Yoga videos versus yoga teaching

After President Obama’s second inauguration in January, Beyoncé got flak for performing the US national anthem using a pre-recorded version. At first, I agreed that singing live is not only superior, but also expected.

On second thought, her recorded version is still her. We hear her voice, her interpretation. So what if she sang it beforehand? Music is an art form experienced mostly through recording anyway.

I researched and found some famous renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner”: Whitney Houston’s 1991 Super Bowl XXV performance apparently was pre-recorded:

Marvin Gaye 1983 NBA All-Star Game performance was not:

Yet both are fantastic.

I proceeded to think about other forms of video recording—yoga videos in particular. Nowadays many yoga teachers film themselves doing asana, not only teaching poses, but simply doing them. Music is almost de rigueur (who knows, you might gain an audience with a “cool playlist”). While the videos can be impressive, I wonder if prospective students understand that a choreographed display does not necessarily translate to good teaching.

The teaching of yoga—Iyengar yoga in particular—is hard to capture on video. That’s because the demonstrations and verbal instructions are only the beginning. The real benefit of this method is the direct teacher-student interaction. Teachers observe and correct/adjust/advise students. Obviously this requires firsthand contact.

Are there many (any?) good Iyengar yoga teaching videos out there? I Googled “Iyengar yoga video” and found a random mix of websites and videos. The only name I recognized on the first page of URLs was Gabriella Giubilaro, who released a teaching DVD in 2005. I’ve taken only two workshops with Gabriella, so I’m no expert on her teaching or her style. But, watching a brief trailer of the video, I found her tone unexpectedly subdued. Further, on film there’s no way to convey how she exhorts students to move, how she ruthlessly exposes errors, how she steers her teaching to what she sees in the moment. I thought, “This captures only a fraction of who she is in person!”

Maybe in other types of yoga teaching, videos are a decent substitute for classes. If all that’s needed is a good sequence and a good performer, a video can do the trick. But in Iyengar yoga there’s no substitute for the real thing. That’s the difference between performance (such as Beyoncé pre-recording her singing) and teaching (which cannot be pre-recorded).

Note: I am not panning yoga performance videos altogether. It can be inspiring to watch the grace and power of the human body—and by watching one can visually imprint the right actions to replicate an asana. For starters, my Google search also found this 1991 video of BKS Iyengar, then 73, doing backbends, including doing Sirsasana dropovers in reverse.

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8 thoughts on “Yoga videos versus yoga teaching

  1. Hey Yoga Spy,
    I’m with you on not finding videotaped yoga all that useful for practice, and not just because of the absence of a teacher who can see and correct.

    Practicing from a video means that your eyes are engaged outward, instead of being soft and relaxed. We already spend so much time looking at screens – why take it into practice?

    That said, I think there’s a place for a guided practice. My preference would be audio, supplemented by photos. You can scan the photos before you start, and then just follow the voice, much like you would in class once the demonstration’s over.

    1. I agree, Eve, especially for those seeking to supplement classes with audiotapes for home practice. I should distinguish between beginning and experienced students. For the former, a teacher is generally imperative. For the latter, I see nothing wrong with mixing it up between one’s own practice and audio-led sequences.

      Your Five-Minute Yoga Practice app is a boon to busy people who can’t otherwise manage to practice. But it can’t replace actually studying with you in person!

  2. Interesting food for thought for me as an academic, too. These days we are being asked to consider recording our lectures so students can view them online instead of coming to class. But watching a recorded lecture is so boring compared to being there! – not to mention there is no opportunity for instant feedback or interaction, just as you point out.

    1. I think it also points to adult learning styles. There’s quite a bit of research that points to the fact that adults have a multi-modal learning style and the best results for retention and learning are when all styles are approached.
      We all have preferences with how we like to learn, but we all learn best when all modes are addressed 🙂 I think yoga classes should apply this way.
      This is also why I’m so disappointed when I attend a class and the teacher simply leads… i could have gotten that from a video.

  3. Thank you for an insightful clarification of my internal resistance to yoga videos! I’ve never bought a video for home practice–but I’ve got oodles of books which often wind up scattered around my mat as I practice. I have students who frequently ask for video recommendations and I can honestly tell them I’ve never seen one that I’d suggest. (And then they want me to do one–eek! No.) Then I recommend a few good books. When it comes to Iyengar methodology, you are right in saying there is no substitution for a live teacher! (But even that is lost if students don’t take home what they learn and practice!)

  4. Hi YogaSpy,
    Yes, I think the in person class is essential for feedback, individual learning and the whole energetic connection which can only be felt and picked up in a class.
    Years ago, I had 3 videos of Patricia Walden which I used. I found I had to watch them enough to know the sequence and I then could use them as added inspiration to do my home practice. I was always taking a class at the same time. I found them useful just to watch and help me roll out the mat at home and not think about what to do next. I have an old pranayama audio with Felicity which I still pull out sometimes. Having taken many classes with her(she was my first yoga teacher) I enjoy her tape as it takes me right back to hearing her voice in class. Needless to say it is still ingrained on my mind and I am still working on lots of the same stuff!
    I haven’t used a video for a long time now, as it seems the whole purpose of my home practice is to work on my problem areas and be more in tune with myself and what I need that day-relaxation, stretching, etc.
    Yes I don’t think videos can ever replace classes, yet they are a nice add on.
    Thanks for the interesting thoughts and discussion.

    Liz

  5. I don’t think this is all that complicated. It’s just personal versus technological. Neither is bad. Me, I take personal. If I want to listen to prerecorded music I’ll go to a movie. If I want to see Baba Gannoush himself do a yoga pose, I’ll send the class money to him, not to Loose Leaf. But I prefer her.

  6. As a student the immediate feedback I get from a teacher, who is choosing their words based on what they are seeing in the room of students, is the most valuable part of the class. I carry the words back with me in my body to my home practice. They are the words of someone who experienced me in the pose, rather than the voice of a person who is giving a general direction. If you manage to get yourself to your mat, and stop to listen, chances are you will hear your cues from the multiple classes you have taken. Thanks for the thought provoking blog. -Jill

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