Flowers need not be flowery

Wow. Despite the ostensible demise of traditional journalism, the Times (which in the USA can mean only The New York Times) still has clout. One day, John Friend and Anusara yoga are merrily trotting along. The next day, boom! Everyone has an opinion about him, about the growing commercialism of yoga, about worldwide mega tours, about modern yoga’s authenticity, about “feel-good” words and effective teaching.

When I wrote that I dislike “flowery” language, I essentially meant that I hate phoniness and showiness. An authentic teacher (a “deep person,” I might’ve said back in college) need not state the obvious. She need not wax poetic about her affinity for yoga. She need not call her students “lovely” or tell them to “find the beauty that’s inside you.” In fact, she might focus simply on asana alignment. But through her careful attention and touch, through her straight talk and real-life stories, the effect is far greater than any “feel-good” words. In such teachers, there is no floweriness, but there are flowers in the teaching.

If you’re clueless about what I’m talkin’ about, read a bunch of yoga-teacher bios and I guarantee you’ll find many that include the words “love” and “beautiful” (or “passion” or “grace”) in them. (Imagine a professor, a physician, or even a psychotherapist writing such a bio.) Or attend a random class at a mega studio (click here for my posts on the mega studio in my town) and you might, as I once did, hear a 20-something teacher read semi-philosophical passages from a book, rave about the “kula” (community), and then treat the crowd to a lengthy chant. Yawn.

Bear in mind, I’m not targeting Anusara yoga now (in fact, with my Iyengar bent, some Anusara teachers might well resonate with me). I’m just explaining why I dislike “flowery.” Maybe due to my background as a writer, I prefer more “show” than “tell.” A teacher needs to strike me as, well, deep. If they lack a smidgen of gravitas, it’s hard for me to listen to “feel-good” words without rolling my eyes.

Language is up my alley. The right phrase (a sentence that sings!) is delightful to me. But words are cheap, as they say. Sure, any yoga teacher can expound on the yamas and niyamas. But which ones actually exemplify those ideals?

That’s why most teachers should stick solely to teaching asana, already a major responsibility. That’s why, if a yoga method promotes “feel-good” language, it might or might not work. That’s my take, anyway.

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17 thoughts on “Flowers need not be flowery

  1. I understand your point in this article – basically, that actions speak louder than words – and I agree. I do take issue though, with this part: “hear a 20-something teacher read semi-philosophical passages from a book, rave about the “kula” (community), and then treat the crowd to a lengthy chant. Yawn.” and the tone I’m hearing from it.

    What is it exactly that disturbed you in this instance? Is it the teacher’s age, which you mentioned first? Or the “raving” about the kula, or the chanting?

    Or maybe it was just the general feeling of the class you disliked. I understand that – some classes just “click” with me while others do not.

    But I find it hurtful (as a 20-something yoga teacher in training) when people are so dismissive of a teacher after getting to know her through one hour-long class, or dismissive of her ability to teach based on one experience.

    Living the yoga and being a good role model for students is indeed important. But I urge you to accept that the discussion of “light” and “grace” and other things that you deem “phony”…might indeed be extremely genuine and heartfelt to many.

    1. Apologies. Good point (and point taken). No offense intended.

      Hmm, as I recall, I actually enjoyed the physical part of the vinyasa class and harbored no ill will toward the teacher. I just thought the “other stuff” was over the top (too much). It was not necessarily her age. Perhaps it all seemed too contrived, like a performance. Perhaps it was the overall vibe of a mega class. I mean… do others really find community just because someone calls it that?

      During my first years of yoga in the SF Bay Area, I attended classes once or twice weekly with the same teacher and longtime classmates (in a small class). There, I felt camaraderie. Most of us were simply classmates, not out-of-class friends, but in that setting, we saw our practices develop and cheered each other on. In a come-and-go mega studio, I might feel neutral toward classmates but is there really community? So perhaps I was impatient with the touchy-feely stuff.

