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Bad teachers teach bad yoga

July 31, 2007

Someone close to me suffered a serious injury after doing yoga for a few weeks. A serious neck problem. The problem is that quite a few yoga teachers today do not bother to find out the medical history of patients and tend to apply the same yoga techniques for all. They also urge and goad their students to perform better and while this works fine with healthy people, it can be disastrous for someone with a health problem. And if the student in question has a competitive nature then he might want to stretch himself further than he should and no one will stop him because no one knows what medical problem he has.

Teaching yoga is tough
What I am saying is not anything new. In fact it’s a known fact that yoga is a complex science involving meditative techniques.The teaching of yoga cannot be compared to teaching aerobic exercise. Even the damage that a bad math teacher or a poor aerobics teacher can do is less than what a bad yoga teacher can do. The latter’s faulty teaching can cause serious physical harm.

Yoga is different
While doing aerobics you are supposed to push yourself. If you do too much, you could perhaps faint from exhaustion…but as you are nearing your limit your body starts to protest. You start to pant, sweat and breathe heavily – you get the warning signs. If you continue it will be your own foolishness. If the person is a heart patient, he has already been warned by his doctor about the kind of exercise he or she can do. In fact aerobics teachers also warn heart patients…but when it comes to yoga its not just heart patients who can be at risk.
Yoga is supposed to be gentle on the body, at least that is how I see it. But the teachers may not be gentle. The worst part of it is that a student may not understand his or her limits because the teacher herself doesn’t. She may not have asked you if you have blood pressure…or menstrual problems…or back problems. Who will then judge whether you are not already stretched to the limit? Every person in the yoga class comes with a different medical history and a different body structure (in terms of flexibility) and what may be good (and easy) for one may be bad for the other.
One minute you are feeling just wonderful because your body is stretched and it tempts you to take it further…and this could result in muscle sprains or joint pains that could take weeks to heal.

My experience
I first started to learn yoga with a reputed school of yoga some ten years ago. One of the teachers was very aggressive and used to push students beyond their physical limit. I sprained a leg muscle and was limping for more than a week and had to skip class. It affected my work schedule. The head of the institute personally rang up and opologised and said it would not happen again. But I never went back to the place.
The second experience was better. A most gentle teacher…that was how it seemed to me at first. I told her that I have a tendency to feel dizzy at times, specially if I go upside down. She was most understanding and said no one would be forced…but even though she did not force me, she never once let up. She nagged me continuously about it, and tried to motivate me by showing me how well and easily the others were doing it! Worse, she was teaching breathing wrongly…but the funny thing is that I did not know that until I shifted to another yoga class in another town!
This third teacher was the best I had ever had…until I fell seriously ill with a lung infection after doing deep breathing in the highly enclosed air-conditioned atmosphere. The room was small and packed (one couldn’t stretch one’s arm without touching the next person). The teacher was good…she knew how to teach breathing and in fact we did breathing for a good part of the one hour class. It was a bit claustrophobic but I tried to bear it (no one else seemed to be affected). But while it was warm and moist outside (Mumbai weather) we did the yoga in a cold environment with the room air conditioners on full blast. A draft from one of the ceiling ac’s came right onto my face. I started to feel as if my brain was freezing! My brain, my nasal passages…my whole body seemed to be getting filled with icy cold air and a few days of this and my nose was completely blocked and I fell sick. So many people in an ill-ventilated, crowded and cold room…and all of taking deep deep breaths! Actually I do have a tendency to catch colds easier than the next person so maybe this was my fault.

I tried to find out on the internet whether it was okay to do deep breathing exercises in a very cold atmosphere specially when one came from a warm environment outside and then went out into the warm environment…but I found nothing. I am sure it isn’t the right thing to do…but I am not an expert.

Yoga has become a money-making machine
Today yoga has become very commercial. I seriously feel that some sort of qualification should be made mandatory for yoga teachers. And only chosen people be given this qualification, there should be an exam. Right now anyone can start a yoga class, and I know people who think they are yoga experts after learning for barely 6 months. If they have learnt faulty techniques – who is to check? Who is to know? How are we the students to know?

