What do we do if asked to teach a style of yoga that is not our preferred practice?I recently moved to a small town and, despite concern that I would not find work, was offered a teaching position at a beautiful studio. I was offered All-Levels Ashtanga classes and it is expected that I will guide the traditional Primary Series. Although I respect the tradition of Ashtanga Vinyasa, it is not my regular practice, which is better described as Hatha Flow or Vinyasa Flow.
In these classes there are many beginners as well as many experienced students. This initially presented some challenges: I felt that within the Primary Series there lacked time to explain alignment, I felt the structure of the sequence restricted my creativity, and felt torn between the tradition of Ashtanga and my own lessons in biomechanics and alignment. Some students expressed desire for an uninterrupted flow (the traditional series) yet I witnessed a lot of frightening alignment, bound to lead to injuries. Other students told me that the practice was too fast. If I veered away from the Series, adding a new posture or taking more time with explanation, some of the more experienced students would continue on with the Series, disregarding my instruction.
I felt conflicted. I began to feel that I was not teaching with satya, truthfulness. For one thing I did not feel completely qualified to teach the Primary Series. Furthermore, I did not feel I was teaching from my heart or passing on the lessons from my teachers that had truly resonated with me. So what to do?
There are several things that keep me teaching these classes and exploring new ways of handling the situation. My love of yoga, all yoga, is paramount. Despite the differences in style and classification I believe that all yoga intends to lead us toward self-realization. Desikachar puts it well in The Heart of Yoga when he states, If we follow one direction in yoga as far as we can go, then it will lead us along all paths of yoga.? I am grateful to be teaching and had faith that there was a way, a compromise, a particular truth to be found. It took some time and diligence to find it.
I began attending the Ashtanga Mysore practice every morning in order to better understand the traditional practice. The teacher (who has now moved away) was well versed and offered a lot of insight and guidance. At the same time I maintained my own practice, which is influenced strongly by Iyengar and Anusara Yoga. This again presented some conflict, as there are strong differences in alignment principles and approaches to various asana. However, I felt if I was teaching Ashtanga classes I must understand the practice as best I could. From there I could make my own decision in how to instruct the postures.
I also spoke to various teachers and was given some valuable advice. Whether speaking to traditional Ashtanga, Anusara or Trinity teachers the underlying theme was this: as teachers we need to remain true to what we know and believe. We cannot please everyone in every class. There are students who will appreciate my classes and those who will seek teachers who speak to them. In trying to please everyone or change my teaching to that which I think is expected I will lose my integrity as a teacher. I will not seem authentic and my confidence will falter. It is valuable to explore what it means to stand in truth.
I believe that I came to this place in my teaching career for a reason. I was given this challenge to work with in order to make me a better teacher. It took some time but I feel I have found a way to work within the Ashtanga practice. I have come to understand and appreciate the practice more and I feel confident to take it where I want. I often explain at the beginning of class that I will guide students through the Primary Series but may stray away from time to time in order to incorporate new postures or greater understanding of alignment. If students have come to class specifically to follow the traditional sequence I welcome them to do so, to go where they are called. However, I encourage them to be aware of why they make that decision, as it is important to understand our reasons for doing things. And most importantly I encourage them to remain anchored to their practice by breath. If I teach something differently than the traditional Ashtanga approach I explain why I do so. For example, although the traditional counter posture for backbends is forward bends I suggest a twist in between which is gentler and less dramatic for the spine (thanks Trinity!). In standing in my truth I attract respect. I find that most students appreciate the lessons in alignment, the new postures and the creativity. And if they chose not to attend my classes, I wish them well on their yoga journey.