6 Things I Accidentally Learned in Yoga Teacher Training

August 7, 2017    BY Amber Burke

As one would hope, I learned a good deal about teaching yoga during yoga teacher training. While there were certainly aspects of my training that could have used improvement, I learned a lot about alignment, smart sequencing, artful cuing, and even the dynamics of teacher-student relationships. And yet, when I reflect back on my experience, the lessons about yoga teaching that made the biggest impact on me weren’t lessons that could be found in the official curriculum.

In fact, a good many of the lessons that, ten years later, I now consider the most valuable, arose from experiences that were initially disappointing or frustrating, times when I felt like I didn’t learn what I wanted to or was supposed to.

Here’s what I learned without meaning to.

1. Responsible yoga practitioners can get hurt by responsible yoga teachers.

On external- and internal-hip-rotation day, my yoga buddy was practicing standing figure four pose next to me in class when she gasped just loud enough for me to hear. She then hobbled out of the room. During the lesson that followed, I didn’t pay much attention to whatever I was supposed to be learning about hip rotation. I looked at my friend, ice pack on the knee that had been crossed on top in the pose, and tried to make sense of how this could have happened. The ligament on the outside of her knee was so badly damaged that she was on crutches for the remainder of the training.

I wanted to believe that injuries were the result of only unmindful, high-powered practices led by inexperienced, devil-may-care teachers.

I was injured a couple of months later when a mentor gently pushed my hips down in pigeon pose. For almost a year, I experienced what I know now was a piriformis  injury.

I wanted it to be true that injuries occur only in careless, ambitious yogis with sloppy alignment who “push themselves past their own limits,” ignoring the signals their bodies are sending them. Yet my injured friend was a strong young woman who had a refined, mindful practice and had been practicing for years. I’d been practicing for a while, too, and I liked to think that I was paying attention—and yet I didn’t register any warning signs in the course of that fateful adjustment.

I wanted to believe that injuries were the result of only unmindful, high-powered practices led by inexperienced, devil-may-care teachers. The teacher who guided us through standing figure four was incredibly well versed in anatomy. Though that pose was challenging, she taught it slowly and with the help of blocks.

She by no means stoked competitive impulses, and the alignment-focused practice she taught was as carefully constructed and articulated as all her other classes had been. The teacher who pressed my hips down was similarly experienced. She also knew me well, and was not ungentle.

I was humbled by these injuries and what they intimated about the difficulty of keeping myself and my own future students safe. I realize now that these early experiences with injury made me acutely and personally aware of yoga’s risks and put safety at the forefront of my concerns as a yoga teacher.

2. “I just remember that I’m not the smartest person in the room—then I never get in trouble.”

A fellow student asked my favorite teacher trainer a question about tone; she was wondering about the difficulty of taking charge without coming off as pushy or militant.

The teacher trainer leaned back against the wall, reflected, and said, “I just remember that I’m not the smartest person in the room—then I never get in trouble.”

He delivered this pearl of wisdom as an aside, with a flick of his hand, and the class laughed and moved on. But that may be the single pearl of wisdom I’ve returned to most as a teacher.

Once liberated from teaching practicums, in which senior teachers gave us feedback in the form of copious notes about our teaching, I soon discovered that it was so easy, left unchallenged by mostly silent students, to think of myself as the most knowledgeable person in the room.

Consequently, there have been more times than I care to admit when I’ve been embarrassed after teaching, when I realized that I’d speechified in front of a yoga teacher or a physical therapist. For instance, once I was chagrined to discover that a student to whom I’d explained the “relaxation response” in a restorative class was a doctor. It wasn’t what I said, but how I said it that was problematic: I gave my mini-speech about “fight and flight” and “rest and digest” as if she didn’t know the first thing about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. As if I were Ms. Nervous-System Expert. If I had not viewed myself as the smartest person in the room, my approach would have been different, more inclusive, less didactic.

I regret an adjustment I made to a student in my classes (duly tucking her pelvis into more of a posterior tilt in plank pose) before I knew that she was a physical therapist and came to understand that one of her goals in life was to get her patients, and as many human beings as possible, to untuck their tailbones

Now, rather than assuming that a student doesn’t know what I am about to share about the nervous system, or anything else, I tend to assume that she may be better versed in the subject than I am. This does not mean I don’t say it: rather, I do my best to offer what I say as a review or a reminder.

If I’m talking about the optimal alignment of the spine, I try to imagine that there’s a physical therapist in the room. Would she agree with my description? If I’m explaining the role of a Hindu god a pose is named after, would someone who actually has a background in Hinduism agree with my pared-down outsider’s explanation? Most importantly, would any of my students think I’m talking down to them, or am I allowing for the possibility that they might know as much as or more than me?

