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Holding the Sacred Circle: Yoga Teachers and Emotional Safety (Part 1)

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The impassioned debate over whether yoga can “wreck your body” (as the New York Times so memorably put it) has finally settled down. Similar discussions of the less tangible, but at least equally important issue of whether yoga might harm your psyche, however, haven’t really even begun.
The yoga community has hashed through the conditions that might cause physical injuries in yoga classes quite thoroughly. But we’ve barely broached the subject of how to protect students from psychological and emotional harm. Considering the recent wave of yoga scandals, as well as the high incidence of psycho-emotional distress in our society today, this silence is notable – and problematic.

Yoga teachers in particular would benefit from starting to think more systematically about how best to support students’ psychological and emotional safety. Of course, absolute safety – whether physical, psychological, or emotional – can never be guaranteed. Nonetheless, it’s the responsibility of the teacher to maintain the safest environment that he or she can. Notably, this doesn’t mean that classes shouldn’t be challenging. It’s not a matter of lightening up or dumbing down. On the contrary, the goal is to create the conditions that empower students to dive deeply into their practice – mind, body, and spirit.

In this series of articles, I hope to spark a more robust discussion of psychological and emotional safety in the yoga classroom. Comments, questions, and alternative perspectives are welcome. (Note: Although I’m writing with reference to the more or less standard asana class in North America, I’m also interested in hearing how these ideas may or may not translate to other contexts.) First, this post explains why the general issue of psychological and emotional safety in yoga is simultaneously so important and under-discussed. In subsequent articles, I’ll explore particular aspects of it in more depth, including teacher-student dynamics, self-study methods, teaching tools, and external supports.

More than Exercise

In the U.S., people who are unfamiliar with yoga generally assume that it’s simply another form of exercise. Even many who practice regularly are only interested in yoga’s physical benefits. (Witness the recent case in which Judge John Meyer, who practices himself, ruled that it’s OK to teach yoga in public schools on the grounds that it’s “just like dodgeball.”) On a purely individual level, this is fine: there’s nothing wrong with treating asana as exercise regime. If we want to understand yoga more fully, however, the “yoga as exercise” paradigm is simply inaccurate. There’s no question that yoga is, in fact, much more than that.

On the whole, I think it’s safe to say that anyone who cares enough about yoga to become a teacher values its emotional, psychological, and (broadly defined) spiritual benefits at least as much as its physical ones. Yet in the U.S., teachers are typically trained to be much more knowledgeable about the strictly physical aspects of yoga than anything else. The standard 200-hour yoga teacher training (YTT), for example, demands at least 20 hours of anatomy and physiology. In contrast, no exposure to basic concepts in psychology, neuroscience, emotional literacy, or any similar subject is required. (Although these subjects could be incorporated into the mandated 30 hours of “yoga philosophy, lifestyle, and ethics,” they typically aren’t.)

It’s taken for granted that yoga teachers need to learn basic anatomy. The need to build the knowledge base necessary to work appropriately with pre-existing injuries and prevent new ones is commonly recognized. Yet there’s no parallel assumption that yoga teachers should receive basic training in the psycho-emotional dynamics of their work as well. Of course, YTTs vary tremendously, and there are some notable exceptions. On the whole, however, the lack of required YTT hours in psychology and related subjects reflects the fact that such forms of knowledge are generally not valued, or even recognized as important in North American yoga culture.

The Sacred Circle

It’s an odd situation. On the one hand, there appears to be relatively little interest in thinking seriously into psychological and emotional dynamics of the yoga classroom. On the other, our most experienced and respected teachers consistently emphasize that meaningful practice engages the mind and heart at least as much as the body.

Reflecting on 30 years of teaching, Judith Hanson Lasater concluded that the most important work of a yoga teacher is to transform her class into a “sacred circle”: that is, “a safe place for the personal exploration of one’s body, emotions and mind.”

No teacher is a good teacher if he/she does not create this sacred circle in which every student feels valued, respected and completely safe. This means that the class is free from verbal, emotional, physical and sexual coercion or abuse. The first duty of a yoga teacher is to create this safe place. Without this intrinsic sense of safety, it is impossible for the student to let go and allow the practice to unfold.

Although the average student starts studying yoga in search of nothing more than stretching and stress relief, a good class provides the opportunity to go deeper. Students who are ready and willing to do so should be supported in the process of shifting out of an everyday state of mind and into one that enables internal exploration, learning, and growth. If teachers are to lead this process responsibly, they must develop the ability to create an environment that maximizes students’ psychological and emotional safety.

Safety Isn’t Automatic

The recent wave of yoga scandals has amply demonstrated that the yoga classroom cannot automatically be assumed to be safe. As discussed in my previous 90 Monkeys article, however, the yoga community needs to reflect more deeply on these high-profile disasters in order to learn something from them. As long as they’re simply blamed on isolated individuals (i.e., bad teachers and weak students), we’ll lack the psychological insight necessary to see how they fit into larger patterns of problematic interpersonal relationships, which are all too common in our society today.

In my view, the recent teacher/guru scandals are best understood as the extreme end of a continuum of co-dependent teacher-student relationships, which range from the mildly problematic to shockingly pathological. They’re simply cases in which the garden-variety problems of narcissism and co-dependence that are so common in our culture today grew exceptionally out of control. As such, they can be used like a magnifying glass to help us see much less dramatic, but nonetheless similar cases more clearly.

As I explain in my recent book, Yoga Ph.D., “it’s important to recognize that the yoga teacher-student relationship is inherently fraught with interpersonal issues not dissimilar to those of the therapist-client”:

This isn’t to suggest that yoga teachers are equivalent to therapists: obviously, they’re not. There is a parallelism there, however, in that strong emotional and psychological experiences, which tap into deep personal issues buried in the subconscious mind, are not uncommon in the yoga classroom. Consequently, there’s a pronounced tendency for students who have such experiences to unwittingly project strong feelings onto their teachers . . . This kind of projection puts the teacher up on a pedestal where she’s no longer perceived to be an ordinary person. Rather, she’s imagined as someone imbued with a mystical ability to evoke powerful states in her students. This misattribution is potentially damaging. And this is particularly true in cases where the teacher feeds off such adulation and (without necessarily realizing what she’s doing) works to reinforce or even demand it.

In order to maximize psychological and emotional safety, yoga teachers must be grounded enough to withstand the seductive force of strong student projections. Ideally, they should be able to hold a safe space for students to work through their projections, while encouraging them to progressively reclaim the power of their experience for themselves. And, even when projections are not present, it can be difficult to know how to work with unexpectedly powerful emotional releases that regularly occur in yoga classes. Developing the tools necessary to work with these dynamics is every bit as important as learning enough about anatomy to prevent physical injuries.

So Where’s the Discussion?

If psychological and emotional safety is so important, why is it so rare to hear in-depth discussions of it in the yoga community? While I can’t say for sure, I have several hunches.

First, I’ve noticed that teachers and students alike tend to assume that the most difficult hurdle in yoga is getting past experiencing it as a purely physical practice. Once that’s happened, there’s an assumption that “yoga” will automatically take care of the rest. It’s as if “yoga” were a time-release pill that guarantees positive change, rather than an ongoing practice with variable outcomes. If yoga is seen as a thing that works, rather than a practice we work on, there’s no incentive to investigate deeper.

Second, people who become prominent yoga teachers tend to be physically gifted. They inspire us with their ability to perform exceptionally advanced asanas. More significantly, many are unusually skilled at working with the body in multi-dimensional ways. Consequently, they’re often drawn to study more immediately physical disciplines, such as anatomy (or in some cases, acrobatics), rather than the intangibles of psychology or emotional literacy.

