Yoga Chicago / Yoga Musings

The Measure of a Yogi (and a Yoga Class)

The other day, I experienced one of those “ah-ha” moments when you realize that something fundamental has shifted in your yoga practice. I was chatting with another student (let’s call him “Bob”) in the men’s locker room, and I asked him about a teacher who had recently been subbing for a class that we both frequent. I hadn’t had a chance to try this teacher yet so I was curious. Bob’s answer was surprising, to say the least. By the end of our brief conversation, I had the strange feeling that we were simply talking past each other.

Despite the outward similarities in our practices, Bob’s and my respective views on yoga couldn’t be more different. Bob’s assessment of the substitute teacher amounted to a complaint that she didn’t “do enough L 2-3 stuff” — i.e., she didn’t incorporate enough advanced poses into her class. It hadn’t actually occurred to me, until this very conversation, that the class we were discussing was rated at any level. In fact, it’s been a very long time since I’ve evaluated classes in terms of their advertised difficulty or skill level. To me, these labels are usually meaningless.

For starters, difficulty ratings like “Level 2-3″ tend not to correlate very well with the actual difficulty of the class (measuring that purely in terms of physical strenuousness, of course). But more importantly, they also describe the class in terms of something that is not, imho, the true measure of a yoga class. Whether or not a class is packed with handstands and insane backbends has little to do with how beneficial the class is for students. Unless you do yoga purely for the exercise (and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that), a good yoga class is going to involve more than a lot of sweat. I won’t go into a whole tangent on what should be in a good yoga class, but my old teacher probably put it best when he said, “If you’re not breathing mindfully, you’re not doing yoga; you’re just doing Indian calisthenics.”

As a yoga practitioner who’s been at it for over a decade, I find that the main criterion by which I evaluate a yoga instructor is his or her knowledge. I’m not talking about the sort of performative knowledge that takes the shape of pontification and spiritual jargon. I’m talking about the quiet knowledge that comes from maturity, a seasoned yoga practice, and a life that bears the hallmarks of a commitment to mindful/yogic living, as opposed to a fitness routine or trendy lifestyle.

It wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time — actually, not so long ago — I was always looking for that “burn” in my yoga classes. If a teacher couldn’t bring it, I was gone. But nowadays, I find that I have different (not necessarily lower) expectations of what I get from yoga. Maybe it’s just a sign of my transition into middle age, but my goal these days is to practice yoga in a sustainable way that provides a backbone to my everyday life. I need and rely upon great teachers to help me on this journey. And great teachers can be found in many places, not just in those classes marked “Level 2-3″.

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