And if I happen to know that there is someone in class who is an expert on one of the day’s subjects, I might take the opportunity to include her in the discussion (“Anything we should add to that?”). If there’s a point she’d like to bring up, the rest of the class and I just might learn something new.

Now I do my best to imagine, before I rush to correct the practice of an unfamiliar student, that her knowledge surpasses my own, or that she might be working according to a set of principles or priorities different from mine. In fact, a student need not be a physical therapist, doctor, or yoga teacher in order to have a valid reason for, say, practicing a pose in an unusual way—a reason about which I know nothing. Instead of immediately “fixing her,” I might instead ask, “Is there a reason you’re doing it that way?” or, “Does that feel good, or would you like to try something else?” before I tinker with her practice.

That is not to say I would not offer corrections to a student with a high degree of biomechanical knowledge—certainly yoga teachers and physical therapists need assists, too—but I would give them in a way that allows room for her own expertise about her own body and the limits of my own knowledge.

I also learned that you can ask students questions like: “How does that feel?” “How about that?” “Does this work?”

3. Students with injuries deserve considerable time and attention.

During my teacher training, a yoga therapeutics teacher spent a few weekends talking to us about injury management. Her style, to my utterly untrained eye, was to have a lengthy conversation with a student about what was going on with his body, then take him through a couple of seated poses, devising elaborate systems of propage. Each day, she probably worked with two or three students in a grand total of five or six poses.

I was sorely disappointed after these weekends. I felt that I had not learned about very many injuries at all, let alone how to tailor a class’s worth of poses to the needs of someone with that injury, and I would never remember where all those blankets and blocks went! Besides, how was I supposed to make such complicated modifications for a single student in a group class?

I think I wanted to be able to say to a student, “Oh, you’re coping with injury X? That means you need to do Y in warrior II and Z in shoulderstand, and you’ll be fine,” and then move on to the next student. I realize now that what the therapeutics teacher taught me was more valuable than any reductive formula could have been.

From her example, I learned that injuries mattered, that modifying poses to accommodate injury was a priority, and that it might very well take several minutes to make those modifications.

I also learned that you can ask students questions like: “How does that feel?” “How about that?” “Does this work?” These questions, which I once thought indicated ignorance or uncertainty, turned out to convey care, and students respond gratefully and with honest feedback.

Such modifications and conversations do work best when teaching one-on-one, but I’m sometimes able to give a group class as an assignment (“Keep going up and down in moving bridge, extending the pauses between breaths for one more second each time.”), so I can then spend several minutes making an injured student more comfortable in a pose.

4. It’s possible to make “easy” poses hard.

I enrolled in the yoga teacher training I did because I’d found that at that particular studio, teachers cued so carefully that poses that had been impossible for me, like crow, swiftly became possible, and even enjoyable. I wanted to learn how to work that magic and be the kind of teacher who made hard poses easy.

But during a session on injury prevention with the therapeutics teacher, I was called on to do chaturanga (four-limbed staff pose) so she could explain ideal shoulder alignment in the pose. Piece of cake, I thought. A vinyasa girl then, I did hundreds of chaturangas a week!

Then this teacher tinkered with my chaturanga.

In my memory, she worked mainly through physical adjustments, but it’s possible that she used verbal cues and that I just don’t remember them, busy as I was trying to keep myself from falling on my face. In no time, I could not hold the “traditional” chaturanga—I had to put my knees down, and still I was shaking.

I was distressed to discover that my shoulders were not aligned optimally, and dismayed by how hard chaturanga had suddenly become. In short, I resented the teacher for taking away my feelings of proficiency. I felt like a failure!

We worked on the pose for several more minutes, and by the end of that day I was more exhausted than I would have been after a two-hour practice, and the next day I felt sore in all new places.

For years I did my best to forget what I’d been taught because I would never be able to do a couple dozen chaturangas like that in class, but also because I couldn’t really find that alignment on my own, much less conjure it in my students.

And yet, through that day’s humbling work, I was gifted with the intimation that there was another, harder pose living inside each seemingly simple one, that there was a live wire of muscle engagement it was possible to touch if only you understood the anatomical alignment one was trying to create.

It took me a decade of teaching, and a few years of working with physical therapist Jonina Turzi on poses like chaturanga, to understand what that teacher tried to get me to do with my shoulders, and how to begin to conjure those actions in myself and others.

These days, I focus on making easy poses hard, rather than hard poses easy. (Perhaps I should clarify that by a “hard pose” I mean “a pose that requires thorough engagement of body and mind.” By “easy pose” I mean “a pose without effect”—a pose that you can simply float through without feeling much of anything or needing to pay much attention.)