Third, many serious practitioners are interested in studying the ancient yoga tradition in order to grasp what’s seen as its unchanging essence. While this can be a valuable pursuit, that fact that it’s commonly coupled with a relative lack of concern with the development of modern practice creates a problematic imbalance. Important questions regarding the relevance of traditional practices to modern societies, as well as how best to synthesize them with contemporary knowledge are seldom raised, let alone addressed. Compared to the closely related practices of meditation and mindfulness, which have been studied in conjunction with psychology, neuroscience, and emotional intelligence for decades, contemporary thinking about yoga tends to be unsophisticated and unadventurous.

Finally, yoga is often used as a means of escaping the pressures of everyday life. This may take the form of spiritual bypassing, which chases blissed out states of consciousness as a means of avoiding such pedestrian demands as work, family, and relationships. Alternatively, practitioners may fantasize about achieving the iconic “yoga body,” which has been aggressively marketed as a symbol of perfect health, beauty, serenity, achievement, and self-control. Either way, thinking into the psychological and emotional dynamics in play would burst the bubble. As a result, it’s avoided.

Shifting the Paradigm

The one major exception to this otherwise common scenario is in the growing field of trauma-sensitive yoga. Within the yoga service movement, it’s commonly understood that teachers committed to working with populations that have experienced high levels of trauma, such as homeless youth, recovering addicts, prisoners, veterans, and domestic violence survivors, need to be trained to teach in ways that maximize students’ psychological and emotional safety. Consequently, there’s a growing body of work offering insights and techniques regarding how to do this (some of which I’ll share in subsequent posts).

The rest of the yoga community would benefit from following this example. Regardless of whether students represent a more specialized population or not, there needs to be more reflection on the psychological and emotional issues they’re likely to bring into the yoga classroom. At the same time, teachers need to engage in ongoing self-study to become more intimate with their own psychological and emotional patterning, and learn to work with it as best they can.

It’s important to recognize that anxiety, depression, and other psychological and emotional problems are rampant today. An estimated 26.2 percent of American adults, or 57.7 million people, suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder annually. Add in the undiagnosed problems caused by skyrocketing stress, and it’s evident that grappling with challenging psychological and emotional issues is the new normal.

Yoga teachers should be proud of the fact that they’re working to create a sacred space that not only offers students refuge from these pressures, but tools for emotional and psychological renewal as well. Teaching yoga is invaluable work that can transform and even save lives. Doing it responsibly, however, requires maintaining psychological and emotional safety. This is not necessarily easy. Learning to do it effectively requires at least as much targeted study, training, and concern as the much more commonly recognized goal of preventing physical injuries.

* * *

CH photoCarol Horton, Ph.D., is the author of Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body, and co-editor of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice. She holds a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Chicago, served on the faculty at Macalester College, and has extensive experience as a research consultant specializing in issues affecting low-income children and families. A Certified Forrest Yoga teacher, Carol teaches yoga to women in the Cook County Jail with Yoga for Recovery, and at Chaturanga Holistic Fitness in Chicago.

 

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  • Livia Shapiro

    Brava Carol Horton! there is so much to say here. i think there are many teachers, myself included who indeed are working to shift this paradigm by educating teachers on the importance of a whole slew of psychological concepts including neuroscience, theory, safety, interpersonal dynamics and how to implement them. furthermore, trauma is baseline nowadays so trauma sensitive yoga can no longer be limited to ‘populations’. its everyones business now to get on this boat.

    • Julian Marc Walker

      glad to meet you livia!

    • Carol Horton

      Thanks, Livia. I agree that a shift is happening – but also feel that it needs to be leveraged to be more mainstream and less ghettoized.

      More and more therapists and others in the helping professions are also getting into yoga, so there is a great opportunity for cross-fertilization. As I’m sure you know, those disciplines have suffered from a lack of attention to the body. So it’s definitely a two-way street in terms of the possibilities of fruitful knowledge exchange.

      It would be great to see a more robust dialog develop, particularly outside of the trauma-sensitive yoga subfield.

  • petitepapillon

    An intuitive recently said, when asked by a client how his
    new business would fare, the intuitive said, well, let me take a look at your
    chakras. Anything created is a reflection of the creator, and the
    imbalances in the chakras, whether deficient or excessive will be mirrored in
    that creation: as the king goes the country. There are a lot
    of yoga teachers that are well-intentioned and have “a good heart,”
    but they are not “grounded” with balanced first and second chakras;
    and so cannot provide a safe environment aside from “being a nice
    person.”

    When I attempted the useless task of pointing out the discrepancies in a
    philosophy teacher and his associates’ actions versus words, he said, “Do
    you know what is in my heart?” All of the best intentions, wanting
    and desiring is not going to enable someone to give something they don’t have;
    to empower and provide safety if the person does not feel empowered or
    safe. I don’t think it’s rocket science to understand the logic
    behind pairing you up with a mentor, who is sober in AA, rather than someone
    who is constantly falling of the wagon. Call me weird, but hanging out
    with people who emulate the state you hope to become makes sense to me.

    (As a side note, that same philosophy teacher also said, “It’s the
    teachings, not the teacher.” The teacher teaches from the
    interpretation of his own power, and transmits that same energy.
    Who in the world thinks all teachers are the same because they are teaching the
    same subject matter?)

    • Carol Horton

      You make an excellent point. I don’t disagree. However, I’d also say that being grounded is not an all-or-nothing proposition, but rather (at least for most of us) a work in progress.

      What I’m proposing here is a shift in the yoga teacher training culture. What if it were normal to engage in robust discussions about how to work with yoga, meditation, self-study etc. to become more and more grounded, and therefore more and more able to hold safe space for your students? If that were as standard as studying anatomy (etc.), I think that we’d be on a better track moving forward.

      • Julian Marc Walker

        well said!

  • Julian Marc Walker

    beautiful, powerful and timely article, Carol Horton. very nicely done.

    when we talk about yoga being “more than the physical” i think it is good to get even more specific about what we mean.

    personally i find that a discussion about how emotions are physical events and are experienced in our bodies is useful. how the brain is a physical organ that is the center of our experience of memory, emotion, meaning and anything else that we use the terms “psyche” or “spirit” to describe…

    so it is perhaps a deeper, more nuanced, more integrated experience of the embodied mind, of the awakened heart that can “be with” our authentic experience. (to shamelessly plug my book! http://www.amazon.com/Awakened-Heart-Embodied-Mind-ebook/dp/B00D1CA8GU/)

    in a way i think what we mean by “spiritual practice” is brain training to be more aware of our bodily experience, emotions and thought patterns, so as to heal and grow.

    so it is “more than the physical” in the sense of not just being about the surface level of perfecting a posture, but not in the sense of being about something disembodied – rather a more deeply engaged awareness of what is happening experientially in the practice.

    i am so glad you bring up the concept of “spiritual bypassing” – which is really deeply ingrained in what most us mean by spirituality. so really it is pretty revolutionary to get into the subject of yoga and psyche in any depth. we are inviting people to “be with” emotions rather than avoid, explain away or try to transcend them and we are inviting teachers to take seriously the responsibility of really “holding space” for their students humanity, rather than for vaguely disembodied and often invalidating popular (and even traditional) beliefs about what yoga is and what spirituality is about.

    • Carol Horton

      Hi Julian. Thanks for commenting here. As you know, I share your perspective on the nature of the mind-body connection and appreciate your laying it out so clearly here.

      To anyone reading this exchange, I’d also like to second the plug for Julian’s recent book, “Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind.” I have read it and it’s excellent (hope to have a review coming soon . . . ). It is part of the yoga teacher training material that he’s currently offering with Hala Khouri of Off that Mat, Into the World in LA. (Note: Hala’s work is also excellent on this subject; she is a somatic psychologist and clinician, so very very knowledgeable and experienced when it comes to working with yoga, emotions, psychology and the body.)

