yoga · yoga + adjustments · yoga injuries · yoga teaching

When is a yoga class not a yoga class?

I have asked myself this question regularly, especially once I started my ‘official’ yoga teacher training. I asked it with greater frequency as I began to play outside of the sequencing I had learned while studying and practicing (and loving) Ashtanga Yoga. On occasion, I would sub at local studios, or have someone in my classes who regularly attended elsewhere, and invariably a palpable tension would arise when I would deviate from what they were expecting.

I like to play and I like to know the ‘why’s’ of things, but I don’t much like dogma. And I saw no reason to treat the Ashtanga Yoga practice as an express train that, once boarded, was not to be disembarked. If I saw people with alignment or breathing challenges, we’d address them. I got pretty adept at keeping the flow going, while simultaneously offering assists and adjustments and pithy one-liners. Did I mention I am mildly irreverent? I also did what felt like the right thing, which was to stop calling my classes ‘Ashtanga Yoga’ when I had gone past the point of no return into a much more improvisational structure.

My innate curiosity has kept me exploring human movement (and stillness) for a lot of years. Along the way I have studied some ayurvedic bodywork, and although I never got Reiki-fied, I consider my hands two of my keenest instruments for sensing and conveying information. I’ve been entangled with a lot of bodies and wooden floors over the years in Contact Improvisation, and am quite comfortable in a solo kayak on the Atlantic (coast of Maine preferably). I am ever curious to watch how poetry speaks to the tissue and to see how people’s practices shift when there is no music during class. Many yoga teachers have contributed to the panoply of approaches to my repertoire. Some because of their brilliance, intuition, and innovation. Some, because they were just so blatantly awful, demonstrated what NOT to do. Or say. Or assume.

Over the years, people have recommended certain yoga classes or other group exercise classes to me. I usually decline. I know I am perceived as having a somewhat ‘snobbish’ attitude, but there is very good reason for it. I have been to classes where, in the spirit of giving the instructor the benefit of the doubt, I ended up mucking up my body. And as we get older, there’s less mucking-up we can handle. However, once in awhile I am willing to put myself in someone else’s hands. Or in the following instance, someone else’s apparatus.

Last week, I went to a two hour ‘Introductory’-level class for a new type of ‘yoga’. I don’t want to bring the wrath of any litigious gods down on me, so I’ll not be naming any names. The apparatus we we were using was occasionally painful, but with some wiggling around, I could usually find just the right spot to feel both free and supported. There were a lot of people in this class, all of them new to the form, many who should not have been doing much past inhaling, exhaling and observing. Did I mention I am occasionally opinionated? No? Well, now you know.

In my opinion, I should have declined when invited to go into a shoulder stand-like formation and contort in and out of ‘poses’ named for the beings in a certain movie franchise (nope, still not naming names). Good thing one of the women I attended this adventure with was a very skilled body and energy worker, because after class I was seriously f*cked up. As I slithered to the big lounge couch looking like death-warmed-over my other friend said, “Liza, hand me the keys. You are NOT driving us home”. I think it might have been the drool that gave me away…

Thus began five days of a migraine cluster. I am lucky to have a chiropractor with the best hands. I finally got to his office and within 15 minutes he had me back in good working order. His description of what had been going on in my atlas was terrifying; once things were back where they belonged, there was a chorus of zippy voices zinging up and down my spine in joyous, cathartic song. My day was made when a local radio station played a Marvin Gaye Jr.-a-thon for my ride home. Traffic and a downpour be damned, I felt ALIVE!

So, that is my story. I wrote to the owner of the place where I took the introductory class, describing my experience and offering some feedback. Have I never mentioned that I love to give feedback? It makes the world go ’round and is a very useful teaching tool. I try to accept it as gracefully as I give it. In this case, I do not think what I went to was a ‘yoga’ class. I think it is a title that someone made up, then attached the popular hook word ‘yoga’ to it because ‘yoga’ sells. The instructor paid lip service to certain stock yoga class phrases, some of which sound really stupid (sorry, opinion again) when you’re involved in an activity where all you can think of is surviving the moment.

And what is my lesson? I’ll stay open to new experiences, but hopefully never let my atlas slip halfway to my ass ever, ever again. I will also continue to be a language hawk when I am at the head of class, choosing words and movements carefully from years of research and assimilation both as observer, and while being at play in my own body. I will remember the screw-ups as well as the successes. And while I haven’t really answered the question posed above, I will keep mulling it over. Doing so asks me to examine my premises, something my dad always thought was worthwhile task. That, and keeping a dictionary on the dining table.


2 thoughts on “When is a yoga class not a yoga class?

  1. I love this post. I love the freedom you have in your writings/ponderings, going from dignified goddess to street wench. maybe that’s a bad comparison, just what came to mind.
    i think anyone who has done yoga with more than a few teachers has stories like yours. there’s always a fine line, when i’m having body work done or in a class, between trusting the teacher and stopping the process. I’ve had some amazing positive experiences when i went beyond my safety zone. And other distresses similar to yours.
    Thank you. I am going to feel your presence and your words today when i stand up for myself in the midst of my relationships.


  2. thanks, john =)
    i like to think there’s a place for the high, the low, the side-ways and the in-between on and off the mat. here’s to standing up and giving voice (even when it feels a little soul-baring). abrazos! liza


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