Outrage sparked by the recent New York Times Magazine, ‘How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body’ was as impassioned as it was predictable. Yet other, quieter voices responded ‘of course’. Any physical activity, from jogging to sneezing, can cause harm, and underqualified and inexperienced teachers have the capacity to harm in any situation, not just a yoga class. The silver lining of the article fall-out is the introspection it inspires as yoga teachers worldwide examine whether they could be doing things better.
For Yoga Teacher Trainer Mark Breadner of Yogacoach who spent several years coaching elite sportspeople, it’s a matter of balance. “Joints need to be mobilised first, then stabilised, then strengthened,” says Mark. “If practitioners jump straight into strong poses without working first on balance and flexibility, or if poses are held too long, then yes, injury may occur. Healthy muscles, ligaments and tendons are in balance.”
Breadner, who has 17 years’ experience teaching teachers, coached the National swim teams in the lead-up to the Sydney and Athens Olympics to enable faster, more effective recuperation. He points out that weaknesses and injuries occur through repetitive movement using the same dominant muscles which tightens the joint in one direction.
The largest study of yoga in Australia, ‘Yoga in Australia’ by former president of Yoga Australia Stephen Penman, released in 2008, revealed that participants had been injured practicing yoga. “Headstands, shoulder stands and strong forward bends were over-represented in the injuries reported by survey participants. These are advanced asana [postures] and definitely not for beginners,” says Penman. “The overall injury rate is very low, suggesting yoga is one of the safest physical activities you can do.” Adds Erin Cassell, director of the Victorian Injury Surveillance Unit at Monash University, “Yoga has a much lower rate of hospital-treated injury than the other popular sports.”
The Exploding Yoga Scene
Yoga has become a mainstream physical activity in Australia, particularly among women. Figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in December 2011 reveal 273,000 Australian women engage in some form of yoga while the ‘Yoga in Australia’ study showed that women comprise of 85 per cent of yoga practitioners. Women are not only increasingly taking up yoga, but teaching it, a trend highlighted in the recent ‘Yoga Woman’ movie. The movie showcased the work of teachers such as American Sean Corn who, inspired by the healing potential of yoga, founded social activist group ‘Yoga Off the Mat’. When questioned as to why women flock to yoga in such numbers, many point to its non-competitive nature while others note its usefulness in regulating women’s cycles and the rising popularity of pre-natal yoga, when many women try yoga for the first time.
In the US, yoga is a $5 billion-a-year industry. ‘Yoga in Australia’ found a clear skew towards tertiary-educated urbanites – a demographic with far more disposable income to splurge on eco-mats and designer yoga pants than the counter-culture students of the last wave. Yoga teaching is increasingly seen as an attractive career path rather than a life calling and it’s possible to gain qualification in idyllic destinations such as Koh Samui, Thailand, Byron Bay or Ubud, Bali in just 10 days of intensive study. It’s a world away from the many years of apprenticing, in-depth scriptural studies and arduous discipline demanded of the teachers of yesteryear. A search on Yoga Australia, the industry’s peak body, reveals no less than 14 registered teacher trainer schools in New South Wales, 12 in Victoria and 10 in Queensland, a total of 50 Australia-wide. For new teachers just starting out, it can be hard to get a foot in a busy studio, let alone make a liveable wage, and employment in large gyms can be the only option outside of starting a class in a rented room. As choice abounds, many teachers with decades of teaching experience tell me that, for the first time since they began, they are having trouble filling their classes. The rise of daily discount sites and the popularity of $25 for 2 weeks of unlimited yoga offers means studios are unwittingly playing to the inner-city, price-conscious yogi. It’s a trend that Eve Grzybowski, a teacher trainer and author with more than 30 years teaching experience, finds unsettling. “How many times have I been asked to appear in yoga festivals and conferences where I am unpaid? How often do yoga teachers spend more than they earn because their income does not cover professional development, professional indemnity insurance, health insurance and holiday pay?”
