Theo teaching in Krakow

Working with me

Working with me

I have the privilege of being asked to be a guest faculty member on yoga teacher trainings around the world. Most of these invitations have come about when I know the programme or the training provider in some way. Occasionally someone approaches me out of the blue and I check them out online a bit, and ask a few questions.

The truth is, I am quite careful who I work with these days. Over the years I’ve become a safe person for yoga teachers to share all sorts of experiences with. Some of those experiences are of times that a senior teacher or trainer treated them badly – through malice, ego, indifference or just blind ignorance. There’s a short list of people with whom I will not work as a result. This is a private thing – I’m not out to ‘cancel’ anyone. It’s just important to me, and to the people that follow me, that I don’t lend credibility to organisations or teachers whose values I don’t share. People who follow me need to be able to assume that if I am sharing a platform with someone, that they are basically trustworthy. I don’t always get it right, and I can’t be sure whether what I’ve been told is malicious gossip or not, although frankly, I think it’s rarely the case. But I do my best to hold myself to this standard nevertheless. I think that ‘networking’ for professional gain alone is an insidious practice we should all move away from.

Beyond the casual connections of a conference or a workshop, the people I work with closely have to be people that I trust completely. In this way, I’m modelling the kind of professional relationships that I think work best for all yoga teachers: surround yourself as best you can with colleagues and allies you trust to support you and educate you, to lift you up and also to have a quiet word with you when they think you’re a little out of line.

I thought it would be interesting to share what I’m looking for when I’m thinking of working with a provider that I don’t know personally and professionally.

1.     What’s your epistemology – your frame of reference for what can be known about the practice?

In my research I have learned the discipline of understanding and translating between different understandings of the world. You might hold a perspective of the practice that knows the truth of intuition and the guidance of higher powers. You might hold a perspective that knows the scientific method to be the closest thing we have to truth. I can work within a range of perspectives, but I need to know what yours is, and I need to be sure you allow students to hold a different worldview, so long as it isn’t harmful or oppressive to others.

2.     What else are you teaching teacher trainees about what we might call the yoga ‘humanities’?

I usually get asked to drop in to courses to talk about ethics, pedagogy, the development of modern yoga, or accessibility. I need to know if I’m going to be the first person to tell them that twists can’t detox your liver or that the founder of Ashtanga Yoga wasn’t a good person. I need to know if you tell them that ‘yoga’ is one thing that is thousands of years old. This is because usually the time I get with your students isn’t very long, and I think it’s unfair to just drop a few bombshells and leave them in confusion and disarray.

3.     What network of support are the students contained in?

The things I get asked to teach about have a long tail of realisation. I need to know that a week from now, when the piece I’ve just told them about therapeutic relationships or the history of eugenics really lands, you’ll be there to catch them and help them process. I need to know that the kinds of support networks I advocate for in my teaching are available to your student body. I want to know how long the course is overall, if your students tend to think of themselves as a community, and if you offer formal or informal mentoring in the programme.

4.     What pattern of exchange are we working in?

This is more than a question of whether I will be paid or working as an act of service. I want some sense of who else gets paid in your organisation. Are students expected to volunteer and if so, for what and for how long? Is the pay for teachers and trainers equitable? Where is the money going? I teach about service, precariat working and the demands of capitalism. I need to know that I and others aren’t being exploited even if it is in a good cause.

5.     Are your formal structures legal?

You’d be surprised how many of the ‘agreements’ between teachers and trainers, studios and teachers, teachers and students in yoga aren’t quite legal, or have an approach to contracts and organisational structures that leaves everyone involved vulnerable to exploitation. If you’re a ‘charity’, are you registered as such? Are you registered with any yoga teaching organisation, and what are your reasons for your choices in registration? Are you insured? Yoga teachers are working with people at various levels of vulnerability. We are vulnerable to exploitation ourselves. I don’t expect mountains of paperwork, but I do expect you to have a few policies in place and understand your legal liabilities. Above all, I expect you to have made thoughtful choices about all of the above, and be able to explain your reasoning to me.

6.     What does your pedagogy look like?

This last one is the most important. If I haven’t seen you teach or train, I’m going to want to audit that. I have been caught out before by assuming that someone who likes my work agrees with the most basic pedagogical principles contained within it. I’ve watched in discomfort as a senior trainer takes over after my session and the way that they talk to students contradicts everything I’ve just advised about invitational language or inclusivity in practice. If your work is with vulnerable and marginalised populations, I’m going to be even more cautious about that. There is far too much disempowering yoga teaching being done in the name of charity.

I’m sharing this list, and the reasons behind it to start a conversation that isn’t about specific people and their actions, but about the complicated, imperfect and sometimes sticky ways we try to maintain ethical practice as a community that is very resistant to professional regulation. If we can’t agree on who the yoga police should be, it’s up to each one of us to amplify good voices, and limit the platforms of those we think are behaving unethically or ignorantly. Hopefully in the aggregate, overall, the result is an improvement in the standards not just of yoga teaching, but of yoga teacher training as well. My suspicion is that it is in training and employment relationships that most deliberate exploitation and accidental harm actually occurs.

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