Youíre In The Posture Now:
Is Your Yoga Instructor a Drill Sergeant in Spandex?

by Blake More

See if you notice any parallels. A class of fifteen is practicing primary series in three rows of perfectly staggered mats. Their canonized leader stands in front, barking commands as sounds of ujjayi blast through the air in synchronized intervals. Then, caught in a wave of bliss, someone innocently wanders back to their favorite beach in Hawaii, and the leader barks---"Jeanette, where are you?! Youíre not doing mulabandha. Get down and give me ten sun salutes. NOW."

Okay, so Iím exaggerating, but anyone whoís spent time in one of yogaís many boot camps knows there are some dubious yoga instructors who have more in common with military drill sergeants than you might hope. Think about it. One wears military green, the other cotton-spandex; one plays taps, the other chants om; one is a stickler for breathing, the other for shiny boots. Both demand complete reverence to their authority and will resort to abuse in order to quicken the learning process.

The first time I found myself in the classroom with a yoga drill sergeant I knew something was amiss, but it took me a while to identify it. The teacher (who will herein be referred to as "Sir") seemed nice enough. He had just started teaching in my area and, from what Iíd seen and heard from others, supposedly had a graceful Ashtanga practice. I remember being slightly attached to his aloofness: My ego wanted him to see my ability, acknowledge me as more of an equal than a casual dabbler. On the day of our first class, it turned out that I was the only student, which gave me a window of opportunity to outline my home-based practice, tell him my wants and needs. When I was finished, he agreed to orient that particular class according to my wishes. Then practice started.

Within one sun salute, I was reduced to a plebe; yet another weekend recruit he had to whip into shape. Over the course of three classes, I learned what it feels like to be under the command of a yoga drill sergeant. Among other things, I endured having my legs kicked at during a warrior pose as he shouted "Get your legs!" I was reprimanded for laughing as I fell out of a challenging posture and ridiculed for being afraid to try something I felt was dangerous. But the final, most devastating assault came during our forth and last class together.

Once again, I entered the practice room, and since I was the only student that day as well, I specifically requested a gentle practice. I explained that I was planning to attend a yoga retreat over the weekend and wanted to prepare my body, not overwork it. Just like before, he verbally agreed to my request, and, then, as soon as the class began, started pushing me harder than ever. An hour and a half later, I limped out of the studio, with a sore shoulder and what later proved to be a torn hamstring. Obviously, the subsequent retreat didnít go as planned.

While it wasnít easy to admit it at the time, Sir gave me a tremendously valuable lesson---one I hope will last a lifetime. Besides showing me what I didnít want in a teacher, he led me to the practical realization that I have control over my body, and ultimately, it is up to me to decide what I will and will not do with it. I saw that my perfectionist tendencies allowed me to equate abuse with improvement---which, coincidentally, means, as a teacher, I too am prone to becoming a drill sergeant if Iím not careful. I saw how I glossed over Sirís war stories, such as the time when he told the class how his guru once sat on his back while he was in cobbler pose and shredded his groin muscles, forcing him to hobble through the next five weeks of his stay in India. When I shrieked in horror, he gleefully explained that "guruís treatment was necessary", that it humbled him and reminded him of the beginnerís mind.

At the time, I thought, wow, and people get sued over spilled coffee. I vowed never to study with a guru like that. I neglected to make the connection that since Sir learned his techniques from an abusive guru, I soon would fall prey to the "your guru is my guru" syndrome. Fortunately, this understanding did come later, as I was sorting out my injury. It helped me move my anger up to my heart and throat, thus giving me the courage to phone Sir and tell him how I felt about the events that took place during our classes together.

Although brief, our telephone conversation was civilized and helpful. He was courteous and apologetic, and I punctuated my words with lots of deep breaths in order to keep from blaming him for what happened. However, not once did I feel him emotionally grasping my words, which turned out to be okay because I did---especially the part when I told him "I want to do yoga for the rest of my life and that obeying my bodyís commands was better than a perfect pose any day". I hung up praying that his present and future students would find a similar peace in their practice.

Sadly, Sirís guru isnít the only hard line yoga lineage to enter American soil, which means there are plenty of other teachers whoíve also had the trikonasana beaten out of them. An extraordinary yoga teacher I once studied with used to jokingly tell students that B.K.S. stood for "beat, kick, slap", which, according some of the yoga masterís former students, contains an element of truth. Kathy Kopfer, owner of a New Age bookstore in Northern California, said she felt a dark foreboding at a retreat in which Iyengar himself was present: "It seemed to me that all the teachers were scared of him. There was so much tension whenever he was around, like they were all afraid to do the wrong thing. It transferred to the students, and I left the retreat so exhausted, that I havenít been back to a yoga class since."

Or how about Deniseís story. Hoping to alleviate some of the stresses she was feeling at her work, she started taking yoga at a studio near her home in Marin. With each successive class, she felt herself becoming more and more emotional, until finally, a sea of tears came pouring out in the middle of a class. Incredulous but true, the teacher actually shouted, "leave your inner child at the door if you want to study here." Needless to say, she too went AWOL and has yet to venture back into yoga territory. And then there is Joanneís experience. This former yoga teacher suffered a ruptured disk when her teacher forced her into a pose, saying "this should feel good" in response to her protests. To this day, her mobility and practice remain severely limited.

I could go on listing similarly gory details for at least a few more paragraphs, but I think you have the picture. What is more important, however, is to talk about how to reclaim or maintain our boundaries when we find ourselves under the commands of a yoga drill sergeant. Clearly, quitting yoga isnít the answer, nor is dutifully enduring a gauntlet of postures. Anger may help to get us out of the situation, but it doesnít necessarily protect us from the next drill sergeant and, if prolonged, just turns us into exactly what angers us. No, promoting ourselves to officers of our own body means we must "be all we can be in the moment"---and this career takes a lifetime lived one breath at a time.

Thus, no matter how many impressive crow variations the rest of the class is doing, we must stop and ask our bodies what they want. When honestly asked, bodies never lie. It may be the sensation of pain, or the flushed face of humiliation, but any time a yoga teacher makes us feel creepy or pushes us uncomfortably past the threshold where we feel safe, it is up to us to raise the white flag and remove ourselves from his or her control.

This can be symbolic or literal. With Sir, I saw he had something to teach me, so I initially tried to have fun with his demanding attitude. One day I imagined I was a forest fairy sent in to discover the antidote that would make him smile; another time, I surrounded myself with a blanket of sunshine and reached for a sun ray whenever I felt spooky, control-based vibes.

Unfortunately, it took one class too many for me to realize that my creative visualizations were no match for my competitive nature. But I learned, and now, when I encounter a drill sergeant (as I did a few months ago), my approach is more literal---basically, I either leave or move to the back of the room and modify the postures as quietly and non-threatenly as possible. After class, I scratch that teacher off of my list and move on. A more qualified teacher is usually waiting just around the next bend.

My goal in telling you these dark tales is isnít to avenge all of those whoíve been hurt by a bad yoga teacher. Instead, I think of myself as a scout whoís been on a recognizance mission and is now reporting back to those on front lines of consciousness: Guess what, we donít need drill sergeants, boot camp, or injured bodies because thereís no enemy, no ambush ahead. No hero pose, no matter how perfect, is ever going to change this fact. We are warriors of love, and our power is in the greater yoga, the one that is waged off the mat as much as on, the yoga of our hearts.

In my opinion, it is time for an honorable discharge. After all, doesnít everybody deserve to have a vibrant, injury-free practice---one with nurturing care and lots of room for tears and laughter.

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