Many newcomers start with rigorous vinyasa style yoga in a heated room while others are put off ever rolling out a mat by the common perception that yoga is a hot, hard workout and the domain of the young, thin, and beautiful. Big city classes are packing students in at sometimes 100+ capacity. “It’s not possible to take an individual’s needs into account in a large group,” says Nikola Ellis, owner of Adore Yoga, which specialises in small classes. “Every person has a different physiology with unique needs. No two people are going to receive the same benefits from a single system.” Nikola, with 12 years’ teaching experience and more than 20 years as a yoga practitioner, laments the old days when yoga was a life calling. “Some teachers approach me asking to teach with an appalling lack of experience – not as a teacher, but as a yoga student. While we’ve always learnt as we teach, it’s hugely important that teachers have their own established, long-term practice before they begin teaching.”
With new teachers crowding the market and old-timers seeking new ways to attract students, continuing professional development helps differentiate great teachers from the rest, while inspiring and keeping teaching ‘fresh’. As an incredibly broad modality which includes ethical precepts, physical practice, dietary philosophy, breathing techniques, mind and concentration practices, meditation and devotion, it makes sense that teachers would choose to specialise in one aspect of yoga or teach one population demographic. Mark Breadner’s Yogacoach courses are keen on helping teachers find a niche in which to specialise. “From teaching prenatal yoga, ‘mums and bubs’, children or teens, to elite sportspeople or drug and alcohol rehab, there’s lots of areas where the philosophies and practices of yoga can be put to good use,” says Mark. “Specialising or working in a niche is part of a teacher’s continuing professional development,” notes Grzybowski. “We’re doing courses on ‘How to Work with Ageing Students’ which includes how to teach students dealing with osteoarthritis, menopause, osteoporosis, cardiovascular problems and Parkinson's disease, and so on.”
Teachers are increasingly recognising the benefits of a diverse background and continuing their studies in different fields which adds another dimension to their teaching. Yoga Synergy teacher Simon Borg Olivier has forged a career as a yoga teacher with a background in physiotherapy and runs regular anatomy and physiology courses for teachers to complement their teacher training with additional studies. It’s a trend that, as Ellis notes, can only be good for the student, “Teachers with studies in different areas can use these to help their student beyond what a teacher trained only in yoga would be able to.” For Sal Flynn, a yoga teacher and counselor trained in the Western tradition and Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR) who has taught yoga in health centres alongside doctors and physiotherapists, the growing regulation of the yoga industry will help attract people to the yoga industry who are there for the right reasons, prepared to invest significantly in their education, and in it for the long haul. “We are seeing better professional standards and training being developed all the time and further, important mainstream research into the efficacy of yogic practices including meditation, pranayama, asana and the significance of ethical conduct for a fully integrated lifestyle,” says Flynn. “These moves will enhance the reputation of yoga as a way of being in the world that supports people in many areas of their lives – not only to stretch their hamstrings.”
The Tip of the Iceberg
All yoga teachers I spoke with minimised the role of asana practice – most commonly taught in class – and emphasised meditation and yoga philosophy. “Some people, I believe, have their ladders up against the wrong building, trying to attain poses at the expense of attaining Patanjali’s goal of ultimate freedom,” says Grzybowski. Adds Breadner, “Many people seem to believe that if they master some yoga sequence, something magical will happen. It’s incredibly important for teachers to study the scriptures, particularly The Yoga Sutra. Yoga is a vehicle for your highest human potential – if you only practice asana, you’re not going to get the goodies.”
Swami Govindananda, a New Zealander initiated as a swami in 1987 by Jagadguru Shri Kripalu Maharaj, notes how yoga classes include snippets of yoga philosophy, inspiring some to seek more. “People are curious to know if yoga philosophy can help them live better, more beneficial, fulfilling lives. Asana practice alone, though beneficial, does not have the power nor the depth to transform lives spiritually, nor satisfy the demands of the self, the soul.” Swami Govindananda believes that the rise of kirtan music in yoga classes has stirred many to inquire further into the philosophies behind their practice. “Asana practice is just the tip of a very profound and wonderful knowledge that takes us to the very heart of our being. Our inner nature needs the most attention because how we think determines our life’s experiences both in the present and in the future. “The philosophies of Karma (action), Gyan (wisdom) and Bhakti Yoga (love and devotion) touch on every aspect of our being, bringing health, healing, and a stronger, more focused life.”
Brook McCarthy for Yogin’ it