      I should flag that there are a lot of important issues having to do with what we mean when we use the term “spirit” (as in “yoga is a mind-body-spirit practice”) that aren’t the focus of this post. Basically, I use the term “spirit’ as the best available placeholder to refer to that part of our experience that’s neither the strictly rational, analytic parts of our brains nor the familiar set of emotions we all experience (fear, love, hate, anxiety, jealously, whatever). I think of the “spirit” part of the MBS equation in terms of the classic phrase, “sparking the human spirit” – it is that will for life, for renewal, for saying “yes” to the world in spite of everything that drags us down. I believe that yoga can spark that energy and that’s probably the primary reason that I love it so much.

      • Julian Marc Walker

        thanks carol – this excerpt i posted on elephant journal is a nice companion piece to yours. its called “Establishing Sacred Space” :)

        http://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/05/establishing-sacred-space/

        you said:

        “Basically, I use the term “spirit’ as the best available placeholder to refer to that part of our experience that’s neither the strictly rational, analytic parts of our brains nor the familiar set of emotions we all experience (fear, love, hate, anxiety, jealously, whatever).”

        and then:

        “Basically, I use the term “spirit’ as the best available placeholder to refer to that part of our experience that’s neither the strictly rational, analytic parts of our brains nor the familiar set of emotions we all experience (fear, love, hate, anxiety, jealously, whatever).”

        so really you are perhaps talking about a couple things:

        1) the executive function of the brain (cultivated through mindfulness practices) that can intentionally “witness” both discursive thought, rational analysis etc AND the flow of emotions and sensations. it can become in it’s relationship to the stream of experience neither merged/identified nor dissociative/aversive.

        2) the capacity for resilience in the face of life’s genuine difficulties and for being in touch with an embodied sense of passion, inspiration, hopefulness, a desire to engage fully with life.

        right?

        i can see why you choose the word “spirit” for this – as it suggests a kind of joi de vievre, indomitable motivation, can-do attitude, a sense of being able to rise from the ash of adversity and trauma like a fierce flaming phoenix of compassion and creativity.

        from a neuroscience/neurological perspective we can perhaps also think of this sense of “the human spirit” as being an experiential way of talking about:

        a) the rebalanced brain that is no longer hijacked by trauma triggers (and this next bit is VERY important) precisely because it has been supported in being present with difficult emotions and experiences in ways that promote real, integrated, embodied healing.

        b) the rebalanced nervous system, such that we are not permanently stuck somewhere close to a fight, flight or freeze response and/or trying do disconnect (via spiritual bypass, emotional deadening, or other forms of addictive process) from our experience, but are able to be resilient, self-regulated and unafraid of our own emotions, thoughts and sensations.

        for me the elegant way to think or talk about it may be that through embodied awareness practices we discover mind as actually a deeper layer of body and what you are calling “spirit” as an integrated, expansive, empowered and compassionate embodied awareness that is fluid in it’s dance between all three aspects of the triune brain AND both hemispheres.

        many in the mainstream society (especially academia) want to disconnect from feeling, intuition, sensation etc and live in purely intellectual ways.

        others want to be purely sensate and emotive and eschew intellectualism.

        still others postulate a transcendental spirit that is beyond both body and mind, as well as emotions.

        the tricky part is that we who are interested spirituality often commit the same unintegrated mistake as those in academia – but in reverse: we idealize intuition and feeling in the absence of reason and critical thinking.

        seems to me the healthy place is to have right and left hemispheres (intuition, feeling, creativity AND reason, critical thinking, abstract cognition etc) as well as all three triune structures (instinctive, emotive and rational) in a fluid and open relationship!

        to me, that fluid integration = grounded spirituality.

        • Carol Horton

          Julian, thanks for such an informed and informative comment. What you spell out is very much in line with my thinking.

          I recently saw Dr. Bessel van der Kolk speak at the Yoga Service Council conference. (For those who have no idea who this is, he is a prominent expert on trauma who has become very interested in yoga as a treatment for trauma issues including PTSD.) Anyway, he said that trauma shrinks a part of the brain called the “medial prefrontal cortex” and that yoga and meditation practices enlarge it. This is the part of the brain that allows us to engage comfortably in reflective self-awareness – basically what’s often referred to as “witness consciousness.” Interestingly, it’s located in the third eye area!

          I don’t know enough about the brain research to do anything than report back what I heard, but it’s fascinating and I want to learn more about it. I definitely believe that we can learn to cultivate different parts of our awareness, build emotional resilience etc. etc. through practices like yoga and meditation. It’s exciting to see the interplay of practice, science, and therapy starting to take off.

          That said, I don’t like the discussion to get too dry and technical – I don’t think that the language of science should hijack that of yoga and other traditions. But it’s useful, interesting, and creative to continue to open up that conversation, I think.

  • Brooke Schoudel

    This is such a fantastic article! I could not agree more. Helping people is exactly why I decided to teach yoga and I aim to do that psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually much more so than physically. I studied psychology first and decided to take the yoga route because it would allow me to really help people the way I want to. I don’t desire to diagnose or prescribe worthless medications, I desire to give people the tools to connect with themselves more deeply and steer the wheel of their life themselves. I think it is very important to follow the path correctly to achieve this. I recently listened to a lecture about the stages of yoga and how they are meant to be followed in order because you need to cleanse and strengthen the body to calm and stabilize the mind, which is extremely important to do before being empowered because you aim to empower these new insights and perspectives not the old ones.

    • Carol Horton

      Thanks Brooke! I love the idea of giving people “the tools to connect with themselves more deeply and steer the wheel of their life themselves.” Beautifully stated and an even more beautiful commitment.

      I’m not sure, however, about the idea of “the” path, as I’ve seen many paths that seem to work well. And, in many cases, an uncompromising belief that there’s only one “right way” causes problems. So, I personally interpret the idea of “the path” to include many “paths up the mountain.” That said, it’s also possible to believe in the one right path and hold space for others who believe differently – and that applies to us all regardless of whether our vision is ultimately singular or ecumenical.

      • Julian Marc Walker

        probably depends what you mean by “path.”

        if we mean a way to achieve specific ends, then we cannot avoid evaluating some as more effective, efficient and useful than others…

        a path to learning french that involves only eating croissants will not achieve it’s end. it is by definition less effective than any path that involves actually taking french lessons. within those actual lessons, there may for example be data to show that audio programs are more effective than ones that involve reading.

        i think we can start to get more lucid and honest about how, if we identify certain ends/goals with regard to spiritual practice, we can also evaluate which “paths” more effectively allow us to develop and apply those tools and which are more like eating croissants to try and learn french.

        one of these goals might be to not perpetuate spiritual bypass, but instead encourage emotional/psychological awareness and healing. certain tools, beliefs and approaches will be more or less effective at nurturing this goal.

        discernment is unavoidable if we want to say anything meaningful.

        so, yea – live and let live, but let’s not be complete relativists in an un-pragmatic way out of a desire not to offend!

  • Hari-kirtana das

    Carol, you’ve brought up an interesting point about the Yoga tradition and it’s relationship to contemporary knowledge. Meditation and mindfulness practices coming from the Buddhist tradition fit very nicely with contemporary consciousness studies like psychology, neuroscience, etc., because the premises of Buddhism and contemporary knowledge are so compatible. The
    proliferation of cross talk between these fields should therefore come as no surprise.