Update: Its all thanks to a fellow blogger aikaerine that I putting up this additional information about an international organisation called Yoga Alliance which has a list of certified teachers and the link for the Indian teachers is here. About seven teachers are affiliated to this organisation. One in Meleodganj HP, two in Bangalore, one in Tirupur TN, one in Mysore, one in Delhi and one in Chennai. None in Mumbai! I am not saying that this is any sort of comprehensive list or that this organisation is the only organisation that needs to be followed…by no means. What this site says about its registered teachers is this:

RYTs (the Registered Yoga Teachers) have met our minimum training standards as described in the “How To Apply” section of this website. In addition, E-RYTs (Experienced Yoga Teachers) have significant teaching experience (at least 2 years and 1,000 hours for an E-RYT 200, and at least 4 years and 2,000 hours for an E-RYT 500). E-RYTs are qualified to train teachers at the corresponding level. RYTs 500 and E-RYTs are qualified to conduct Continuing Education training.

There’s another site called ashtanga in Mysore which also certifies yoga teachers. There are the bks iyengar teachers too…and the bikram yoga certified teachers but this seems to exist only in the US.

The point is: why then are other teachers allowed to practice? That is the point. Even if these schools exist with ‘certified’ teachers (all with different criteria laid out by the different heads of the institute…apparently even the yoga could be different) there are others who are self certified…why is it not illegal for them to teach yoga? No college will hire an unqualified math teacher will they?

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. July 31, 2007 1:26 pm

    This post is great….everyone thinks yoga is the way out of trouble but having a good teacher makes a big difference….

  2. July 31, 2007 4:00 pm

    I asked my yoga instructor if there were qualification guidelines in the US, he mentioned something called the Yoga Alliance – it is an international non-profit certification agency. He feels that their standards are good and they have a listing of certified schools by country. I looked at the website before posting and it looks decent.

  3. July 31, 2007 4:01 pm

    I agree that too many yoga teachers are clueless. Thankfully, I know enough now to ignore the worse one.

  4. July 31, 2007 4:27 pm

    SIgh. the US has guidelines but here we in India don’t. Ironical isn’t it..
    But actually, one of my worst experiences was in one such school here. Recognised by the govt or something… I think if a certified school only takes in a certified teacher, that will make the difference. If no particular qualification is required then how will the school judge which teacher to take…? The decision will have to be subjective.

  5. July 31, 2007 5:20 pm

    Sorry, I should have been more clear. The Yoga Alliance is international, I went on their site again and there are teachers listed in India. There are not guidelines in the US either, this is a voluntary certification.

  6. July 31, 2007 5:47 pm

    What exactly is voluntary certification? Can you give the link? If there is such a list of teachers certified in India, I would definitely like to know.
    I shall also try to search for it myself.
    A little later:
    I found the place and thanks very much! I am going to add it as a update to the post. There are just seven teachers listed for the whole of India, but even then, I think at least there is some such organisation. This has added value to my post and I can’t thank you enough.

  7. July 31, 2007 6:02 pm

    I’ll pass that on to my instructor. Sorry for not putting the link in originally, I did not want to ‘advertise’ a site that you had not personally looked at. It is

  8. sindhuja permalink
    August 1, 2007 1:46 am

    learning yoga not only needs interest to learn ……….. but also need to find knowledgeable experienced n who can teach the way learners can understand

  9. August 7, 2007 11:59 am

    hmm.. I teach Yoga, fortunately your blog had excerpts of a similar speech that I gave the administration. I demanded information from each person who signed up, in absence of which I refused to teach. They did not understand why I was being so fussy… sigh..

  10. August 7, 2007 12:11 pm

    Priyank, glad to have a yoga teacher respond to this. I wish you could have given some tips though. For example I am still a little confused about at what temperatures one should do deep breathing in…

  11. August 8, 2007 6:03 am

    Well, to begin with a short answer, Pranayama is to be done at normal room temperature. Practising in a room that is too hot or too cold affects the frequency (speed) and depth of breathing (example, in colder temperatures, we tend to take faster and shorter breaths). So this becomes a hindrance that needs to be overcome before one can start training in Pranayama. I dislike AC, and prefer to keep windows open. This worked in India, but here in Canada, it doesn’t.