For example, when teaching chaturanga with the knees down now, a version of the pose that some would consider “easy,” from tabletop, I have students lower their chests in enough to create an indentation between their shoulder blades (without dropping their heads!), bring their shoulders forward over their fingertips, root down with their whole hands, especially the bases of their index fingers, then bend the elbows only a few degrees. They hold there, drawing the belly in on each exhalation. Though this pose may not look intense, students would quibble with that assessment.

5. It’s important to be able to say “I don’t know” in response to questions about injuries.

In yoga teacher training, shortly after my hip injury from the adjustment I mentioned, I said to another trainer, one who had been teaching for decades and was famous for her anatomical expertise, “Hey, my left butt cheek hurts like crazy when I go down into pigeon—what’s going on?” She shook her head and said, “I don’t know.”

I was disappointed, and in a state of disbelief. Didn’t she know everything? Wasn’t she even interested in thinking about it, maybe calling around, doing some research, and getting back to me?

These days, I’m betting that she had an inkling that I’d injured my piriformis, a pretty common yoga injury, and one that would make itself felt in pigeon. But she didn’t diagnose it. And she didn’t tell me how to fix it.

Now I think she was incredibly wise. Yoga teachers aren’t physical therapists. We aren’t doctors. We aren’t in any way qualified to diagnose injury or tell anyone how to treat it.

Even if I think I know what’s going on in someone else’s body, what if I’m wrong? When I’m tempted to opine, I remember her.

That hasn’t always stopped me! One time, I mused aloud that a student may have bursitis; in fact, her shoulder was officially “frozen.” Once, when I told a student that it sounded like she had a piriformis injury, it turned out that she had a fairly significant injury to her gluteus max. Once, I was sure my husband had torn an intercostal muscle and let him know as much. He’d dislocated a rib, something I didn’t even know was possible.

When we pine for certainty, a rule we can memorize, maybe what we’re asking is to know something by rote so we can stop thinking about it.

Why do I find it so irresistible to weigh in when I’m completely out of my depth? This eagerness to be helpful, and to be right, has more to do with my ego than I’d like to admit. It would be a feather in my cap if I could be the yoga teacher who could help her student or her husband. I would feel more valuable.

These days, I’m doing my very best to keep my guesses to myself, and to tell students to get their injuries checked out by a qualified medical professional.

6. “It depends” is often the right answer.

Possibly the most frustrating day of yoga school for me was ayurveda day. A teacher came in to talk to us about this alternative healing modality from ancient India, and I remember that we peppered her with questions about our doshas. We asked, “Well, then, if I’m a vata-pitta, is this good for me?”

For instance, if our favorite food in the world was not on the list of foods recommended for our dosha, was eating that food good or bad for us? Was satisfying a craving good or bad for us?

This teacher’s answer, over and over, was, “It depends.”

Sometimes she elaborated a little; sometimes she didn’t. I left feeling as if I’d learned absolutely nothing about ayurveda.  

And yet, “It depends” has been ricocheting through my brain ever since. It has gradually become apparent to me that this is in fact the right answer, the best answer, not just for questions about ayurveda, but all manner of questions about yoga.

Where should I be feeling this pose? Is headstand good or bad for me? Do I need more of an anterior or a posterior pelvic tilt in mountain pose? Should I practice this pose with my knees bent or straight? How far should I be bending my elbows in chaturanga? Is threading the needle from hands and knees good for my shoulders?

I now answer most of these types of questions with, “It depends.” 

It would be so nice to have prescriptions that work for everyone, to be able to say unequivocally, “Thread the needle is good for your shoulders,” and have that be true for everyone, every time. But a pose like thread the needle may not be good for your shoulders, depending on how you are performing it and what kind of shape your rotator cuff muscles are in.

While at times this uncertainty can be frustrating for students and teachers alike, I try to remind myself that if it didn’t depend, if yoga were one size fits all, teaching it wouldn’t be very interesting.

Yoga is enriched by the variability of bodies and our personal experiences within the practice. When we pine for certainty, a rule we can memorize, maybe what we’re asking is to know something by rote so we can stop thinking about it. But teaching yoga requires our steady alertness, a kind of dharana (concentration) upon the individuals before us.

What is the most valuable thing any of us learned in yoga school? It depends.

It depends on what we didn’t know going in. It depends on what we hoped to find out. In large part, it depends on the students we’re teaching today. As we discover what they need from us, the wisdom that was in the background of our yoga training might come to the foreground and prove itself essential.

Amber Burke
Amber Burke lives in Coyote, New Mexico, and teaches alignment-based and restorative yoga at Body in Santa Fe. In her classes, she aspires to a precision of language and detail that will not only create sustainable poses but also guide students inward, toward an ever-deepening self-awareness. She is a graduate of Yale, the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars MFA Program, and two yoga teacher trainings through Yogaworks in Los Angeles, and has been registered with the Yoga Alliance at the 500-hour... Read more>>

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