    By contrast, Yoga, traditionally speaking, is based on an entirely different premise that is utterly incompatible with that of contemporary ‘knowledge’: as soon as we accept the basic principles of traditional Yoga, namely, that a person (purusa), who is by nature eternal, cognizant, and blissful (sat, cit, ananda), is distinct from matter (prakrti) and, while engaged with matter under the influence of illusion (avidya), perpetuates actions that generate reactions (karma), which result in a succession of births and deaths (samsara), then we are accepting a paradigm that is irreconcilable with modern ‘knowledge’. The primary assumption of a modern worldview is that consciousness arises as a result of a chance combination of material elements and we are, in fact, the bodies we
    seem to inhabit; that what happens to this body happens to us and when the body goes, we go with it. This a priori assumption of modern knowledge is precisely what Patanjali defines as “ignorance’. Operating as they are from mutually exclusive world-views, the absence of cross talk between traditional yoga and contemporary consciousness studies should therefore come as no surprise.

    The question of ‘how is traditional yoga relevant to modern societies’ is entirely valid. However, the assumption is that modern ‘knowledge’ is true, that humans are more advanced now than we were when the traditional yoga wisdom texts were written, and that our task is to bring yoga forward, to make yoga work for us in the modern world. Rather than trying to synthesize traditional yoga with contemporary knowledge, I think the yoga community would be better served by teachers placing the mutually exclusive premises of modernity and yoga side by side and evaluating them based not on dogma or vaguely disembodied platitudes but on which one actually makes more sense to us, resonates with us, and contributes more to the project of solving life’s problems when you drill down to the substance. It’s not a matter of ’spiritual by-passing’; it’s a matter of informed choice: the tools for emotional and spiritual renewal as well as for holding space for our humanity are alive and well in the transcendental science of traditional Yoga. I don’t see the need to try to fit the square peg of yoga into the round hole of modernity and I certainly don’t think we should throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    • Carol Horton

      Thanks so much for your comment. It’s funny, I had been hoping that you’d weigh in, as I was wondering what someone who really understands the yoga tradition (qua tradition) would think of this. And now here you are . . . telepathy? (maybe my practice is working more “traditionally” than I think, ha ha).

      Anyway, to your point: yes, to the extent that I understand the traditional yogic paradigm, my view would be in line with yours: It IS fundamentally different from what’s being communicated via contemporary Buddhism and modern psychology, neuroscience etc., and therefore, from what I’m advocating in this article. This is precisely why I believe that there is, in fact, a distinctively *modern* yoga tradition that rests on different philosophical foundations. I explain this at some length in my recent book, which anyone who’s interested in can read an excerpt of here: http://www.thinkbodyelectric.com/2013/02/in-praise-of-modern-yoga.html.

      To be clear, I am not in any sense opposed to traditional yoga. Nor do I think it’s inferior. I do, however, think that modern yoga was designed to speak to as many people as possible in modern societies, and that traditional yoga was not. This doesn’t mean that a more traditional approach won’t still be compelling for some. But, I don’t think that it could or should be a mass phenomenon like modern yoga. And, I’m personally interested in and moved by widely accessible, democratized, modernized forms of yoga, not rarified ones.

      As far as not throwing the baby out with the bath water, I agree that cutting ourselves off from the longer tradition is a loss and to be avoided. Yet, when you take the differences between traditional and modernity (broadly defined – I understand that I’m speaking in gross generalizations) seriously, negotiating the connections intelligently is not, I think, so easy to do. Not to say that it shouldn’t be done – only that it requires a lot of knowledge, discernment, and balance, and there aren’t going to be a lot of people up to the task. Personally, I don’t feel that I understand enough about traditional yoga to do it well. So, I leave that to others.

      • http://bobweisenberg.wordpress.com/ Bob Weisenberg

        Hi, Carol. It’s not clear to me why you think ancient yoga philosophy is not directly applicable to modern times, or has not already been thoroughly filtered and updated for modern times and consistent with modern psychology.

        In fact, the ancient yoga texts were the inspiration for some of our most modern ideas about modern psychology, from ordinary sports psychology (reference “The Inner Game of Tennis”) to Carl Jung to Rod Stryker to Stephen Cope to Ghandi to Chatterjee and countless others.

        The writer I trust most on this subject, Phil Goldberg, argues that the philosophy of the ancient yoga texts has actually permeated our psychology so thoroughly that we don’t even recognize the source anymore, which seems to me quite the opposite of what you are saying above. Reference:
        True or False? Physical Yoga has Influenced America More Than Spiritual Yoga. http://bit.ly/16Y0NW3

        Bob W.

        • Carol Horton

          Hi Bob: Thanks for your comment. You raise an important point. Again, while I know that I’m speaking in gross generalizations, my basic view is that there is a huge gulf separating traditional/ancient yogic philosophy from its modern/contemporary American counterpart. True, there is some connection and relationship, the same way that there is for ancient and modern yoga. Nonetheless, the differences are huge and should not be glossed over.

          In my view, the modern yogic philosophy that Phll details is part and parcel of the description of modern hatha yoga that I discuss in my book. Both are East/West hybrids that historically are most directly traceable back to the late 19th century.

          Hari Kirtana-das, I think, was referring to something that is at least dedicated to being more authentically traditional than that – but only he can speak to that directly.

          • http://bobweisenberg.wordpress.com/ Bob Weisenberg

            I see what you’re saying, Carol. Also, just because there are ample books and resources reconciling this difference doesn’t mean that they are being effectively used in Yoga Teacher education! Not everyone is taking their Yoga training from Rod Stryker and Stephen Cope, et. al.

            But all of them could be assigning their books, if they were interested in integrating ancient yoga into their courses. The material is all there already. I could recommend 10-20 excellent books right off the top of my head.

            Bob W.

          • Carol Horton

            Bob: I haven’t read Rod Stryker’s book, so can’t comment on that. But, much as I love Stephen Cope’s work, I don’t think that he’s presenting anything remotely like traditional yogic philosophy. Yes, he references it and draws inspiration from it. But it’s a very heavily Westernized, modernized take that makes no attempt to understand traditional worldviews on their own terms and contrast them with ours. Therefore, it all seems to be one and the same. But, it’s not.

            The easiest way for me to make this case substantively is by emphasizing the central importance of the belief in liberation as ending the karmic cycle of death and rebirth in the yoga tradition. This has many, many ideas wrapped up in it that are radically different from that of the average Western yoga practitioner today. These include 1) a cyclical versus linear view of time, 2) seeing human life as suffering to be transcended versus potential to be maximized, 3) believing in literal reincarnation versus not believing in it, 4) practicing yoga as a means of transcending, and hopefully, eventually exiting the human condition versus embracing life and making the most of it while we’re here.

          • http://bobweisenberg.wordpress.com/ Bob Weisenberg

            Hi, Carol. Well, yes, that’s a different goal, for which one should stick with Feuerstein, Schweig, and other yoga historians.

            I don’t concern myself with any of the four things you list, because in my opinion they should be discarded except as interesting history for most modern yoga enthusiasts, as cultural anachronisms which are not core to the central meaning of the ancient texts.

            Furthermore, I would dispute directly that #2 and #4 are anywhere near even the most traditional interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita, which is determinedly about effective action and love in this world, not any other world. Which version or interpretation of the Gita are you referring to, please? The Yoga Sutra has more elements of #2 and #4 than the Gita, but this is the Yoga text Hartranft considers to be essentially a Buddhist text in disguise. And I certainly wouldn’t pigeon-hole the soaring Upanishads into the box of #2 and #4 either.

            In “What Makes the Bhagavad Gita So Difficult at First” http://bit.ly/fw0sNP , I suggest a systematic approach to dealing with ancient things that don’t make any sense to us today. And I make it clear this is a highly personal thing, and then express my own personal decisions on some of the issues.

            I believe any ancient text has to be read this way to be relevant to modern times. Same with Plato. Same with Dante. Same with the Torah. We have to do the same filtering even for books written 50 or 100 years ago.

