By Ed Staskus
In grade school there is always one kid in class who, when he has to stand up and give a book report, bumbles and stumbles around until it becomes obvious he hasn’t read the book, but the CliffsNotes, or maybe only skimmed the CliffsNotes. If he’s the class clown, it is a lot of fun. If he’s just a schlemiel in the back, it’s sad.
In college or university, you either know your stuff, the stuff your major is all about, or you don’t. There’s no use reading the CliffsNotes, because the teachers have seen it all before, and they just give you an F and move on. They don’t care if you’re an idiot, or not.
If you are at a trade school, forget it, there are no CliffsNotes. The diploma they give you is fitting and necessary. Then when you have your plumber’s toolbox in hand you have to fix the toilet. If you don’t get it right, there is a flood and instead of an F you get fired.
If you are a yoga teacher and you get it wrong, you could hurt somebody, put them in the hospital, or even, if you get it hopelessly wrong, kill somebody. The human body is supple and strong, but it can go haywire. That’s why yoga teachers have a grave responsibility. A plumber can replace a toilet, but yoga teachers can’t replace a life gone down the drain.
Pierre Bibby, chief executive of the British Wheel of Yoga, the national governing body in the UK, says, “Yoga is not bad for you, but bad teaching is.” Bad teaching is fiddling while you work.
CliffsNotes, which used to be called Cliffs Notes, are study guides. They used to only come as pamphlets, but nowadays they are online, too. It got started in 1958 when a Nebraska man and his wife set up shop in their basement. Six years later they were selling a million of their shorthand guides a year. Not reading the real thing turned out to be real big business.
Thirty years later a media and events company paid $15 million for CliffsNotes, pumped up the volume, got on the internet, and produced 60-scond videos about the major literary works of the world. “CliffsNotes lives on today,” they say, “as part of the global learning community, and its mission of changing lives by fostering passionate, curious learners.”
Sixty second bursts of passion, living on crumbs.
If you have a passion for plumbing, welding, or pipefitting, it takes considerably longer than an infomercial to fulfill your passion. It takes a long time. The reason is does take years is that there is no fooling around with those trades.
Like Abraham Lincoln said, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”
Becoming a plumber starts with about two years of training at a trade school. After finishing an apprenticeship, which usually takes three to five years, and passing an exam, you can become a journeyman. A journeyman is someone who has served an apprenticeship at a trade and is certified to work at it under another person.
Another three or four years as a journeyman gets you enough flush master experience to let you take the test to become a master plumber.
Welders attend a technical school or community college to learn their trade. Nobody wants a welder without certification because they work with extremely hot high-energy electric arcs. On-the-job experience is important. They customarily work several years as an apprentice. Certificate programs typically last up to two years. Some go right to work after that while others continue their education, pursuing degree programs in welding.
A pipefitter is somebody trained in organizing, assembling, and maintaining mechanical piping systems that are meant to withstand high pressure. The systems are usually industrial, including heating and cooling, and involve work with steam, ventilation, hydraulics, chemicals, and fuel.
They have to get it right so that nothing blows up.
Trade schools offer courses on pipe system design, safety, and tool use. Apprenticeships are four-year programs involving work full-time and learning the trade on the job. Apprentice pipefitters work about 2,000 hours a year under the supervision of experienced fitters.
Yoga has a different spin on things. Teacher training consists of some coursework in yoga history and philosophy, basic anatomy and physiology, and instructional techniques. Hands-on experience is gotten by observing teachers and helping teach classes. Students usually become certified in CPR since fitness centers often require the skill of their instructors.
Most teachers graduate with a 200-hour certificate. They may not be Maxwell “Agent 86” Smart, but they’ve missed it by that much, if not more. You’ve got to be quick on the uptake to miss becoming Maxwell.
Then it’s off to work we go. After the graduation ceremony, out in the workaday world, trying to make a living, networking with other teachers, getting a gig, distinguishing yourself, making yourself into a teacher your students like and respect and look to for guidance.
It is all well and good, but in many yoga studios there is always the new 200-hour Yoga Alliance-certified teacher who barely knows what they are doing. They are not simpletons, exactly, because they have invariably been into yoga for a while, taking classes, reading about the practice, and going to seminars. But when it comes to their body of skill and knowledge, it is bare bones, a skeleton not fleshed out with either learning or experience.
That’s a problem.
Some yoga moves, taught to beginners by beginners, are problematic if done wrong. William Broad, the science writer for the New York Times who wrote a book called “The Science of Yoga,” gathered evidence that some asanas can be risky business.
“This is not anecdotal, and they are not freak accidents,” he said. “Postures like the shoulder stand, in which you lie on your back and raise your legs into the air, and the plough, in which you lie on your back and put your feet over your head on the floor behind you, that are widely performed, can crank the neck around in a risky way.’”
Postures that reduce blood flow to the basilar artery can cause strokes in some people and can be dangerous. “If the clots that form go to the brain, you can have a stroke,” said William Broad. “And one in twenty people who have these vertebral artery problems can die.”
In 1972 Oxford University neurologist Professor Ritchie Russell wrote in the British Medical Journal that some yoga postures could cause strokes in young healthy people. The New England Journal of Medicine published an article in 2001 citing yoga as something that had the potential to provoke arterial damage.
What are the chances that a yoga teacher who has graduated with only five full-time weeks of training, with a 200-hour certificate, is going to be fully aware of the hazards of shoulder stand and upward bow and all the other upside poses? There is an outside chance, but who wants to bet the bank on an outside chance? Yoga teachers should be able to get to the bottom of everything they do, not be taken by surprise.
The Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine published a study in 2016 that revealed there were close to 30,000 yoga-related injuries that required emergency room visits from 2001 to 2014 in the United States. The rate of “I need to go to a hospital!” injuries per 100,000 people who practice yoga grew from 9% to 17%. There is no telling how many people got hurt and simply nursed themselves back to health at home.
“I see quite a bit of yoga-related injuries,” said Robert Chhabra, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Virginia Health System. “Mostly it’s overuse injuries like tendinitis and sprains.” He noted it was unusual for anyone to suffer a traumatic injury.
“You have to be smart about it, though” he said. “If a pose bothers you, don’t do it.”
There is a condition doctors call “yoga foot drop.” It results from staying in kneeling postures too long, which keeps oxygen from reaching a branch of the sciatic nerve that runs from the lower spine through the butt and legs. The nerve becomes temporarily deadened, causing considerable discomfort.
Yoga foot drop is rarely, if ever, mentioned in 200-hour trainings.
Experienced yoga teachers will tell you it is more important how a pose feels than how it looks. Inexperienced teachers often cookie cutter the class, trying to get everybody to look the same. Bikram Yoga classes were notorious for that approach. How you look in downward dog is far less important than how you feel. It is good if you are getting a stretch in your hamstrings. It is bad if you are getting a pain in your shoulders. It is good if your teacher can correct you at a glance. It is bad if the teacher has to think and think about it, trying to think what the CliffsNotes said.
It is terrific when teachers have the eyes of a hawk, spotting problems wherever and whenever they happen. 200-hour teachers are babes in the woods, however. That is bad if they are your teacher. Babes in the woods tend to bubble. If there was a hawk in the class, the hawk would hunt them down. That would be bad, but good at the same time.
Yoga isn’t meant to be competitive. It shouldn’t be, but it is an ambitious aggressive world we live in, since we are all competitive. Nobody wants to just be mediocre. “People push themselves too far,” said Mollie McClelland, a yoga teacher at the Alchemy Centre in London, England. “There are such huge egos in yoga that everyone wants to prove a point.”
Experienced teachers will slow it down. Inexperienced teachers are slow on the uptake and will encourage it under the assumption that trying hard is a good thing. It isn’t always, but it’s always hard to tell anybody that. The practice shouldn’t have a killer instinct, especially if you want to stay injury-free.
“It’s a myth that it’s safe to do an asana without awareness and consciousness,” says Glenn Black, a yoga teacher with forty years under his belt. He has gone so far as to say that the “vast majority of people” should give up yoga since they are getting it all wrong.
The problem with many of the 200-hour, and even 500-hour, Yoga Alliance-certified yoga teachers out in the world on their first jobs is that they are like the kid in school who didn’t read the book but has to give a book report.
They want to hit a home run, but they are second-string. When it comes to playing hardball, they’re more likely to strike out, and when they do, everybody strikes out with them. Tenderfoot classes are loads of fun and enthusiasm, playlists booming, but they come up short.
Why do pipefitters train like it is life and death but yoga teachers train like it’s a game of schoolyard ball? Why don’t yoga teachers take the same pride of professionalism in what they do as do plumbers, welders, and pipefitters? They train for years. Yoga teachers train for weeks.
Pipefitters lay weld and cement pipes, joining them together. They install automatic controls for whatever is flowing through those pipes. Yoga teachers join body mind and spirit together. They would be better served if they were better equipped to do so, so the blood of the body flowed better, enlivening the mind and spirit.
Many teachers are well equipped to do their work, but it’s only because they have gained experience in the school of hard knocks, not at a trade school or formal apprenticeship. It’s hard to say what the attitude is in Ecuador, Russia, or India, but in the United States yoga teachers get a pass because making a buck at yoga is so ridiculously easy. Five weeks in and you’re good to go. In the land of the fast buck why bother going to the trouble of cracking the books when you can rake it in with a scratch pad of jargon?
Even fitness instructors, who many yoga teachers resemble, usually have a college degree in the field before they hang out their shingles.
The men and women running industries that need pipefitters aren’t amateurs at what they do and won’t stand for amateurs working for them. An unprepared fitter isn’t going to get anywhere, so they have to be well-prepared. An amateur teacher with a bouncy personality a good voice fit good-looking perky balanced and believable can get bosom buddy with their ambition without getting too deep-sea with yoga, at all.
Most people who go to studio classes are amateurs and don’t know the difference between a chakra and a chocolate bar. They deserve a pro, but too often get a greenhorn at the front of the class. Until the standards are upgraded, and yoga teachers are required to get more training, that is what they will keep getting.
Yoga classes aren’t nursery schools. When nursery rhyme-style teachers run the classes, it does a disservice to the practice. Short cuts are taking without thinking. Yoga is a thinking man’s game. It’s the get smart game. The well-spent hard-beaten path is always the easiest in the long run.
Yoga is a long path, not a buttercup. There is no racing to the finish line. It’s more like a big bolt torque, getting it snug, slow and steady, not the latest hip hop playlist gambol. It’s like mountain men tracking dinner, not snacks. There isn’t any nutrition in Ho Hos. The good better best yoga teachers are master craftsmen who have made themselves what they are. Theirs is the shingle on the door to look for, not the certificate from the College of CliffsNotes.
Photograph: Kaylin Oligino, a junior in the plumbing program at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, practices on an oil burner.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus