The element of risk

When was the last time you took an exam that mattered?

During my end-of-summer trip to California, an acquaintance asked about my training to be a certified Iyengar yoga teacher. I gave him the gist, describing how the training program, while international in scope, is small and selective, mentor-based, and lengthy.

And then there is assessment. To be certified, one must pass a national assessment, by an objective panel of senior teachers, of one’s practice and teaching. Put another way, one can fail. In many teacher-training programs, participation is enough!

I’ve experienced a couple of assessments as a “student,” and I can vouch for the seriousness of the affair. Assessment strikes me as both exhilarating and daunting; it ups the ante in our training, arguably for the better. I’m not claiming that exams are necessarily a good thing. Some folks are lousy exam takers. Some end up obsessing on the exam, missing the larger picture.

The element of risk

But isn’t the element of risk present in any important endeavor?

If you’re a trauma surgeon, overlooking one detail can kill a patient. If you’re a parent, your patience and attention are constantly tested. If you’re a competitive athlete, facing defeat is part of the game. If you’re a US Army Ranger, your whole job is about navigating danger. Even if you’re practicing yoga or meditation, you’re not quite relaxing, you’re refining your mind and body.

Conversely, carefree pursuits have no element of risk. Watching TV, going shoe shopping, gossiping on the phone, eating potato chips. There’s nothing wrong with taking it easy now and then, but doesn’t that get boring after a while?

Living in modern, privileged countries, we face few real threats. We’re not trekking over mountains or fending off grizzlies. We live cushy lives. If we seek challenges, we end up creating them for ourselves. We might push our limits by choosing a demanding career, playing sports, entering contests, and so on. As kids, we are plopped into a challenging arena: school. But, as adults, we can get stagnant if we avoid risks.

Some might argue that circumstances shouldn’t affect our focus and intensity. Shouldn’t we go all out running solo, as if in a race? Sure. But most people try harder when stakes are higher.

What do “exams” really examine?

Whether it’s a bar exam or medical boards, a tennis match or a chess tournament, “exams” are meant to examine one’s aptitude in a given field. Actually, however, they probably measure one’s mental state in terms of confidence and composure under stress. In elite sports, competitors are comparable in physical talent and fitness; the mentally tougher athlete will win. In Iyengar assessments, all candidates are more or less ready in their substantive knowledge of teaching asana; rather they must shake off nerves and perform gracefully under public scrutiny.

In any endeavor, training toward mental toughness is just as valuable as substantive learning. Iyengar assessments perhaps develop this side of teachers. To me, that’s a worthy end.

Images: Wiseman Says



  1. I will be going up for Intro I just next weekend…so finding this today was very timely. The stakes feel pretty big and there is definitely pressure and the chance of failure. Given how seriously I take this subject and how important it is to me personally as well as to my students this process seems appropriate.

    Thank you for sharing this.


  2. I think assessment is what sets the Iyengar system apart from other styles of yoga. It trains us as teachers, to never rest of our laurels, to always strive for excellence in our teaching and encourages us to be fully dedicated to an evolving personal practice.

    Stephanie – I hear what you are saying about how important it is to you. I clearly remember in my first assessment feeling that it was my actual character that was being assessed, so personal is our yoga. However, it’s important to remember that it’s our practice and teaching that are being assessed objectively, at a given point in time along the path, and regardless of the result, it’s the process (and feedback) that’s important. And, I’ve found after several more assessments since then, there is a detachment that does develop so the focus becomes less on the result and more on the process. The results then take care of themselves. Good luck!


  3. Hi Just got my Intro Level 2 result today and failed! Wow what a journey it has been. Time now to digest the constructive critisim…….level 2 I have found a massive step up. Had hopes I’d pass, but not too disappointed, as I teach already. Time will tell whether I continue down the Iyengar road or broaden my horizons……..good luck to all the others out there awaiting there results


    1. Martina:

      Thanks for your sharing your story–and for epitomizing such a grounded attitude. We do put ourselves on the line in Iyengar assessments, don’t we? If you understand exactly how and why you misfired, you will surely pass next time.