            If you choose to make the four things you listed above, in their literal not metaphorical form, central to a modern person’s understanding of the ancient yoga texts, I would say, drop the texts. Find something more relevant for you. And let’s go with modern Yoga philosophers who are well versed in the ancient texts, like Styker, Cope, Dass and all the others, but whom, as you say about Cope, have modernized the philosophy for us.

            But I and many others think the four things you listed are anachronisms not at all essential to the core meaning of the ancient texts, which, when those things are dealt with, as I write in my previously cited article, literally explode with shockingly modern advice for living life well today.

            What do I mean, exactly? Here’s the syllabus for the Bhagavad Gita Workshop I’ve been asked to conduct this Fall at the Kanyakumari Ayurveda and Yoga Wellness Center here in Milwaukee this fall: http://www.kanyakumari.us/#!ancient-wisdom/cr0r . In this workshop we will be working directly with the text itself in everything we do, for each of the major themes shown in my outline, all of which are very modern indeed.

            Thanks for a very interesting discussion, Carol. Let me know your thoughts on this.

            Bob

          • http://bobweisenberg.wordpress.com/ Bob Weisenberg

            P.S. In Rod Stryker we have an example of doing everything you’re asking for to the hilt–highly traditional, yet highly modern and relevant to everyday life. Here’s his curriculum: http://www.parayoga.com/train/trainingcurriculum.html

            Between Stryker and Cope we have the entire spectrum of serious approaches to integrating ancient yoga into modern yoga teacher training. Graham Schweig and Brenda Feuerstein are doing some great stuff, too, as are others.

            I don’t think we lack models, we just need to make them more common and available, don’t you think?

            Bob

          • Carol Horton

            Bob: I think we are getting off topic here. In this post, I’m interested in the question of to what extent there is a dialog between the philosophies associated with contemporary Hatha yoga in North America, on the one hand, and contemporary psychology and neuroscience, on the other. You are broadening out the discussion to whether the huge corpus of Indian spiritual philosophy has had any influence on American culture. It’s a different issue.

            I think that the modernization of the Gita etc. that you’re pointing to has had a huge impact on our contemporary understanding of spirituality. However, that’s not the topic of this post.

            Can you cite anything where key concepts in Western psychology such as attachment, transference, projection, denial etc. come into serious dialog with what’s happening in contemporary yoga culture and/or traditional yogic philosophy? I know of very little. Julian’s new book is a great application of ideas from psychology and neuroscience to yoga teacher training. Swami Rama et al wrote a good book on yoga psychology (which is ironic at best, given that Swami Rama is yet another guru accused of sexually abusing his students – apparently there was a big court settlement back in the 90s; Matthew researched the details). Anyway, I don’t know of much more work other than this that really stands out. And when you compare that to the literature built by people like Jack Kornfield, John Welwood, and many others in the contemporary Buddhist tradition, it looks extremely thin in comparison. That’s my point here.

          • http://bobweisenberg.wordpress.com/ Bob Weisenberg

            Hi, Carol. No need to go further, if you feel this is off track.

            Everything I wrote here was in regard to your first comment in this thread above, not your excellent article. I still feel what you wrote about yoga philosophy in your that comment and following replies is inaccurate and/or misleading. But I’ve already done my honest best to explain that. So I’ll have to accept the fact that I’ve struck out! No problem.

            I certainly don’t want to do anything to detract from your very fine article, which I’ve already featured on Best of Yoga Philosophy and plan to make the Discussion of the Week tomorrow.

            Bob W.

          • Carol Horton

            Thanks, Bob. No worries. I do feel that this particular discussion is getting further and further away from the topic of the post, however. I want to stay focused on the emotional/psychological/neuroscience connections here, as if there are any resources out there that I’m not aware of, I’d love to know about them.

            Also, no doubt others have different views on these more particular topics – I’ve read several posts lately disagreeing with my basic contention that the yoga classroom should strive to be a holistically safe space, for example. So, I just want to keep the focus relatively narrow. I’m happy to debate yoga philosophy more broadly elsewhere, however! :)

          • http://bobweisenberg.wordpress.com/ Bob Weisenberg

            Exhibit B: My recent article of Bhagavad Gita book covers on YogaDork:

            Will the Real Bhagavad Gita Please Stand Up? http://bit.ly/14DlcAu

            The Cope and the Ram Dass books are particularly good for Yoga teacher training, but all the rest should also be considered by the serious Yoga teacher.

            Bob W.

          • http://bobweisenberg.wordpress.com/ Bob Weisenberg

            …and there are still more good recommendations in the 43 comments to the article.

            Bob

          • http://bobweisenberg.wordpress.com/ Bob Weisenberg

            Hi, again, Carol. This paragraph of yours didn’t register with me at first:

            “In my view, the modern yogic philosophy that Phll details is part and
            parcel of the description of modern hatha yoga that I discuss in my
            book. Both are East/West hybrids that historically are most directly
            traceable back to the late 19th century.”

            Half of what Phil describes happened long before the late 19th century, with Emerson and Thoreau and Whitman, and even Jefferson directly reading the ancient yoga texts.

            And isn’t “an East/West hybrid” exactly what you’re suggesting we need for ancient yoga to be relevant to modern yoga teachers?

            Thanks,

            Bob

      • Hari-kirtana das

        Hi Carol: You’re welcome – always a pleasure to engage with you on these topics. One challenge in corresponding with you in a public forum is that a single sentence from you inspires a chapter’s worth of reply from me. I will try to contain myself and choose wisely from all the possible next directions to take this.

        It’s become clear to me that I can no longer settle for excerpts and will have to read your book in its entirety. For now I will offer that in order to fully appreciate the different foundations of the distinctly ‘modern’ yoga to which you refer, one has to look at Sankara’s philosophy of absolute non-dualism to which Vivekananda subscribed. This is a lengthy subject that’s relevant to but beyond the immediate scope of this conversation so I’ll save the details for another time. The bottom line is that Vivekananda’s monistic conclusion – that beyond all conceptions of form there is nothing but Brahman; an undifferentiated Oneness of being – is what endeared him to intellectual western theologians who considered the impersonal God they thought about to be higher than the personal God they spoke about, made Hinduism intellectually acceptable to enlightenment thinkers, made yoga a fashionable, if eccentric, pursuit of the glitterati, and laid the foundation for what we now know as ‘spiritual but not religious’.

        I agree that connecting a traditional text like the Yoga Sutras, which is admittedly intended for ascetics, to a modern and accessible form of yoga is a daunting task. This is one reason why I think the Bhagavad Gita is, in many ways, more relevant to modern yoga; it’s a treatise on how to act in the world from a transcendental position rather than how to withdraw from the world in search of transcendence. But even the Gita tells us that very few people will take to the path it describes (See Bg 7.3: http://vedabase.com/en/bg/7/3).

        The Sutras introversion notwithstanding, there are three key elements of the Sutras that I find eminently applicable to contemporary life: Patanjali’s foundation for yoga as a moral philosophy, his clear distinction between the mind/body complex and the ‘self’ proper, and his brief exposition on Isvara as a categorically different person from all other persons. Like the Gita, the Sutras are unavoidably dualistic and theistic and Patanjali addresses timeless elements of the human condition, hence, the Sutras remain relevant. I will again defer the details to another time and invite your comments. Staying on topic…

        Modern yoga does, in fact, speak to many more people than traditional yoga precisely because, as best as I can tell, it minimizes theism to quaint symbology and changes the frame of reference from ‘how can I transcend the material world’ to ‘how can I feel spiritual about pursuing my material desires’. We redefine good karma as Karma Yoga and, presto-change-o, we’re Off the Mat and Into the World.

