course Cracking the Code. (I think the book has an order and makes sense but I think the order is somewhat obscure and you actually need some help “cracking its code” to make use of what is there. Thus, the name.)
Certainly, when it comes to Light on Yoga, the book is both definitive and somewhat archaic in a lot of ways as the conversation regarding so many of the postures and techinques have evolved considerably since its publication in 1966. And yet for me the book is kind of like a Gift Giving Tree in that every time I peruse its pages I come away with some insight, some nugget of inspiration or some new way to see a new relationship between these very familiar postures.
I think of the book as a sutra or a thread of short, terse aphorisms called postures. The poses are like small verses or koans to unlock and to explore through inquiry, practice, contemplation and study. Many times the information provided in Light on Yoga needs unpacking, chewing on, digesting and requires a fair amount of commentary from those who know more than we do. But even assuming the perspective that the information needs unpacking can do a lot to help anyone learn from what is printed there and glean valuable insight to take forward into their own practice and teaching.
Anyway, like so often is the case these days, the asana and the content of the curriculm with Light on Yoga was both in the foreground of our discussion as well as as in the background. We spent a weekend diving into an inquiry about yoga that ranged much farther afield than where to place your feet or hands in any given posture. In fact, upon reflection, I might say that while I think I did a very good job presenting technical information and covering the linear content as promised, I think what stands out for me from the weekend was the work we did in the larger conversation of yoga as we considered life as practice and explored the relevance of asana to our inner life as individuals and as a community committed to practice and to teaching the practice to others. We moved again and again through the small story and the larger story of what it means to practice and teach and to Live in the Light of these teachings in a personal and authentic way.
I personally think it is harder than ever to teach yoga well. It easier than ever to get a job teaching yoga and I am personally very happy that more and more people are practicing and teaching yoga. That being said, I find that the more our work has become a viable means of making money, the more the conversation of teaching seems to move to “what students want” and away from “how to teach the practice.” Obviously, this is a rich and varied landscape in and of itself as what it means to “teach the practice” is nuanced, hard to pin down and open for A LOT of debate and discussion. I am fine with all that. However, it seems to me that the more commerce drives the discussion, the harder it seems to be for yoga teachers and for students.
One of my earliest Iyengar yoga teachers gave me sage advice on the subject of teaching and business when I was first learning how to teach. He told me, “Teach people how to practice yoga. Teach them all that you can about how to engage the practice and how to improve their poses and how to deepen their relationship to the teachings. If you help them practice they will keep coming back to you. Don’t try to get students. Don’t try to keep students. Keeping students will happen if you continue to help them grow as practitioners. That is how it works.”
That was back in 1998 and the landscape of the business was pretty different. There was one-- maybe two-- teachers in any given town and often the yoga was taught in a church basement or a community center. If someone had studio, chances are they also had a mate who had a corporate job that was paying their bills. No one was selling fancy cars with yoga images and no one was talking about juicing, kale smoothies or how yoga could help you “find your power” or “live your dream.”
Back in those days there were fewer real-life examples of yogis who didn’t know very much who were rising to rock-star-like fame. There was less lamenting about great yogis who go unrecognized and whose expertise goes under-valued in the day and age of youth-crazed propaganda and body-beautiful yoga-inspired endeavors. There was no Instagram on which to post pictures of ourselves in fancy postures in exotic locations. Our yoga communities were more local and less international and if you had a bad day teaching no one reviewed it on Yelp, discharged their frustration on Facebook or cried in outrage on Twitter. You blew it and maybe they didn’t come back and maybe they told someone else, but that was about it. As a teacher, you could make your mistakes a bit more privately.
So before I write much more on the topic its only fair that I say very clearly that yes, I have a blog. Yes, I have a Twitter account, several Facebook accounts, and an online teaching presence. I am not ensconced in my local teaching scene day-in, day-out anymore and my students live all over the world. I am particpating in these changes and in this marketplace and I am happy I get to make a living as a yoga teacher. So perhaps this sounds a bit full-of-shit coming from me. I have benefitted personally from these trends I am speaking about and I know it. So we are clear, I am NOT complaining I am musing about how, as great as these developments are in a lot of ways, I watch new teachers wade through the mire of modern yoga times and I don’t know how they do it. I could not have done it when I was starting out.
When I had my very first class on a schedule at my friend’s studio, I had two people show up on the first day. Sunny, who I met when I was subbing a yoga class for Julie at the YMCA came to class and Mary-Kate, my college roomate who was pregnant at the time, came to class. Sunny was in her 60s. Mary Kate was 30. Then a few weeks later, Barry, the studio owner’s astrologer, came to class on a class pass he got in trade for giving the owner an auspicious date for opening the studio. For months we worked together-- just the three of us --until Mitzi came along. Shortly thereafter, I think Virgina started showing up. She was new from California and had some Iyengar experience from there and liked alignment so she was a good fit for our class.