      Despite it all, isn’t there something nice about Iyengar yoga practitioners around the world facing similar training, trials, and perhaps tribulations? This is a particular community in yoga; and there must be a particular type of person who chooses it. Assessment is a rite of passage that we share, and my heart goes out to you. Thanks for reading my blog in the UK.


  4. Hi all,
    Sorry for you Martina. Hope you’ll pass later. What part did you find the most challenging: praticing or teaching or both?

    Some thoughts about assessment in the Iyengar teacher program. I love Iyengar yoga and have been practicing for more than 10 years now. I decided to enter the teacher program (I am not in the US) and I should say that I am very surprised about its content and how it is managed. There are 3 points I would like to address :
    1) Because Iyengar yoga is so precise and “framed,” I thought we would learn in an organized manner how to teach asanas and how to correct beginners with or without props, at least for the most common mistakes in the basic asanas we are supposed to teach. It is not so clear here and the program is somehow quite “fuzzy” with frequent contradictions. At the Introductory I for instance, one of my friend was teaching Trikonasana the way we were more or less taught but she was told that this was the wrong way by the guy who was in charge of the exam. Are you all OK with your program, unlike me?

    2) Another point is that we are not supposed to teach (in real life) until we get the Introductory II. But considering how the exam is designed, is this reasonable? Can we really imagine someone who has NEVER taught passing the test ? Among friends that are following the program along with me, those who perform best have been teaching since several years (officially not Iyengar yoga of course) with 2-3 classes/week. This wouldn’t be a problem if the exam was not so focused on teaching asanas.
    Also, there are 8 limbs in Ashtanga Yoga and I tend to think it is nice to study a bit each of them (this is the case in other non-Iyengar teacher training programs). Otherwise we have a partial approach of Yoga, don’t you think? Because the Introductory I and II levels are so focused on asanas, many of my friends are basically like “why bothering reading and analysing the Baghavad Gita and Yoga Sutras? Let’s practise and teach as much as we can because that’s what Intro I & II levels are all about.”

    3) One last final point: this mentor-based system is quite weird, no? Why can’t we go to Intro I & II directly as long as we have followed the 3-year program?

    Keep Going Martina


  5. Hello everyone!!
    I am so glad to have found your blog, YogaSpy, like you mentioned there is comfort knowing that all of us prospective Iyengar teachers are facing the same’ trials & tribulations’!! Especially for me at this time!

    Who are we that chose this path indeed……….I have been pondering!

    My love/ hate relationship, when balanced loves the physical asana, attention to detailed alignment and discovery of one’s own body and its alignment/misalignment.

    The assessment process indeed doesn’t allow for any resting of laurels as holdsteadyyogi says. Character assasination indeed is how I feel at present – but I am trying to shove my ego out of the equation! It keeps coming back to chat! Failure!! I am not used too………criticism can I really accept it deep down??? yes but it takes a while!

    Part of me wonders, with my fellow failing companions, had we had the other assessor and moderators, whom the 3 that did pass had (and who beamed about how nice they were), would we have passed or got closer to a pass??? Would they have been more forgiving? More accepting of non-perfection??
    The contradictions are immense!! (to Yogapath) All my issues that I had worked on over the years weren’t mentioned on my feedback. Issues that I never knew I had were…. over the 2 years my 2 teachers, and mentors never brought them to my attention. That’s not to blame but to indicate the many teachers, ways, programs, their differnt eyes on what they find important, acceptable/ passable!!??!!

    To Yogapath
    No the teaching is obviously not then as ‘framed’ nor structured nor consistent I have now learned & how anyone would learn to handle and modify students correctly without the practice of teaching I am not sure. I have been teaching 3 years now.
    Saying all that! I have learned from the process. After reading the results and having to go out that same night to teach I wanted to give it all up!! I have class tonight – I will have to push myself to attend! Lets hope this passes.

    I have my Hatha Yoga teacher training cert. Perhaps this has been my downfall? I let the breath creep in – they want no mention of it in Iyengar teaching! I loved the philosophy, pranayama, learning anatomy of the Hatha course.
    Am I an Iyengar teacher? Mmm
    Why do I want the certificate?
    Will I resit the exam – god willing! Someday

    Martina Northern Ireland


    1. Hello Martina,

      I must say that I have the same feelings regarding the teacher program and the assessment.
      And so are my fellow friends. Same strange feeling that depending on who is the assessor the result could be different… Same feelings that assessors can point out mistakes in my practice that I’ve never heard about during the 2-3 year program with my regular teacher… Same feelings about the unnecessary character assassination and about contradictions between teachers/assessors.

