We are at a time in history when teachers of movement rise and fall with fitness fads and trends. The thousands of followers, the celebrity endorsements, the sponsors have made fitness business really interesting- really weird and also kinda scary to me (as a health care professional).
I have noticed in the past 2 decades, a steep rise in how unsafe the average person’s movement practice has become. A lot of my young clients are doing extreme versions of safe workouts- lifting becomes cross fit, yoga becomes bikram- and there is a huge cost. Massive injuries, loss of social support, even losses in careers and scholarships. Meanwhile many of my 80+ year old clients are cruising (in the best way)- living injury free continuing with the daily walks they have done for 60 years.
I am curious about how fitness trends come into fashion- how and why do we all jump on board? And the biggest question- whose advice are we following? And why? How healthy is their relationship with their own physical body?
Back in 2019 I journeyed to a retreat for a yoga training with my teacher’s teachers. I went in to the trip with the goal of deepening my yoga practice, and learning more about the lens of sequencing a yoga class for students. This was quite a gamble as I had never studied under the teachers previously- and I tend to be a selective consumer of education. Even when I was in graduate school, I would check out the text for a course from the library and look it over, before going all in to purchase a new or used version.
I was considering pursuing more yoga teaching hours beyond my basic 200 hour certification, and I understood the substantial financial and time investment it would take.
Though some aspects of yoga study can almost be vacation-like ( opportunities for hikes in beautiful settings, hot springs, massages) the course was not without sacrifice. At the time, all of my income came from my small business. Taking a week off for training meant that I was knocking off 25% of my income for the entire month. Since I am still on the hook for students loans, and office rentals, these losses in income are super impactful. Not to mention the cost of travel, car, accommodations, food and the course itself.
The financial commitment on my end was almost more than I could afford, yet I wanted to support and make a stake in my continued learning.
The retreat center and practice space ended up being idyllic. Beautiful natural environments surrounded a clean and relaxed space.
Yet as soon as the training started, I was met with some basic behavior that really dampened my hopes.
One of my friends introduced me to one of the teachers, and upon seeing me in my spandex yoga clothes, selected so that things would not shift as I changed my relationship to gravity, she jutted out her jaw, flexed her mid back, balled her hands into fists (imagine the typical posture to demonstrate a primate) and said “You look strong”. Her verbal intentions, whatever they may have been, were overshadowed by the extreme nature of her non-verbal communication- mimicking me to look like I had no neck and spinal kyphosis.
Looking back, I don’t think I was offended, I think I felt that shame that you feel when someone has marked you as being different than what is expected- or allowed? Of somehow not measuring up- or in this case, measuring too much!
The focus on body “shapes” went on during the course of the training, when the same teacher brought different sized students (all women) to the front of the class, labeling them by different aryuvedic dosha types (vata, kapha, pitta), and asked us to observe the shape of their bodies while they were in a simple asana.
I know very little about aryuveda, but I think dosha is more inclusive than only the shape of your body. I recall feeling for the women, all of whom appeared athletic and super similar to me, as they breathed deeply in their postures.
And yet later during the week, one of the students who was also an orthopedic physical therapist, asked a great question about biomechanics during a breakdown of cueing in an asana.
The same teacher that had made the monkey like shape with her body when she met me, went on to shut down this student’s question- questioning the questioner’s reason for asking questions. “You need to ask yourself, why am I asking this? Can I be more open to new information?”
I had actually been wondering the same question, and was delighted when someone else voiced it. I was bummed the teacher chose to put a limit on what she would respond to.
I was not a teacher of adults at the time. I had primarily taught youth athletes in group settings. But I have always been wary of teachers who deflect inquiry. I really believe there is no such thing as a dumb question- we are all at different phases in our inquiry. Sometimes as a teacher, a question might track class off course a bit- and there are a ton of ways to handle this. A simple- "I don’t know"- or "let's talk about that after class" can offer a lot of space without also shaming the student for being curious .
Needless to write, on the car and plane ride home I decided I would not pursue further study with this group. As I reflected on my own disappointment, I wondered about the other participants experience. How was the class for them? Did any of them see or experience the same questionable behavior? Did they internalize the cues given around body shape? Did they feel ashamed for having questions?
We often look to teachers to help proffer experiences or insights we might not glean on our own. Fitness instructors have been elevated to celebrity status for their results in reshaping bodies, in leading fitness movements. But what are the underlying messages around these movements we might be participating in? What are their underlying beliefs about human bodies? About women's bodies?
Are our teachers offering themselves as omnipotent gurus? Are they developing a cult? Are they encouraging extreme behaviors or beauty ideals? Are their fundamental teachings arising from a place of self-compassion? And are they encouraging autonomy around decision making?
In thinking about what makes a healthful student experience (for myself) there are several points I look for in a teacher. Here is the best list I can compile:
1) An instructor has clear insight that is not predicated on fear or shame, and also clear boundaries around their insight.
My awesome PT mentors do not offer me advice on nutrition or yoga. The ability of a teacher to know their limits is crucial for safety.
2) Someone who lives what they teach
I often tell the story of how my mentors are frugal and low key- they drive cars from the 1980s, they have clothing that is well used and repaired, but they will throw down thousands on the ergonomically best chair for their posture.
3) A teacher who is more interested in hearing from me than expounding ideas
4) A teacher who holds their dogma lightly- if at all
The sign of a teacher that I want to follow, is that they are a constant learner. They are constantly composting their ideas- evolving beyond ideas, and incorporating new concepts. Can a teacher move beyond their perspective? This is important work.
5) Classes must be economically feasible
There can be an elitism to movements practices. I had grown up scrimping and saving in order to surf and snowboard. My first time snowboarding, I borrowed gear from a friend’s brother, and used scotch guard on a pair of jeans I had. I recall, in graduate school, taking one of my Latina friends snowboarding and her looking around and marveling- “geez, I am the only non-white person here!”
A teacher that does not offer sliding scale opportunities for people living under financial hardship is a red flag to me
6) Movement Free of Objectification
As women, we receive messages daily on the right-ness or wrong-ness of our bodies. Our muscles or lack thereof. Our thinness or fatness. Our curves or lack of curves. By the time we as women get to adulthood, there is not one area of our body that has not been picked apart by someone or some concept of another. Hearing movement teachers continue to engage in the objectification of our physical bodies makes me a little crazy. Can we go beyond the limitation of moving to look a certain way, and instead orient around the felt sense of our movement experiences?
There is one thing I have learned after all of my sports and all of my study, and that is- there is no guru. There is no one, singular answer to movement practices. No one will ever have or be able to give you a solid answer. You will get pieces, that you will knit together to create an understanding for yourself. And as the physical body changes, and as science evolves, hold your beliefs lightly as your perspective and practice will have to evolve to continue to be effective.
What are some of the values that are non-negotiable in your relationship with your teachers? And what are some clues that let you know that it is time to move on from a teacher or set of teachings?
I would love to hear your thoughts.
Until next time, happy moving!
Dogs are the best- no shame in relishing a cheeseburger while donning nothing save for her collar