So I could go on but my point is that it was probably a good solid year of teaching before 12 people were in class regularly. And it was one person at a time added to the class. And we all new each other and our strengths and weaknesses. At some point the class grew and I added another class to the schedule. At some point, I had an opportunity to open a space of my own. But my point in telling all of this is to describe what it was like as I was learning how to teach and how different it was than it is for new teachers now. And while I started teaching in 1998 I never tried to make a living at it until 2006, when I left Arizona and moved to Texas and my husband wanted to go back to school. I am not saying my way was better, I am just saying it was different. Sometimes I look out at the situation the new teachers face now and it kinda blows me away.
It seems harder than ever to “teach the practice” because so often in so many situations I hear about, commerce is driving the discussion of what and how to teach. New teachers face pressures I never knew as a new teacher with a bizarre blend of both high and absurdly-low expecations out there in the marketplace. And as confusing as that is, new teachers are told in teacher training that they need to develop a “brand” before they even know who they are going to be as a teacher. Many teachers walk out of teacher training and into public classes of 25 and 40 people who they have never met and walk them through a practice. I would have had a heart attack trying to manage that when I started.
And as awesome as the interface between business principles and yoga can be, I remember days when worn-out, high-achieving business people came to yoga teachers for a way to connect to the richness of their inner life through a sober and mindful practice. Now yoga teachers go to business people to learn how to achieve, compete in the marketplace and carve out their niche. (And again, yes, I like business and yes, I am a bit of a workahlic and yes, I do some of that stuff also. I am not making this a rigid thing here and the last thing I am is a purist. I am a fan of yoga teachers being able to buy organic food, put braces on their kids, buy nice homes and save for retirement. My wish for every yoga teacher who schleps themselves all over town to teach a full schedule of classes is that they have a reliable car in which to do this and that they do not need to worry about how they are going to pay for fixing said car when and if something does happen to it. This is not a rant about how good yogi’s should be broke or that business can’t live with yoga.)
I have observed that many businesses are applying yoga principles to their business operations to great effect. I think conscious business principles are great and I am happy for businesses to be high-minded and so forth. Businesses and corporations will use principles that work for their ends and to me this does not make them yogi’s. Yogis can use business principles to help them grow their business and this does not make them sell-outs, shallow or anything of the sort. To me, it is not about what we are doing but about the how and the why of our choices and actions.
My opinion is that many “conscious businesses” out there are using yoga principles to run their business because these principles work. Anytime you can get some leverage into that aspect of reality that is malleable--and yoga can help a lot with this- well, you have some power with which to create. And if a company was using consciousness principles to better their business and they didn’t work , they would stop using them.
Along the same lines, many yogi’s out there make decisions that are completely counter to business-smarts when their values demand it. I know I have made more than one decision in my life that appeared to be career suicide at the time I made it. (Believe me, my friends, family and students have called me up worried about my mortgage payment more than once over the years.) Sometimes these decisions have turned out well by conventional standards and sometimes not so much. Sometimes we chose for our values and there are conventional-life costs. I do not believe that “doing the right thing” is always rewarded by conventional standards. I am decidedly NOT New-agey on this point.
Of course, there are times when it joins up nicely. Where, as yogi’s we chose for our values and we get a postive outer reward for it. And there are times when businesses do the right thing and still make a profit. At any rate, I know I am wading deep into some pretty dicey and potentially-upsetting territory since I am talking MONEY and YOGA all at once. Partly I have written all this to say that the more I work with yoga teachers, the more I hear our discussion moving towards “how to succeed at the business of yoga” and away from “how to succeed at teaching people to practice”.
Again, I am all for yogis who can run businesses well. I just want the business conversation to come after the conversation of “What does the teaching actually say? What does the practice actually involve?”
And then I think it would be great to ask ouselves and our mentors “How we can bring these teachings forward with intelligence, integrity, clarity and grounded vision? How can we teach people to practice so that in the midst of their demanding lives they have a pathway to sanity through the practices and principles of yoga?”
I am interested not in “making yoga user-friendly” as much as I am in helping the users get smarter, more intelligent, more discerning and more able to meet the challenges of this most demanding endeavor called Self-Awareness. People tell me all the time there is no market for this approach and I need to appeal to the masses and so forth. Frankly, I just can’t imagine teaching another 15 years assuming people are not intelligent, do not want to learn and want only to be entertained when they come to my class. Even if that were true (and I do not think it is) still I can’t continue from that assumption. It simply does not work for me.
Even people who may not know they want to learn and may not know they want help and so on, are pretty damn excited when they can do something today they couldn’t do yesterday. That awakening is what I am interested in as a teacher, not meeting at the lowest common denominator of preference and consumer-driven demands and ideals. I believe we need to meet students where they are so that we can help them take the next appropriate step in their practice, not so that we give them what they want as though we are at Starbuck’s making them a skinny, no-foam latte with a 1/2 pump of sugar-free syrup heated to 178 degrees precisely. Meeting the student where they are is good teaching, not customer service. Meeting the student where they are does serve the “customer” but that is the secondary outcome of teaching well, not the primary aim of teaching.
So, we traversed some of this territory together as a community at Maha Yoga this week which was a bit like preaching to the choir, as they are living these ideals quite consciously and authentically. I could go on but I suppose this is enough for today.
Keep the faith.
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"There is a light that shines beyond all things on Earth, beyond us all, beyond the heaven, beyond the highest, the very highest heavens. This is the light that shines in our heart."