Is a bad yoga class still pretty good?

Recently at the gym, I spied on a yoga-type class (it turned out to be “lyrical jazz”) in the adjacent dance studio. The teacher was doing what resembled Upavistha Konasana, facing a wall-to-wall mirror. Behind her, a lineup of students tried to copy.

With her elbows grounded on the floor, the teacher lengthened her spine forward. Her students were obviously beginners. While they varied in flexibility, all were rounding their backs and one was obviously in distress (and, of course, totally oblivious).

I was waiting for the teacher to jump up and help her students. Instead, she continued in her own pose, going deeper, enjoying her own stretch. She was “taking” her own class!

My first reaction was exasperation toward both teacher and students, all college-aged, if that means anything to you. The students are getting a bum deal. They must be clueless! As for the teacher: What teacher? No one was truly teaching.

Then I recalled the aerobics-type classes I took long ago. (Such classes still exist: Kickboxing. Boot Camp. Butt Blaster. And what’s the deal with Zumba?) Back then I didn’t mind that the instructor stayed onstage, leading us through moves. It would’ve been weird if the instructor singled me out and tried to perfect my steps or improve my form. All I wanted was a workout.

Now, as an Iyengar student and teacher, I undoubtedly vouch for the personal touch in yoga classes. But I’m wondering if one can learn something in a big anonymous group. For those who are observant and coordinated, it’s probably possible to watch and copy. With a background in sports or dance or simply good kinesthetic awareness, one can probably sense whether a pose feels right. The keen ones probably end up reading about yoga and finding a studio.

But what about the general, sedentary public? Do hands-off, mediocre yoga classes have some value? Are they better than nothing?

Image: Hello Kitty in Upavistha Konasana from Cocktails & Corpse Pose blog

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11 thoughts on “Is a bad yoga class still pretty good?

  1. My yoga class in college was big and most people took it for PE credit, so it was pretty hands-off, though our instructor gave general tips and didn’t “take” his own class. I didn’t take a yoga class where the instructor actually corrected my poses personally until this year– it was great, but made me feel like I hadn’t been getting the most out of the poses I’d been doing for four years.

    So I guess for beginners, a “bad” yoga class can still be beneficial (depending on what kind of “bad” it is, I’m sure!). Mine was relaxing and made me sweat. But now that I know the alternative, I don’t know if I could go back.

  2. i like guidance and adjustments in class (when done respectfully and well).
    That said, Andrew and I were just chatting about the astronomical price of yoga classes and passes in our city today. A three month unlimited ashtanga pass at a local studio is going for 299$ (or 269$ if you purchase w a friend-woo). Honestly, I understand if you attend a class every day it pays off, but regardless that’s a lot of effing money for three months….
    It’s possible those university students could only afford “yoga-type” classes at the gym.

    (although boo the instructor for not helping her students out).

  3. EcoYogini, I am on the East Coast (US) and pay about 20$ for each 1.5 hr class, so 299 sounds like pretty good deal to me! What is the typical rate in your neck of the woods ?

  4. You are not going to get alignment cues, unless the teaching script calls for it. I learned nearly no alignment, taking nearly weekly classes for about 2 years. If they had treated me right at that STUDIO (yes it had been a studio), I still may have been learning (not much) there. Most of these teachers, with their for-the-most-part using the Jazzercise-like instructional mirror-image , taking-their-own-class method, luckily for me, were sequencing geniuses.

    I learned alignment elsewhere, in a style that featured it and had smaller classes. From that point my practice came really alive.

    With the help of dvds, used as reference sources only, and books and flash cards, I am now a happy home practitioner.

  5. Enjoying your blog. Been “lurking” for a while…

    It depends on what you are trying to get out of yoga. I have attended many “bad” classes because they were all that was available. Most attendees happily carried on through the class, unassisted, poor form and all, because they had never experienced a “good” class. I suppose if they are enjoying the class and don’t end up injured, there is value since they are off the couch.

