Criticism and praise in yoga classes

I teach a couple of Iyengar yoga classes at a donation-based Yoga for the People studio. Here, students attend on a drop-in basis, and most are unfamiliar with Iyengar yoga. Recently, a woman dropped in for the first time. With a decade-long background in vinyasa yoga, she was neither newbie nor expert, and I instructed and adjusted her accordingly.

Later, she thanked me and also admitted that my class was challenging for her ego. “[T]o deal with blocks and criticism!” she good-naturedly commented. (I’d instructed her to use a block in Trikonasana and adjusted her pelvis in the pose.) She said that “a lot of classes are all about praise and finding your own way into the pose, which feels good, but I also want to learn the proper way.”

I am rather baffled by teachers who give only praise. I certainly encourage my students when I see progress or sheer effort. But I see no reason to exclaim, “Beautiful!” again and again.

Beginners, especially, might be injuring themselves doing sloppy asanas. I cannot ignore students sitting slumped in Baddhakonasana (knees shooting straight up!) or struggling to reach the floor in standing poses. I intervene. I explain. I adjust. Eventually, some students can find their own way, but beginners are too busy trying to copy the teacher.

Advanced students, on the other hand, tend to welcome criticism. By then, one knows the major asanas and can perform them decently. But only the astute eye of a good teacher can help with “refining” a pose.

Ultimately I’m teaching the way I want to be taught. I want a teacher with high standards who understands my strengths and weaknesses and can provide constructive criticism. I want a teacher to give it to me straight. This applies to all types of learning. If I take a writing class, I’d rather have the teacher rip my work apart than to give me false hope. A teacher’s role is to teach, which requires honesty and rigor. One can correct and criticize with humor and compassion.

Teaching yoga involves both criticism and praise. The key word is “both.”

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13 thoughts on “Criticism and praise in yoga classes

  1. I’m with you on this one – a good instructor should be doing both *constructively*.

    I like to write and I like to do yoga. What I like to see in both is constructive critisim. Nothing irritates me more than when I ask someone to read a manuscript and they hand back and say, “I liked it!”, which leaves me with no way to improve. Conversely, I’ve had a friend who’s handed back manuscripts and not had one constructive thing to say because it wasn’t written they way SHE wanted it written.

    When I lead a class, I try and keep my ‘critisim’ light, so it comes across as a recommendation for improvement, trying to draw more attention to body awareness than a “you are doing this wrong!”. No, it’s just not quite right….

    On occasion (I lead vinyasa/ashtanga classes) I will tell the whole class, “we’re doing technique today, I’m starting to see some bad habits creeping in and let’s nip those in the bud.”

    Ah. So many factors when recieving an adjustment or giving an adjustment. So very interesting.

    Thanks!

  2. Excellent points. The yoga world does not need anymore free-for-all-feel-good blather. Yoga isn’t for the faint of heart! When you step on the mat it’s time to set the ego aside and truly acknowledge who you are and what your body is capable of at that very moment. I let my students know that each of our poses will look a bit different, but we’ll all have key points the same (ex: straight legs/trunk in trikonasana, but how much height you need under the down arm will change). Like you, I want someone to let me know where I need to continue to work and help bring awareness to those ‘dull’ areas in my body. And I want to provide that to my students, otherwise, why should I bother teaching? They may as well just watch a video instead.

  3. I think it’s the difference in teaching styles east v. west. I study in India, teachers don’t put up with any BS there. I hear that martial arts is taught differently here than in the East. People want to be catered to.

    I look at it as the difference as to how teaching is done now compared to when I was coming up. Now every kid gets a certificate just for participating. Everyone is a “winner.”

    No one is supposed to get their feelings hurt anymore. Everything is light and love. Well, that’s not what life is about. That’s not the real world.

    I praise and critique and let students know that how they are is how they are, but there are some things that are universal.

    1. P.S.

      A reader tweeted this about my latest blog post, but it is true for your post, Spy:

      “Yoga is not about complacency or self-congratulation. It’s about challenging your body, mind, & heart!”

      word.

  4. Hi all!

    I’ve noticed small injuries and awkwardness in certain parts of my body (my right inner knee, my left hip etc), which I think are the result of bad habits & pushing too far.

    Alignment & integrity is exactly what I need to focus on at this point in my practice.

    It’s our inclination to want to focus on what you’re good at, the poses you like, where you feel like a success.

    But it’s a completely different experience to go to a class with the intention of being open to correction, rather than wanting a self – esteem boost.

    This has given me lots to think about in my approach to practice.

    Thanks Yogaspy!

  5. i will agree here, but also note that i haven’t seen a lot of the other side… the pure congratulations without notes for improvement (either physical or verbal assists). glad i haven’t, too. even in vinyasa classes, there is always room for assists!

  6. For me, ‘learning yoga’ is all about the criticism and my ability to adapt it. You don’t learn much from being praised – praise is a tool for building the confidence that you need for other situations. Some students enjoy corrections and criticism, and some have a hard time dealing with it (low self confidence, resisting change…)
    If I were a yoga teacher I would closely observe a student’s reaction to my remark. If they smile, enjoy the attention, and are willing to work with it then they don’t need much praise – they are already ‘working’, “immune to the pairs of opposites”. But if they frown, close themselves up, or put on a polite smile then they might have an issue with being criticized. Then they may benefit from praise, to balance the criticism.

  7. I totally agree with the article. Feedback is the best way to help us grow as practioners. I know that I have some tendencies and with someone observing me, they will be able to offer some constuctive feedback. The yoga classes at the gym where I sub for focuses a lot on class size and numbers than teaching a well rounded and safe yoga class. This bothered me when I first started teaching and continues to bothered me to this day. I can sub a class and totally observe that these students need to be in a fundamentals class.

  8. I teach mainly vinyasa but with an Iyengar bent…. always adjust and improve but I see beauty in every person’s pose… and I say BEAUTIFUL… because when you do, people BLOSSOM. They allow you to adjust, they allow you to enter their space because you have acknowledged their practice in a positive fashion. It is just like parenting…. positive reinforcement and help when needed.
    Love your blog!

  9. I just had a yoga class where it seems praise is given out and it seems to always be to the people who are good at yoga. The praise that is given is just a name and beautiful pose. Makes me wonder what I am doing wrong or not getting as I never receive any feedback and I also feel given praise out makes for a competitive class.

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