      Jamie, thanks for forcing me to rethink my opinions.

      1. We don’t have mega studios in my little part of Illinois, although what you speak of reminds me of the feeling you get practicing yoga at a gym. This used to be the bulk of my practice, and I agree that it was unfulfilling and empty in a certain way.

        I now practice not in a studio or a gym but in a wellness group with a fabulous teacher. The class requires enrollment and the camraderie has been a delightful new experience for me.

        And I also agree that there is a certain authenticity which must be present for a teacher to be effective. If it’s not, it doesn’t matter what they say, it feels like a shirt that just doesn’t fit quite right.

        : )

  2. Like you, I’ve often wished some instructors would stick to asanas and not regale me with their personal philosophies. I also instinctively cringe when I hear too much “flowery” new age language about grace and power and community.

    But I wonder, as I read your post, if you might be lumping flowery language and philosophy together in a way that does a disservice to the latter. While I am often impatient hearing a teacher’s philosophical musings and details of the food poisoning she endured the night before (while she has us in downward dog!), one of the reasons I like yoga more than, say, working out at the gym, is precisely because it has philosophical underpinnings.

    I *do* want to know about that side of yoga–not to the exclusion of the physical side, but as an enriching addition. And yes, if the teacher lives those precepts, all the better. But she can introduce us to them even if she’s still struggling (like the rest of us) to live them fully. It’s like how therapists can give people the tools to be more self-aware, even if they themselves aren’t paragons of self awareness. And speaking of therapists, if you think they forgo flowery new-age language in their bios, you haven’t read the ones I’m reading!

    1. As I wrote in my “Why Anusara?” post, “I can appreciate dharma talks and philosophical lessons.” I often enjoy when teachers share a tidbit from personal life or connect yoga sutras to the pose we’re practicing. And I don’t mind imperfection in the speaker either!

      Alas, it is hard to blog/comment/write an op-ed piece without generalizing. So, I agree that some flowery speakers might be brilliant thinkers and teachers, who take asana to the next level by their words. I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about the ones who spout off words in a “yoga teacher voice”;-)

  3. “But I find it hurtful (as a 20-something yoga teacher in training) when people are so dismissive of a teacher after getting to know her through one hour-long class, or dismissive of her ability to teach based on one experience.”

    unfortunately, that’s what people do. the fact of the matter is, just like salespeople, as teachers, we have one shot to impress a new student, that’s just the way it is the real yoga teaching world. if we don’t totally turn someone off, they return.

    and I have to agree with Spy about the age of the teacher. I’ve been teaching almost 9 years and am over 50, and have some heavy “life experience.” I really don’t want to hear someone half my age tell me things from yoga books or something they just learned yesterday. Knowledge comes from books, wisdom comes with age (well, at least hopefully.) As an older yoga studio owner who lives in NYC told me, she said she really doesn’t want to hear the young Jivamukti studio teachers talk about yoga philosophy, obviously repeating what they’ve heard from David LIfe and Sharon Gannon. her remark to me about that was, “they have some living to do before they can do that.”

    1. At what age then, is one “wise enough” to teach? Is it 39? 50? Different for every person?

      Naivete knows no age limits and a yoga teacher in her 20s may have just as many gifts to offer as an older, wiser teacher. They are just different gifts. And sorry if that language is too flowery, but it’s how I speak, and how I spoke before I came to yoga. : )

      My teacher is in her late 50s, and I feel we relate very well together. We are in different life stages but our relationship is one of mutual respect. She certainly is not dismissive of me for not being “wise” enough to be a teacher, and neither of us pretend we have learned all there is to learn.

      I believe you are unnecessarily narrowing your scope of people from whom you can learn, by closing yourself off to those of a certain age. But, respectfully, I suppose that’s your prerogative.

  4. As another 20-something yoga teacher who has been fascinated by yoga philosophy, I think it is unfair that 50+ people think they cannot learn from us. I have life experience as well – different than someone older than me, and not as many years, and I have a ton to learn from those older than me, but I have experiences.