        This is nice, but making the material world a better place is not necessarily a spiritual activity. However well-intentioned such projects may be they remain, from the standpoint of traditional yoga, Quixotic pursuits. I did a Sutras / Gita workshop over the weekend and I asked the 20 or so participants how many of them wanted to be happy. Predictably, everyone raised their hands. My obvious follow up question was: how long would you like to be happy for? The quick consensus: forever!

        The basic question of philosophy is ‘why must there be suffering?’ or, to put it another way, ‘why can’t we all be happy forever?’ The obvious answer is that, even if everything else goes as well as it possibly can, death gets in the way. Traditional yoga is the project of solving the ‘death’ problem. So, my question to you is: how does a distinctively *modern* yoga tradition that rests on different philosophical foundations deal with the problem of happiness in the face of eventual, but inevitable, death? Or, to put it another way, what is it about the fundamental human condition (as opposed to externalities associated with modernity) that has changed in the past 100 years or so that requires a new philosophical foundation for something we will call ‘yoga’ irrespective of its traditional definition?

        I suppose I should just finish reading your book before asking you such a question as I may be asking you to restate its premise. If that’s the case, please just post the link to the point-of-purchase and I’ll go fetch my credit card. Anticipating your reply, I have an anecdote in my back pocket for you along with a surprising revelation.

        • Carol Horton

          Thanks for such a thoughtful comment. I would love to hear your thoughts on my book as well. You can purchase it via Createspace (print) or Amazon (print or Kindle). https://www.createspace.com/3695588 or http://www.amazon.com/Yoga-Ph-D-Integrating-Life-Wisdom/dp/0615622364/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1356646656&sr=8-1&keywords=yoga+ph.d.+carol+horton.

          You raise a lot of big questions here that aren’t all that well suited to a blog comment format. But, here are some thoughts to begin with.

          First, I think that we’d have to unpack what you mean by the “fundamental” human condition more before I comment on that . . . clearly, it’s not so easy to be happy in life on a consistent basis, irregardless of the reality of death. But, leaving that aside for the moment . . .

          What I would say has changed quite a bit in the past 100 years are the broad patterns of cultural and psychological formation that most people face. I know that is a huge generalization. But, I think there is something to it.

          Let’s start with the psychological issues, as those are most relevant to this post.

          Traditionally, whether in India or elsewhere, most people were not subject to the same pressures to form and reform individual identities the way that we are. To be very simplistic, one was typically born into a world where your family, gender, religion, social class, nationality, etc. very comprehensively told you who “you” were. Now, lots of that is up for grabs – families have broken down, gender is a fluid category, religion is optional and highly varied, there is huge transnational immigration etc. Yet, particularly in the US, we are supposed to come up with a strong self of self and successfully make our way in an extremely competitive, rapidly changing world. This is very, very difficult. So, there is a lot of psychological stress and emotional distress.

          Traditional practices of yoga and meditation were not designed to deal with people’s psychological and emotional issues. Nor were they intended to be practiced by ordinary people – only exceptionally dedicated potential adepts. Now that we have democratized those practices, we enter dangerous territory if we don’t recognize that people need to deal with their small “s” selves before sailing off into uncharted consciousness-changing terrain. This has been discussed extensively by people like Jack Kornfield in the Buddhist world. But, these concepts haven’t really been examined in contemporary yoga culture much at all.

          Now onto culture. Obviously, that’s shifted in tons of ways, some of which I’ve already mentioned (changing family and gender roles, etc.). Perhaps most relevant to our discussion, however, is the dominant cultural framing of religion and/or spirituality. Of course, tons has changed there, but let’s just focus on one key issue for now . . .

          Today, the average person is constantly exposed to people who have very different understandings and beliefs about the most fundamental questions of life and death that you mention. (We see this right here in the comments on this article!) This adds to the psychological stress already mentioned. It also means, however, that reasonable people should be able to recognize that there are many people who may have very, very different beliefs than they do, but who are nonetheless equally ethical, happy, and living lives that they find meaningful on their own, quite different terms.

          My view is that modern yoga was designed to speak to some of these realities of modern life (as well as the increased need to work with the body, but you can read about that one in my book :). The radical nondualism that you described with Vivekananda (as well as the yoga practices he taught) provided a visionary way of finding a common ground for spiritual belief and experience, while maintaining the space needed for people to practice different religious traditions and hold very different beliefs.

          In other words, I don’t think it so much turns theism into quaint symbology as it holds open a space for different theistic and even non-thesitic beliefs to peacefully and respectfully co-exist. This I see as a very valuable innovation.

          While not big on psychology in the sense I’m pushing it here, I also think that the modern yoga tradition was (and remains) heavily invested in holistic health and healing. Part of this originally was due to the tie-in with Indian nationalism (that is, yoga to unify the nation, build strength, assert cultural sovereignty, and fight colonialism). But, I think that it clearly went far beyond that, particularly with the development of modern hatha yoga in the early-to-mid 20th century. Krishnamacharya, for example, was renowned as a healer and spent much time and energy adapting asana techniques to help support the health and vitality of all different sorts of people, including those with disabilities, etc. The psychological piece is a natural extension of this.

          Once people are stronger in mind, body, and the mind-body connection, they are better able to live religiously- and/or spiritually-grounded lives that are deeply meaningful to them, even under the difficult conditions of modernity, which don’t naturally support it. This, in my view, is part of the philosophy that informs modern yoga.

          • http://bobweisenberg.wordpress.com/ Bob Weisenberg

            Hi, Carol. Quick note. You praise Vikekananda’s universality above, calling it “a very valuable innovation.” Perhaps at the time, it looked that way.

            But I just want to point out that he takes that right from the Bhagavad Gita, so it’s nothing new:

            However men try to reach me,
            I return their love with my love;
            whatever path they may travel,
            it leads to me in the end. (BG 4.11)

            See “Yoga is Universal Truth, Embracing All Gods and All Paths”
            http://bit.ly/qHFFbU

            Bob W.

          • Carol Horton

            Yes, I was speaking on the socio-cultural level. Historians agree that Vivekananda’s presentation to the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 was quite revolutionary for its time. Certainly, however, I would assume that he, too, understood it not as an innovation but rather as a re-articulation of a timeless truth.

          • Hari-kirtana das

            Carol, you are the gift that keeps on giving. Thanks so much for your succinct and eloquent answer to my question. We are, indeed, moving beyond the scope of blog comments so I’m going to take what you’ve given me here and run off and work with it.

            I’ll leave you with a lesson learned from AG Mohan when he was here two weeks ago: he was speaking about psychology in the Yoga Sutras and specifically addressing how traditional practices of yoga and meditation relate to ordinary people’s psychological and emotional issues: precisely the area you have identified as being under-examined in contemporary yoga culture! He was, to my mind, constraining his explanations to a very basic level. Not picking up on how he had determined the parameters of his talk, I eventually asked a question about mental health and Patanjlai’s conception of identity, specifically as it relates to the proposition that surrender to Isvara is the perfection of spontaneous self-realization. He wanted to defer my question to a post-lecture conversation but I pleaded that I would not be able to stay so we engaged in a brief back-and-forth wherein, at his request, I clarified my understanding about mental health as defined by Patanjali being knowing who one really is and not mistaking oneself for being someone that we’re not, with the true nature of who we are being connected to the idea of surrender to Isvara.

            Mr. Mohan folded his hands, thanked me for prefacing my statement with ‘according my understanding’ (presumably as opposed to stating my opinion as if it were a fact) and then said ‘I began my talk by stating that there are three things; what is immediately accessible to us, what we can achieve after some practice, and the ultimate goal. I am speaking now about what it is immediately accessible to us. You are asking a question about the ultimate goal.”

            Finally getting it, I folded my hands, thanked him, and zipped it. Lesson learned: I enter dangerous territory by insisting on sailing off into uncharted consciousness-changing terrain without recognizing people’s need to deal with their small “s” selves before the ship leaves the harbor.

            I’ll save any further comments for part 2 of your series, which I anxiously await.

  • Matthew J. Taylor, PT, PhD

    Thank you Carol for bringing forward an issue that is often ignored or treated in too cavalier manner in the community. The structure of our studio’s and personal teaching habits shape our ahimsa practice, to include the psycho-emotional aspects you are discussing. I this old piece on teacher’s ahimsa that was published in the Intl J of Yoga Therapy in 2004 I offer specific suggestions/systems to create in order to shape the non-harming you are advocating… http://www.matthewjtaylor.com/consciousahimsa.pdf

    • Carol Horton

      Thanks Matthew for that very relevant resource! I would urge studio owners in particular to take a few minutes to check out the above link, which has lots of very thoughtful, concrete suggestions about how to practice “conscious ahimsa” by setting up a safe classroom environment.

  • Robert Wolf Petersen

    I like this piece, Carol. Thanks. For me, the most resonant element is your discussion of the emotional consequences of yoga. I’ve been through intense practices after which I’ve spent the rest of the day in a daze, or unaccountably angry, or curled up under the duvet grieving.

    Naturally, I’ve come through those experiences, and I’d expect to do so again. That said, I think we’d all benefit from more recognition and discussion of the fact that opening up the body can very easily dredge up buried emotions, for the sake of anyone who’s ever found themselves going through post-yoga emotional upheaval and wondering whether they’re going completely bananas.

    • Carol Horton

      Agreed! As I discuss in my book, I was initially completely taken off guard by the intense emotional experiences, memory flashbacks, etc. that my asana practice started generating. It took me a long time to realize that this wasn’t happening due to some special capacity of the teacher . . . I think that this is a common problem and one that should be regularly explored and discussed.

      Also, these emotional experiences raise really interesting questions about the mind-body connection that we’re only now at the point of being able to explore concretely (in scientific terms) via advances in neuroscience. I’m hoping that this will start to happen more systematically. To date, most of the top-flight research has remained focused on sitting meditation type practices.

      • Robert Wolf Petersen

        Thanks Carol. Your book’s next on my reading list (once I finish the Iliad!).

        Yes: I doubt there’s any experienced practitioner who doesn’t have experiential knowledge of strange yoga-related happenings, but aside from generalised ideas such as ‘we hold a lot of anger in our hips’, I’ve rarely seen any documentation of it or heard teachers speak of it. I look forward to that changing.

  • japhyryder1

    Carol, thanks for this wise and timely piece. May it be widely read. It raises so many important points it’s hard to know where to begin. What happens when you take an ancient psycho-transformational practice and throw it into the spiritual marketplace completely outside the culture in which it evolved. What happens when people can become ‘teachers’ after a rudimentary course led by people who, themselves, shouldn’t even be teachers? Most dangerously still, the practice itself is so powerful that, even improperly taught, it can still begin to break down the fundamental structure of the ego, leaving the student open to highly vulnerable mind states. But how many teachers have the experience to recognize these for what they are or know how to deal with them. I really hope more articles like this are written, and that yoga in the West comes to be seen as a practice closer to psychotherapy than pilates. Everything thinks yoga is the ancient science of the body, but I see it closer to an ancient science of Mind…..

    • Carol Horton

      Thanks for your comment. I agree that both with yoga and meditation, people are often engaging in practices that have the capacity to significantly affect their consciousness or mental states, and they don’t necessary even realize it. Worse yet, the teacher may not either. Happily, I think that the structure of the typical asana class provides some natural titration (90 minutes or less then you’re back into “normal” life). Still, I’ve seen (and experienced) how significant even that sort of quite time-limited exposure can be.

      There is so much to start exploring here, I very much hope that the conversation continues . . . thanks for joining in here.

      • japhyryder1

        Thanks for your thoughtful reply Carol, great to discover your blog. I would suggest teachers of the full power asana practices like Ashtanga, especially, should make a mindful effort to bring their students ‘down’ at the end of the class. 5 minutes of savasana may not be enough, especially with people heading out to drive motorised vehicles and so forth. The Indian traditions seem very focused on pulling the energy ‘up’ – I’m thinking of sun salutations, heady incenses, kundalini activating breath control, even the use of bhang favoured by the Shivaites. Contrast that with the low, grounding chanting of Tibetan monasteries, their earthy rooted incense, and the emphasis on manual work within the monastic tradition. Us practitioners of yoga could learn a lot from these other schools I think.

  • Carolyn Riker

    I read this last night and many of the comments. I don’t feel skilled enough to contribute although the article was extremely well written. I would like to add a twist though, what if the yoga teacher needs help and is projecting onto his/her students and therefore creating mixed messages? What safety nets are provided to assist the teacher’s emotional safety before it damages the students?

    • Carol Horton

      Hi Carolyn – Thanks for adding in some great questions. I hope to address some of the issues you raise more in depth in my follow-up post. For the time being, however, a few thoughts –

      First, my sense is that most yoga teachers don’t have much of a support system, if any. This is true both for emotional support and for other needs as well. Generally, I think that people graduate out of YTTs and are left to fend for themselves. There are certainly exceptions – for example, I participated in a structured, year-long mentoring program following my YTT, which was extremely helpful. I’m not sure that anyone knows what the full range of practices out there is, or even what’s typical. Overall, however, my sense is that there’s not much of a support structure in place for almost anything.

      This is one reason that I really like what 90 Monkeys is doing – that is, trying to provide an accessible platform for yoga teachers to learn, find community, and develop professionally. There are other online platforms doing this as well, of course. But, of course, things get much harder when you move from more technical subjects to more deeply personal ones.

      Personally, I think that it’s a good time to start brainstorming about the various forms that an effective emotional support structure for yoga teachers might take. But first, we have to recognize that it’s even a need to begin with.

      As another commentator rightly pointed out, a teacher won’t know how to support his or her students emotionally unless they are emotionally grounded and balanced themselves. I think that for almost all of us, this is a work in progress. And, one certainly doesn’t have to be perfect to be an effective yoga teacher. But, I think that it is important to be actively engaged in integrating emotional and psychological development into one’s yoga practice, whatever that may be.

      Again, I hope to provide some more concrete suggestions about this in my next post. In the meantime, if anyone else has ideas, feel free to share them!

      • Carolyn Riker

        Thank you Carol, for your reply and I sincerely look forward to your follow-up post. I agree that there should be a forum for yoga teachers to explore personal as well as psychological dynamics that arise within the teacher as well as within the teacher-student continuum and how to best cope. Additionally, I agree “that for almost all of us [teachers], this is a work in progress.” I certainly prefer working with a teacher who genuinely reflects ‘humaness,’ and demonstrates even he/she can have a difficult day. This is authenticity and makes me smile! I’m new to yoga but I’m not new to understanding people.

        It is also essential that yoga teachers recognize when their personal emotional status starts to overtly spill into the classroom setting. For example, the teacher who is able to share personal antidotes to illustrate a lesson is valid, but to continually employ intimate oversharing to solicit ‘help’ or to send a mixed message is something entirely different. It sets up a projection/counter projection and nulls the safety trying to be provide while doing yoga! Yoga in itself comes from the heart and without the parameters and guidance of a stable teacher…that vessel is rather nonexistent!

        Perhaps providing some guidelines/warnings for teachers to refer to…like a template to recognize signs of let’s say burnout,extreme personal oversharing, anger, teacher-student triggers, etc. Ideally, giving more opportunities for teachers to have support by a trained and skilled practitioner and giving instructors a safe place to let go of their teacher persona. Even mentors need mentors.

