Forward Fold – Tales of a Yoga Trainwreck
For the last several years I’ve been delving further and further into living a healthy lifestyle, one that encompasses wellness through physical fitness and a healthy diet. I do a wide range of physical exercise, everything from P90X to running and hiking, with yoga really moving into the forefront as of late. Over the past six months I’ve been practicing 3 to 5 times a week and have actually set a long-term goal for myself of one day becoming a yoga instructor. As most of my yoga learning has been through DVDs and YouTube videos, the need for a good local instructor seems like the next logical step.
Recently, I took a Vinyasa yoga class at a local facility and, unfortunately, it was a disaster! My wife and I walked into a fairly full class, maybe 25 people, of which I was one of only two men. After a couple of moments of being seated on our mats, the instructor had us come to our feet, perform a forward bend into downward dog, plank, chaturanga, and then….cobra pose? From cobra pose she instructed us to “fold forward”, at which point I looked up to see what she meant which was apparently to lay face down, nose pressed into mat. I was a bit thrown off, this was my fourth yoga class and the first time I had ever encountered anything like this, I had never even seen this done in any of the dozens of videos I have tried. Okay, maybe she has a few variations. I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, but by the third and fourth consecutive time we did this I was beginning to grow a little concerned.
Several times early on in this calss we came to our feet and did several standing back bends, which she didn’t always call by name, sometimes only instructing us to “open and lift the heart”. Between all the cobras and standing back bends in such a short period of time, I was beginning to have a difficult time trusting her. About halfway through the class the really awkward moments began to happen. We had just done warrior one into a twist with our left leg forward, when she instructed us to do the same exact side, again. She caught herself and asked the class “did we just do this side”? Several people in the class spoke up and informed her of this error; she half apologized with a little lighthearted laughter and made the correction. After the second time she made a mistake like this I turned and looked at my wife who gave me a look of “WTF?”. Within the next 10 minutes, she made three of four more mistakes similar to this one, basically forgetting which side of a pose we had just done.
Okay, I can understand making a mistake like this, maybe once in a class, I suppose, even twice. But after the third and fourth time it’s obvious that this instructor is either: a.) very new to yoga instruction, b.) having a very bad day, c.) on drugs, or d.) all of the above.
Moving a little further into this quickly evolving yogic nightmare the instructor asked us to do a standing forward bend, grab our ankles, and then take four baby steps backwards, and then forward. Again, WTF?! A couple of moments later she instructed us to do a forward bend, grab the left ankle with the right hand, right angle with the left hand, and then twist to the left side looking under the left shoulder. This felt very unnatural to me, until the girl next to me spoke up notifying the class (and instructor) that “this only works if the left arm is over the right arm”, to which the teacher agreed. Again, WTF?
A little while later, she instructed us to do crow. A few minutes later, the music stopped playing, and she told us that we could “just do crow again if you’d like”, while she changed the music. Nearing an hour into this “guess which confusing pose we’re going to do next” Yoga disaster, I noticed a couple of students rolling up their mats and leaving, and my wife and I used this opportunity to leave, as well.
After the class, we started dissecting all the problems with this class, which went far beyond just a couple of mistakes about which side of the pose we had just done. With only a few exceptions the class was halfway into a pose before she would actually call it by name, many times not even putting a title with the pose. Because of this, many participants of the class had to keep looking up to see what to do, myself included. She didn’t recommend any modifications, either. Her breathing instructions – inhale, now exhale seemed too close together, didn’t flow well with the movements of the class, and sometimes conflicted with the poses. For instance, when we did tabletop to cat pose she told us to inhale while we were pushing our backs towards the ceiling.
I know that every yoga instructor is going to have their own style, but for a basic Vinyasa flow class we didn’t even do some of the most basic poses like warrior two or three or chair pose, let alone a single balance pose. Because of the way she gave instructions (or lack thereof), proper body alignment was very difficult throughout much of this class. There was no “stack the shoulders”, “square the hips”, “lengthen both sides of the torso”, “press your lower back into the mat”.
While I am fairly new to yoga and have learned primarily through instructional videos, I do have a good understanding of the basics and consider myself a beginning intermediate. This was my fourth yoga class with an actual instructor. My first yoga class was last summer, and a great one. The instructor was spot on, exceptional. Two of the other classes I took, all at different studios, were okay, not as good as my first class, but not terrible. This class was frighteningly bad! I left the class frustrated and feeling like I didn’t even get in a good workout, even though the back of my head and neck ached. I am convinced that I could have walked to the front of that class at any point and done a better job just winging it than this “instructor”.
At one point midway through the class I remember turning to my wife and softly saying “do you want to go?” She shook her head no, let’s stay. Looking back, I realized that if we had left only a short way into this class it would’ve disrupted the energy in the room, it could have thrown the teacher even further off balance and made it even more difficult for those who stayed. But by staying, we did some temporary damage to our bodies, as my wife also had neck and back pain after this class. Aside from the overall lack of flow and commonsense poses, this was no doubt due to the constant looking up required to figure out what the hell was going on. I wonder how many other people at this class had some unnecessary pain and discomfort because of this bad instruction.
How does this happen? Out of my four yoga class experiences I’ve witnessed a wide range in the quality of instruction – one top-notch instructor, two middle of the road instructors (one who was actually reading many of his instructions verbatim from a notebook), and one instructor who had no business leading a class. Although I left this class with a bad taste in my mouth, I did learn some things and was eventually inspired and empowered. I learned that a yoga class can actually be dangerous and can cause injury to its participants. I learned the importance of finding a great instructor, and that; perhaps one should do some research before jumping into a class, cold. The absence of some obvious essentials reinforced the need for instructors to provide great attention to detail in a yoga class. And through this difficult experience I now feel even more inspired to continue my search for a great instructor.