    But I agree that just adding a quote because that is what yoga teachers *should* do, is useless. When yoga is taught from the heart, whether with flowery language or personal stories, or just a passion for asana, then it is going to convey all that yoga has to offer. I think yoga teachers do us all a disservice when they learn only asana and choose not to live a yoga life. When we all choose to learn from each other, we can create a true kula/community, and yes, I hope that one day we can, love and gratitude along the way.

  5. First, I apologize for offending any 20-somethings…I knew that whatever I said would piss off someone. of course, we all can learn from each other no matter the age and in varying degrees.

    However, I was young once and in fact, thought I would never live to see 21, that was my life. And all I can say is I wish I knew then what I know now. I stand by what I said about wisdom coming with age.

  6. I’m a 20 something (not a teacher), but I have to agree with YS and Linda. One of the most valuable forms of wisdom we can gain is life experience, and we mostly get that by growing older.

    Why be offended by the notion that someone who is twice your age probably has more experience that you, and thus more insights to offer? It’s probably easier for a 50 year old to symphatise with and advise a 25 year old because (s)he’s already been there. (S)he can teach out of experience. The other way around seems more difficult to me.

    That doesn’t mean that 20 somethings can’t be good teachers. I know a few that are fantastic at what they do, especially because they are well aware of their strengths and limits.

  7. I don’t mind flowery language as long as it really sustains philosophy and doesn’t come up just because that’s what a yoga teacher does.

    The teacher I’ll be training with as of next month uses flowery language, and although I’ve never been know to be a Care Bear (far from it), this language speaks to me because I can feel it coming from her heart, it’s not something she’s making up because she has to. And now I am the one using flowery language, oh well…

  8. As a 20 something yoga practitioner and teacher. I go to classes that I enjoy immensely because of the flow itself and the use of flowery language, and sometimes I am turned off by those same things because the teacher seems to be trying too hard to be philosophical. It all boils down to what one is looking for. Another point, wisdom does come with age, and it also comes from life experiences also. You would be surprised at the number of 20 somethings who have had life experiences that they can speak from. This isn’t the first time that I’m hearing people talk about 20 something teachers without life experiences trying to give snippets of advice, doing the chanting thing, or the quote thing in class, it could be from the heart or it could be an act, its up to you to use your perceptive powers to tell the difference. But do consider that the whole “20 something teacher” thing comes off as condescending and discouraging, and I don’t think that’s what we are about.

  9. YogaSpy here. I must clarify: While I do believe that “age matters,” I actually wrote “20-something” merely as a shorthand description. I preferred not to describe by race/ethnicity, looks, height/weight, etc. (Can you imagine the flak if I did describe by such attributes?)

    My main point was the seemingly throwaway touchy-feely-ness, which folks of any age can adopt. If that teacher had struck me as, well, real, I’d have had no complaints. In fact, I enjoyed her vigorous vinyasa sequences!

    Besides, what is “flowery” anyway? We probably all have different definitions.

  10. I don’t take offense when folks older than me automatically think that I am not wise at my 20-something age. Most do not know until I tell them that I am in my twenties. As soon as they find out, then all of a sudden, it’s, “You’ll learn” or “You’ll see when you get older”. That’s fine. I honestly believe in old souls and folks who are born with a certain wisdom just naturally that they have not gained with age. I agree that age brings experience and we are supposed to learn wisdom with the experiences but I have enough 50+ people in my life to know that this is not necessarily the case. That being said . . . I have to agree about not really digging the “flowery” language of yoga. I think that is what turned me off to yoga earlier on . . . I was introduced to Yoga in a serious way through a Crunch DVD . . . pure asana with a tiny touch of “sap” at the end. And I much prefer “no-extra” yoga because if the language gets too pretty, I also start involuntarily rolling my eyes. So I guess I really agree with this post.

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