I was speaking to a friend recently who, like me, was missing a retired yoga teacher that had had a profound impact on her. Neither of us has felt a connection to another teacher in the same way. As a result, our practices have been feeling pretty blah. My friend put words to the exact way I was feeling when she said, “I wonder if yoga has kind of lost its soul.”
The physical practice is the starting point for most people. Sometimes, that’s where their interest in yoga begins and ends. It’s a workout; an opportunity to sweat and breathe. And that’s totally fine. But what if you’re looking for something more? What if, like my friend and me, you’re a seeker and you feel a glimmer of hope that yoga may have some of the answers for which you are looking?
Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to take many great physical classes. And sometimes that’s enough. But at this point, if there’s not something underneath it all – a real connection between the person teaching and the information they are relaying – it falls very flat for me. I might as well be in Soul Cycle or CrossFit.
It takes a very talented – not to mention knowledgeable – teacher to engage people through asana and, at the same time, give them a taste of the broader practice. That’s when, for me, yoga stops being just exercise and starts to become a spiritual experience. The teachers to whom I am drawn make asana not just a physical practice, but an act of devotion. As kooky as that may sound, once you’ve experienced it, nothing else comes close.
There were times that my teacher would say something in class and afterward, a gaggle of students, sweaty mat still in hand, would hungrily ask for further explanation. Those students, basking in the afterglow of a powerful practice, didn’t necessarily realize it, but they were getting hooked. They’ll want more – I can tell. But where will they find it?
The opportunities to learn about yoga beyond asana are few and far between. Unless you’re willing and able to pay thousands of dollars and commit serious time to taking a 200-hour teacher training, you won’t really be able to even scratch the surface. Occasionally, a really great teacher will help to guide students above and beyond the time in class. But that’s pretty rare. Hence my friend and I feeling bereft about losing our teachers.
Back in the day, students would practice for years and years with a particular teacher (a guru, really. Think Pattabhi Jois or BKS Iyengar). One day, after a very long time, the guru might say to the student, “OK, you have learned. Now go teach others what you know.” That’s how the lineage would get passed down. That’s how teachers were created.
Today, studios crank out yoga teacher training programs and newly minted 200-hour graduates flood the market. I can tell you from experience that a 200-hour teacher training is usually not adequate to teach this practice. Honestly, it’s really not even adequate to teach an exercise class – there are some crazy shapes in yoga; unless you know anatomy and alignment inside and out, I would be nervous with you trying to tell me how to do a headstand or wheel, let alone trying to explain the Upanishads or pranayama to me. Not that anyone does either of those things in an hour long yoga class these days, anyway.
Listen, there are certainly 200-hour certified teachers who are amazing. But I would say these individuals are the exception, not the rule. I would further suggest that it takes a truly exceptional person to teach yoga in any case. It’s not easy or simple; great teachers just make it seem like it is. And this is absolutely not intended to dismiss 200-hour trainings. It’s the best way to learn about everything from chakras to sutras and beyond. If you can afford it, I absolutely recommend doing it. It was, without a doubt, one of the best decisions I ever made. But I never did it with the intention of teaching; only with the intention of learning.
I guess I should be happy that yoga has gotten so mainstream. I’ve heard it said that as long as people are coming to the practice, what does it matter how that manifests? But with all the commercialization and commodification, I wonder if that’s even true. If it just becomes another exercise fad – and with so many teachers but few gurus – what will be left? If yoga loses its soul entirely, is it even yoga anymore?