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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Practice vs Teaching

I was talking to another yoga teacher about how to think of the difference between teaching and practice.  I have always explained to myself that teaching is just articulate practice, that is, one’s own practice put to words.  A teacher who can explain the details of a pose does so by discovering those details in her own practice.  Assuming one has reasonable verbal skills, a teacher who cannot explain a pose well has not practiced well.  All true, but there is more to it. 

There is a significant difference between teaching and practice.  In our Iyengar system of yoga, there is often high anxiety in the lead-up toward a certification assessment, where every few years one’s knowledge of a certain set of poses and one’s teaching skills are examined.  The fretting causes people to practice for teaching, rather than practicing for practice.  This is singularly unhelpful to the one going up for the assessment (truthfully, this phenomenon of practicing purely for teaching happens to many of us completely apart from the seemingly high-stakes issue of passing The Big Test).  So what is the difference?

True practice in the Patanjali way is an inward-looking, inward abiding practice.  If done well, it makes one silent both inside and out.  Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah, for goodness' sake.  Teaching is fundamentally unlike practice in that it is extroverted, outward-looking and outwardly reactive.  The teacher must be looking for and responding with useful words and actions to what the students are doing in the moment.  The insights and wisdom that a good teacher can express in class come from insight and wisdom gained in that inward-abiding practice, but in class she depends upon a sharp outward focus to succeed. 

If a teacher teaches in the introverted way she practices, her students will never understand except from their own effort.  In which case, why come to class?  If a teacher practices only thinking outwardly, "How am I going to explain this in my classes?" she will never gain insight that comes from true silent witnessing.  That teacher suffers both from an un-practice-like practice, but also from thinking more of a desired outcome than of the pose itself.


  1. Nice post Devon and the new blog format is lovely as well.

    there are times when I practice a sequence that I want to teach just to see its effect.

    Usually my own practice is so different sequence wise and emphasis wise that it doesn't have immediate relevance, but often when time is short for practice, I will practice the same sequence.

    There's also the whole teaching drill and practicing teaching skills (which is clearly not the inner practice that you are talking about ) but it is its own sort of donkey work if you will.

  2. This informative post both clarifies and substantiates my deep respect and admiration for those who take on the task of teaching yoga, something I cannot fathom myself ever being capable of doing. Without yoga teachers, students such as myself might very well stay stuck not only in our asana practice, but in our yogic quest for truth, knowledge, freedom, discovery and so much more. Thanks Devon.