      I am convinced that these problems come from a single one: the impossible transposition of the guru-disciple relationship in the learning/teaching process from India to Western countries. Associations such as IYNAUS or other European associations are trying to set up a western way of learning to teach Iyengar yoga (program + final exam) while trying to conserve the indian way at the same time. Learning Iyengar yoga in India directly from a guru such as Mr Iyengar himself (as did assessors or highly confirmed teachers) is certainly great but is not transposable in western countries. This is probably because the guru teaches with a logic that does not follow the western way of thinking and learning (Iyengar books are sometimes hard to read for western readers, no?). Here in western countries, we mainly need a program with titles and chapters, not a seemingly disorganized teaching. In addition, we have several ” little gurus” (teachers, mentors, assessors) which means dealing with several subjectivities and consequently we get lost at the end. On top of that, if some of these little gurus want to behave as real gurus, then character assassination is not far away.

      In my opinion, the teacher program should follow a conventional western pattern (like any program in our universities or colleges), with a clear direction and should lead to an exam whose aim is to check that we have learned and understood what was clearly taught. Not an exam whose aim is to guess what we think we should know.
      Who are we to follow this path, someone asked earlier? Well I think we are obviously looking for a path to follow and for someone to guide us. But we must be careful not to lose our soul on the way. We will have to westernize Iyengar yoga, soon or later.

      Take care.


  6. I have just read these posts and am in the same situation as Martina, we trained and failed together! The expression here echoes so much of how I feel exactly and I’ve just today put pen to paper and sent my feelings to our teacher trainers to digest and let us know what they think and how this can be resolved. It seems a shame that they are losing great teachers because of the system glitch!!!
    Very interested in IYNAUS; going to check that out now. Let’s hope others can adapt this attitude and bring “real life” yoga/assessments to us in the West.
    Brightest blessings to you all


  7. Hello Aine,
    I am curious to see what your trainers will think about all this. But don’t forget that most of these trainers have accepted the rules themselves many years ago. Also keep in mind that all of us (Aine, Martina, your fellow friends, myself etc…) have paid these trainers. For these reasons, it is hard to imagine that they will say « yes, you are right we should change all this. It is not done the right way ». My bet is that they will answer something like this: « you have to accept what you were told even if it hurts… » and /or « keep working » and/or « maybe you’re not made to teach Iyengar yoga ».

    On the positive side, I tell you what we have decided with my fellow friends to improve our teaching skills: establish a kind of small database for each posture of Intro level II. For each posture, we try to list :
    1) what are the most common mistakes that are done by beginners (eg. misalignment of feet).
    2) how to correct these mistakes with or without props.
    3) learn to focus and teach a precise point (assessors often ask this here).
    This is based on what we think assessors are looking at and asking for Intro I and II.
    The database will be enriched regularly with what we learn in our weekly classes and what we are taught by our teacher trainers.
    This is the kind of organized thing I was expected when I started the teacher training program. But we have to do it on our own…
    I am sure this will help to improve our teaching even if we don’t pass.


    1. Hi YogaPath
      Thank you for the reply. I guess you are correct in your assumptions, I can’t imagine them agreeing with us either! That’s a great idea for a database, we have also been given nothing, just a list of books to read and our own note taking at training.
      I’m still digesting and have decided that I’m giving myself a few months to check out other types of yoga as I’ve only ever done Iyengar and if nothing “lights my fire,” I will re-sit!!


  8. Hi Aine and Martina,
    If you or other people you know want to participate and share this kind of database, you’re welcome.
    Hope you’ll re-sit soon or later!


    1. Hi Jo,
      Hope you will do well at your assessment. I have passed Intro levels I and II (in 2011 and 2012) and did get both. But still I am convinced that there is a lot to do to improve the training and that the assessment should be completly redesigned to fit clear western-like criteria.


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