The Case for Avoiding Empty Praise When We Teach

August 8, 2017    BY Colin Hall

“Yay! Way to go! I am so proud of you!”

I cocked my head and squinted my eyes like a confused puppy. I was watching a YouTube video of somebody teaching a yoga class. They spoke directly into the camera as though they were looking at me, but they clearly did not see me because I hadn’t done a single pose they had taught in that class. I was folding laundry and watching YouTube videos.

So why congratulate the camera as though it were a person? Why are internet yoga teachers saying “That’s great” and “You look ahhhmazing” to students they can’t even see? My suspicion is that, in one way or another, as a society we are addicted to approval and that yoga teachers are simply giving us our fix.

So why congratulate the camera as though it were a person? Why are internet yoga teachers saying “That’s great” and “You look ahhhmazing” to students they can’t even see?

I have not completed an extensive survey of modern postural yoga classes, but I feel that internet yogis provide a reasonably accurate picture of what is happening in gyms, community centers, and yoga studios around the world. Yoga teachers, to a greater or lesser degree, have become cheerleaders and our role as educators has been surpassed by our role as motivators.

Yoga teachers, like almost everybody else in late capitalist society, are subject to market pressure. Almost always, yoga teachers are compensated according to the size of their classes. Larger classes translate into more financial stability. So teachers trying to establish themselves had better pay attention to what keeps their classes full.

Experience, humor, intelligence, organization, artistry, compassion, and creativity all go a long way toward building successful yoga classes. It appears that many teachers apparently see the skillful delivery of approval as the magic ingredient that will bring students back for more.

Perhaps that’s why many rookie yoga teachers throw approval around like confetti at a wedding. And this technique works to some extent.

But how many classes do you have to take before you realize that the teacher praises you no matter how hard you are working? How many times can you be drifting off into space while being complimented on your mindfulness before you get suspicious?

More seasoned teachers are often more judicious with their praise. It gets harder to come by, and as a result of its scarcity, more valuable. During my teacher training, I got one little dose of praise.

Everybody else had really flexible hips and they over-rotated their pelvis as they twisted in revolved triangle. My hips were so tight that my pelvis somehow ended up being level. My teacher pointed this out while I was in the pose.

I felt like a champion. I realized it was a bit of a fluke. But I still felt like a champion. It was, maybe, the only time a yoga teacher I really respected had complimented one of my postures.

The gurus of modern postural yoga often take this dimension of the teacher-student relationship to the next level. I have observed some teachers intentionally manipulate large classes by, say, deliberately giving an instruction so vague or so complex that it doesn’t register with students and then feigning disappointment and frustration at their students’ inability to follow instructions. This tactic is meant to heighten students’ excitement when they eventually gain the approval of their rock star/yogi idol.

Yoga teachers have also been known to encourage students to connect with their classmates one minute and then offer stern warnings about staying focused and single-pointed the next: I have been in classes where teachers tell their students to look around and appreciate what a beautiful group of people they are with, only to snap at them five minutes later about not keeping their gaze focused.

These are bait-and-switch games that serve to intensify the effect of the cheerleading when it comes.

This is not to suggest that praise and approval are bad things and have no place in a yoga class. It is nice to know when you are doing something as instructed. It is helpful to get feedback from your teacher about your practice. But there is a danger to cheerleading.

This is not to suggest that praise and approval are bad things and have no place in a yoga class.

Artificial or forced praise encourages the kind of uncritical group-think that tends toward injuries and abuse.

Just as you learn to dance, sing, or play an instrument, learning yoga involves cultivating and integrating skills.

Along the way there are inevitable ups and downs, successes and failures, that ultimately build the foundations of our practice. This process requires us as students to be engaged and embodied and to establish a real, human relationship with our teachers.

We need yoga teachers to focus on teaching valuable skills and passing along information that will improve our quality of life, not acrobatic tricks and treats for those gifted bodies able to perform them.

We need yoga teachers who will challenge our preconceptions and encourage us to learn something new, not skillfully deliver spiritual platitudes to placate our desire to be living a more fulfilling life.

We need yoga teachers who are less interested in building their sales funnel and more interested in building real teacher-student relationships.

We need responsible and thoughtful leaders in the yoga community, not doe-eyed woo peddlers telling us that everything is lovely and beautiful. We don’t need cheerleaders. We need teachers.

Colin Hall
Lecturer in Religious Studies and Kinesiology at the University of Regina, Colin Hall has been teaching and studying yoga for over a decade. He is the co-director of Bodhi Tree Yoga, where he and his wife Sarah have been building a thriving yoga community in the small prairie city of Regina, Saskatchewan. Colin started practicing yoga in the late 1990’s and continues to learn from his original teacher, David McAmmond. In addition to his regular classes at the Bodhi Tree, Colin gives workshops... Read more>>

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