    A “good” instructor told me that sometimes we have the most to learn from the instructors that we don’t like – meaning I shouldn’t leave a “bad” class with a bad attitude. After all, when we are on our mat, it is our practice and the experience shouldn’t be dictated by the person at the front of the room. This is easier said than done for any of us, but especially so for new practitioners. It seems that as yoga becomes more and more mainstream, with some teacher trainings being achievable in a matter of weeks, “bad” yoga is on the rise. Too bad!

  6. The adjustment issue is such a big debate, isn’t it? I would certainly be fairly cautious with a room full of college-age beginners – so many insecurity and body issues! However, I have always felt that “taking” your own class is a big no-no: even when hands-off, a teacher still needs to be attentive to students in case they are in distress or at risk of injury.

    I think gym classes can be just as good as any other class, within the parameters of reason – you don’t go to the gym for an intimate class, you go for a work out! As someone above mentions, there are good and not-so-good teachers everywhere.

    Although, recently I have been looking back at my own first forages into teaching and thinking of all the mistakes I made – taking my own class was one of them – and I feel a lot of compassion for new teachers. All the training in the world can’t replace experience, and there’s only one place to get that!

  7. I think the label “bad” is going to be different for each person and the style they prefer. That being noted, even a “bad” class can hold tidbits of wisdom. I think it’s a matter of awareness – taking what you want from class and leaving the rest if it doesn’t serve you.

    I have led classes from my mat – my ‘silence’ classes for example, where I do mininal cues and let people just feel the poses (astanga) without me yammering away for an hour and a half. Being a newer teacher (I’ve only been instructing 7 years), it agree it does take time to get comfortable cuing things backwards or remembering your sequence all while trying to watch a whole class. But yes, at some point an instructor needs to step off the mat and move around. As David Swenson so aptly put it, leading a class is NOT the time for YOUR practice.

    I also do minimal hands-on adjustments – a flow class just doesn’t lend itself to lots of one-on-one adjustments. By far, the bulk of my adjustments are verbal to the whole class. I’ve been thanked for doing this (at my YMCA) because people *are* embarrassed to be singled out and appreciate knowing that I was talking to them (so they think – I was probably talking to about 4 people at the same time). So, yeah, for an Iyengar person, this may be appalling. For a vinyasa person, a subtle reminder. For a Kundalini person, just plain odd.

    It just all…depends…

  8. One of my teaching venues is a YMCA. On my own mat, I am an Iyengar practitioner, taught by one of the best. I stress safety, alignment, awareness, and joy. I don’t take my own class. But I just can’t teach too deeply at the Y. I have backed off trying. I give low-volume (standing next to the person) verbal adjustments, or I get right next to the person and model the pose, having them put their feet exactly where mine are, etc. I do give tactile adjustments after asking permission. I never quite get the awesome respect we (my own classmates) give our teacher–people don’t come near enough when I demonstrate a pose, for example, then ask questions they would have seen the answer to; she would kill us for that :)). But in 3 years at the Y I can see the changes in form and brightness in my regular students; I can feel their growing energy and I know I’ve touched their lives through yoga. It’s very gratifying.

  9. But I didn’t answer your question, did I? 🙂
    I think the answer weighs to the side of yes. For the reasons we’ve all cited here.

  10. Hi. Great post and follow-up. I do lots of verbal cueing and some manual adjusts. However, I have been trained to work with people have experienced trauma and have been taught to avoid touch which can be a trigger. I too model the poses for them. And then repeat the cues again and again. I do touch but I have found that you need to be aware of the reaction to the adjusts. I’d rather see that calm look at the end of class and have people come, than have them do perfect poses but be uncomfortable. Thanks for the post!

  11. Hi,
    I own two health clubs, and have a deep dedication to yoga. I have been practicing for 20 years and teaching for 15. I think people respond to learning in different ways. Many people learn by sight, and as much as I want to walk around, I feel obligated to demonstrate. I give lots of verbal adjustments and if I don’t see changes, I will ask if it’s ok to touch. About 8 years ago a woman was doing down dog with out spreading her fingers and getting the whole palm down. I put my hand next to hers to show her what I wanted, and I must have touched her because she jumped up and yelled at me. Most yoga teachers I have encountered teach because they want to help people, it’s just impossible to make everyone happy. I found this blog because I always question if my approach is a good one. The previous posts were great. Thanks.

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