    Now the long and complex answer. You may know that Pranayama (प्राणायम) consists of 3 phases – puraka (पुरक), kumbhaka (कुंभक) and rechaka (रेचक). Puraka stimulates, Kumbhaka raises internal body temperature and Rechaka brings it back to normal. Also, breathing from left nostril lowers body temperature, while breathing from right raises it.

    Pranayama is very personal technique. Every person has a different internal body temperature. External factors (food, stress, etc) also affect it. So, the formula (ratio) of puraka, kumbhaka and rechaka is different for each individual. In advanced pranayama, the person will be able to adjust the proportions of these phases in such a way that the temperature of his ambience will not affect his breathing cycles.

    My teacher gave me the example of our sages who practised in Himalayas. They had to adapt pranayama to suit the external conditions there. I believe they achieved amazing expertise in holding the breath (kumbhaka), thus raising their body temperatures. I must admit, I cannot sit in a cave surrounded by snow and do this, its not possible.

    I don’t want to impose this, but the reader can try the following and experience the results him/herself: If you are nervous or stressed, sit upright in a chair, close your right nostril and take deep breaths thru the left one. Motion of the navel is important to exhale completely. On the other hand, if you are feeling sluggish, depressed or low drive, try breathing with your right nostril only. Our body usually tries to do this naturally – notice that you never breathe equal amounts of air thru your nostrils.

    Nita, I don’t know if I have answered your question. But in reality, the surrounding temperature is immaterial. Once you achieve expertise at ‘real’ pranayama, pranayama will adjust it. However, mere mortals (like you and me) must practise at room temperature 🙂 Hope that helps.

    Please ask more if required, I’m just a beginner, but I will try.

  12. August 8, 2007 6:12 am

    btw, “normal room temperature” is a crazy term. It varies with age, food intake, place you live and a bunch of other factors. I was just trying to be politically correct! 😀
    The only test I can recommend is the temperature at which you feel comfortable wearing just a cotton shirt and shorts. Its usually 23-25 degrees for me.

  13. August 8, 2007 7:05 am

    Priyank, thanks for taking the time and answering my question. Appreciate it a lot. 🙂

  14. August 14, 2007 8:37 am

    i have to agree. with yoga being commercialized all over the world, we are hiring more and more yoga teachers without knowledge of holistic yoga other than the asanas they know how to perform and showing off how flexible they are

  15. August 14, 2007 2:10 pm

    Nita – There is the Bihar School of Yoga in Munger, Bihar which is reputed to be good. Site is still not fully developed.
    Then there is the Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana(SVYASA) at Jigini, an hour’s drive away from Bangalore is a deemed University, that offers degree and diploma courses in Yoga – SVYASA
    My father has done courses at both these places and has said that they are good.

  16. germangrrrl permalink
    March 1, 2009 9:54 pm

    The problem with indian yoga teachers can also be that they are more interested in travelling around and sleep with their students than really teaching yoga. so girls, if you are really interested in learning yoga, make sure you get a female teacher. The teacher training course for sivananda yoga is only 4 weeks, so any fool eager to see some western girls drizzling over them (being a ‘ real ‘ indian yogi) can overcome that.

  17. October 27, 2011 3:12 am

    I’ve just come from teaching yoga in a very cold room. I said when I set up the class that the bottom line was a warm room and I would pay as much as was needed for the electricity to make sure the room was warm. Was assured this would be the case. Unfortunately, storms and flooding meant that the room, which is not really suitable anyhow, was particularly cold, even after I went there two hours before class to put heating on in the room. Sometimes even qualified teachers can be caught out…

  18. Sonai permalink
    February 24, 2013 1:53 am

    Thank you for writing this! This is still an ongoing battle that prevails in India…and sadly!


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