        In addition and probably another tangent for a future article, it seems some yoga teachers have multiple talents and use the yoga class to stimulate more clients for their other professional venues. While this is usually beneficial and harmless, it can cause ethical issues of personal and professional boundaries especially if not taught how to do it. Actually this does tie into it all because if juggling too many hats groundedness can easily get lost.

        I guess what would be lovely to see is providing more professional support-guidance for yoga teachers. It can be a difficult balance when a teacher is not emotionally aware of the impact they are having. Providing them with the tools seems paramount. Thank you again for your article and your response. It has definitely triggered a few things in me and this is always good.

        • Carol Horton

          Thank you!

  • http://www.meetup.com/Mountain-Communities-Yoga kumari de Silva

    Hi Carol! Thank you for your article. I posted this comment on LinkenIn and there was a request for me to repost it here. So here goes:

    As far as holding a “sacred circle” I feel this is a Teaching issue not a Yoga issue.

    When I was growing up no one ever heard of a female sexual predator. Then came the famous Mary Kay Letourneau case.

    In the years that followed more and more female teachers were in the news for molesting male students, enough so I started to wonder if this hasn’t been going on for a long time. Maybe the male students are just less likely to report it. Well that doesn’t make it right, doesn’t make it healthy, doesn’t make it appropriate. I think the psychological damage runs deep, even when the victim is a male.

    I wrote recently about this issue on my blog:
    http://www.meetup.com/Mountain-Communities-Yoga/pages/The_Inappropriate_Yoga_Teacher/

    Any teacher, any age using their authority to create a relationship? It’s by definition non-consensual – it’s inappropriate. For that matter I added in, inappropriate for doctor / patient or religious leader / follower.

    Yoga teachers wear lots of hats. Some of our students look up to us like quasi health/nutrition/religious professionals. We need to be respectful of the trust they put in us.

    I include Eastern teachers as well as Western ones. Unfortunately People can be exploitive in any culture –

    Regarding Carol’s assertion “The standard 200-hour yoga teacher training (YTT), for example, demands at least 20 hours of anatomy and physiology. In contrast, no exposure to basic concepts in psychology, neuroscience, emotional literacy, or any similar subject is required. ”

    I don’t think a 200-hour teacher training is the correct place to teach someone psychology et al. A little knowledge can be a dangerous: amateurs “diagnosing” the students, especially if students are emotionally fragile. What I wish had been required reading for my 200-hour was Judith Lasater’s “What we say matters” or some other work on non-violent communication –

    Teach teachers to be Professional, don’t expect teachers to understand neuroscience.

    ****

    Namaste

    6 hours ago

    • Delete

    • Carol Horton

      Hi Kumari: Thanks for reposting your comment here. I agree that the issues raised are common to teachers, ministers, and others. Yet I also think there are certain particularities in the case of the typical yoga class that are worth illuminating and discussing.

      For example, the average person in the US today starts yoga thinking of it as a purely physical practice. Yet, it’s very common to experience unexpectedly powerful emotional releases anyway. If no one has any framework to put this in, it’s easy to project the experience onto the teacher (or think you’re crazy, repress it, or whatever). In my view, it would be better to recognize that this is common, and think into how best to work with that fact.

      This is, of course, the job of the teacher. And, while I agree that yoga teachers should not attempt to become psychologists, I nonetheless think that some grounding in basic concepts such as transference and counter-transference could be very helpful and illuminating. It is incredibly common for students to project all sorts of fantasies onto their yoga teachers. Many, if not most YTTs don’t provide any recognition of this phenomenon, or any tools for working responsibly with it. Therefore, I think that it makes it difficult for yoga teachers to do their jobs as professionally as we might like.

      I agree that teachers should not be “diagnosing” anyone. But, I also think that a better understanding of some of the basics of the relevant psychology involved in the yoga classroom situation would do a better job of explaining why that’s the case than not discussing any psychology at all.

      • 90Monkeys

        Just a side note on this – Agreed, Carol! And a good fundamental education in psychology always starts with examination of the self, self inquiry, and self cultivation…all of which would support a yoga teacher in being able to hold space in a grounded way for students when emotions run high. We advocate for basic education as well and are advocates of yoga teachers choosing therapy for themselves in addition to learning about basic concepts as Carol also shared.

        • Carol Horton

          Agreed!

      • http://www.meetup.com/Mountain-Communities-Yoga kumari de Silva

        I was recovering from a traumatic injury and using yoga as a physical therapy. I asked a teacher after class if she would explain “sukhasana” to me so I could be sure I was doing it properly, and to my surprise (and dismay) she told me if I would only “get off of my ego and sit on a blanket” then I would be able to do it. Hmmm, no one had mentioned the blanket before, I thought she was kind of violent considering that I was asking for help.

        Why did she assume it was my “ego”? I think it was because of that 20 minutes in yoga school they spend on explaining tantra.

        If I wasn’t using a blanket it was certainly because no one had mentioned the purpose of a blanket, and gee whiz, if ya can’t get it explained when you stay after class and ask – I’m not sure how you’ll ever know, but I digress.

        I went home and tried sitting up on a blanket. Due to my hip injury it was a painful configuration. So I tried two blankets – worse. Finally I sat up on a little ledge about 6 inches off the ground, so painful I thought I would die. . . went back to the studio and asked a second teacher how to do the pose, and She said, “I don’t think this is the pose for you right now.”

        so you can see why I’m a little leery of teaching teachers even MORE psychology. Most of ‘em don’t have a PhD like you. And too many are already bullies.

        • Carol Horton

          I guess it all comes down to the quality of the training, whatever the substance may be. My view would be that there are so many pop culture ideas about “ego” etc. floating around that the scenario you describe most likely doesn’t have anything to do with a dedicated study of that or any other psychological concept. It’s just a part of our normal vocabulary (particularly in yoga, where a lot of uninformed ideas about shutting down your ego are floating around).

          Also, I don’t want to get overly hung up on the YTT piece. That is really only one indicator of the larger field. I agree that one can only teach so much about anything in 200 hours, and safely teaching the physical basics of asana must take up the bulk of that time. Really, I am more concerned with North American yoga culture as a whole. My sense is that there is a lot of resistance to thinking into what’s happening in any sort of informed psychological terms, and that this is a problem.

          • http://www.meetup.com/Mountain-Communities-Yoga kumari de Silva

            Agreed –

            perhaps a better way to include this sort of knowledge would be certified continuing education, or even uncertified (by Yoga Alliance) workshops and websites like 90Monkeys that provide professional tools for professional teachers – or

            something like being able to get a Bachelor of Arts in Yoga, so that over 4 years one could take courses in asana, teaching, philosophy etc. I know, that sounds crazy, but not any crazier than a BA in History or Medieval French Lit, right?

          • Carol Horton

            Yes, something more “outside of the box” might work better. I certainly wouldn’t mandate teaching psychology in a YTT, because, as you point out, teaching it poorly could easily be much worse than not teaching it at all. Really I am simply interested in seeing some sort of productive education and discussion develop in whatever sorts of forums might work. And at least having an available resource so that those who are interested will know where to go.

  • Veena Grover

    Carol,one of the best article about yoga philosophy,tradition,culture,guidance & safety features of teaching Yoga is presented beautifully.Thanks for sharing. Blessings, Veena

  • Misa Derhy

    Thanks Carol, it is amazing article. I agree with you the yoga teacher education need to shift to more subtle level then asanas, flow and peak pose. A lot is already done, but we are not really prepared for the breakout that sometimes happen in the class, especially small and intimate group, and I am not even speaking about retreats. Looking forward your next sharing. Misa

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