Is Finding Your Voice Necessary to Teach Yoga?

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[Some of yesterday’s comments got me thinking about this thing called “finding your voice” and how it might relate to teaching yoga. I also had this wild idea that some people actually come here to learn something, so thought I’d pitch in and see if I had anything to offer.]

Finding Yr Voice

There’s a bit of a catch-22 when it comes to finding your voice, much like your first server job in a restaurant. You know the deal. You need two years experience to be a server, but you can’t get the experience without being a server. In many ways the same applies to finding your voice. You can’t find your voice unless you practice your trade. And yet, it’s hard to practice your trade without having found your voice.

So, what’s to do?

In my experience, and from what I’ve seen from other people, finding your voice (of which there are many) is something that happens not by looking for it, but rather by working with and through the medium you wish to employ it. For example, if you are a writer, you don’t sit around looking for a voice with which to use. You write through the experience of not having a voice until one emerges from within the experience. It’s not something that is found. A voice is cultivated.

Workshops, seminars, crash courses, and weekend intensives can help, however, the capacity in which they work best is in the role of catalyst. Courses that help you find yourself are great if you’re getting lazy. They’re wonderful if you’re getting distracted. They may even get you to a place where your “you” starts to light up and show itself. Ultimately, however, courses are part of the greater picture. They’re part of you working with, through, and as you, always gathering and organizing new information on who it is that keeps putting one leg in front of the other.

But, then again, that’s about finding your voice. And, finding your voice has almost nothing to do with teaching yoga.

I’m of the school of thought that says, little prepares you to teach yoga but a continued daily disciplined practice of no less than five to seven years, an ability to convey the teachings to the students that come to you, and preferably some sort of blessing from your teacher. Five-hundred-hour courses, while certainly informative and potentially inspiring, mean very little as far as you being able to actually teach, as five-hundred hours don’t even add up to two years of daily practice.

What’s interesting about services like “Brand Thyself,” despite being submerged in the language of yoga, is that they have almost nothing to do with yoga. Your teaching voice being specifically “unique to you” is basically a non-issue when it comes to your teaching. All that matters is that students can understand you. You don’t even need to talk!

However, finding a unique voice is very important when it comes to you selling your teaching. This is why Jess’ website is called “Brand Thyself” and not “Know Thyself.” A name like “Brand Thyself” speaks to selling whatever “unique” voice you happen to stumble upon. In one sense you’re being told that having a unique voice is a good thing, but in the end, it really doesn’t matter. Just like each grain of sand is unique to the point of being insignificant on its own, so too is your voice’s found uniqueness important only to the degree in which it can be marketed.

Brands are meant to be bought and sold. They represent status. That’s how companies get you to pay to advertise them every time you throw on a shirt with a logo on it. Sure, you can infuse branding with speak about “going within,” “getting deeper into your self,” and “experiencing your true nature,” but none of that really has anything to do with conveying the teachings of yoga in a way your students can understand.

In fact, finding and clinging to “your voice” may actually be an impediment to learning, if you plan on working with diverse populations. Sticking to something called “your voice,” by the nature of the attachment, will most likely make it difficult for you to teach to the student, and will probably set up a situation whereby students are forced to learn your language, rather than grow through and within their own.

My advice is to allow your voice to arise on its own. Let it not only manifest out of your “self,” but also out of the environment in which your self is teaching. If what you’re really looking for is to sell yourself, just reorganize your budget to give priority to a great marketing team. I don’t mean that in a snarky way. I’m serious. For those with little skills, marketing is how you get famous. There’s no mystery.

Otherwise, take it easy. Take it slow.

28 comments

  1. Yoga_Dude

    Delightful post.

    thank you.

  2. “In fact, finding and clinging to “your voice” may actually be an impediment to learning, if you plan on working with diverse populations. Sticking to something called “your voice,” by the nature of the attachment, will most likely make it difficult for you to teach to the student, and will probably set up a situation whereby students are forced to learn your language, rather than grow through and within their own.”

    NAILED IT!

    You see, this is the problem with yoga–when YOGAITSELF LEFT THE BUILDING … and all that was left standing there, was a young, hungry aerobics instructor with a dance, internal martial arts and outdoor sports background, who had been born 20 years too late …

  3. Dyspeptic Skeptic

    “…little prepares you to teach yoga but a continued daily disciplined practice of no less than five to seven years…” Bingo.

  4. Garuda

    Good Morning Students. Please repeat the mantra…:”We are all individuals,,,we are all individuals,,,we are all individuals,,,we are all individuals…we are all individuals..”……except for little Suzy over there. What does she think she’s doing? her own thing? Psh!

    • You crack me up!

      Seriously, there really is a dearth of freeform yoga classes … (we are not all Ashtanga mysore students … lol) Instruction? We could get that online … Once read a significant blogger who stated, “We are in the post-instructional era” in yoga …

  5. To expand upon but hopefully not complicate a very sweet post: there’s also the process, embedded in our very mirror neurology, of learning-as-imitation, followed by learning-as-revolt. It’s when imitation become un-selfconscious parody, and revolt forgets its interdependence that things get strained and flat. I don’t think there’s any avoiding the anxiety of influence, and the incredible confusion and growth it brings.

    • Totally. Imitation is huge. Maybe even all of it. Looking, trying, tweaking, copying, rejecting, stealing, borrowing, replacing, giving away, faking.

      Then some writer comes a long on tells you what your voice is.

      • amphibi1yogini

        Yeah … such as:

        Jess says: “YOU’RE looking hot … like a young Rodney Yee (to some yogi) or an even younger Kino (to some yogini) — Are you even aware of how hot you look?” … and “you want to teach yoga to get in shape, with a little bit of deity-worship thrown in?” and … “you are actually a dancer who was born 20 years too late for the aerobics craze; and the closest you could come to that was teaching the NYC Ballet Workout?” …

        Jess: “So, now you can brand what you teach as—Voila! … FMS yoga : “Follow My Shape” ….”

        Trouble is, I followed your shape right out your studio door and never came back …

    • pavana tanaya

      There is as much abuse of yoga studio owners, there in house AAyurveda doctors who reinforce the doctrine and suseptable students who surrender more than just the thousands of dollars that the powers demand. Take a look at the conflation of influence and inspiration within your own practice/teachings before you blame any student.

  6. Linda-Sama

    “I’m of the school of thought that says, little prepares you to teach yoga but a continued daily disciplined practice of no less than five to seven years, an ability to convey the teachings to the students that come to you, and preferably some sort of blessing from your teacher. Five-hundred-hour courses, while certainly informative and potentially inspiring, mean very little as far as you being able to actually teach, as five-hundred hours don’t even add up to two years of daily practice.”

    bingo. again.
    I was a student for about 7 years before I did my first teacher training. as for that voice, I’m pretty good at picking out who is a script and who is an original.

  7. Yoga Whelp

    I have never met a teacher under the age of 40 who was “qualified” to teach a sacred spiritual art of any kind. No matter how much they might understand the sermon intellectually, or the technique physically, they don’t have the life experience to impart genuine wisdom, certainly not to a wide assortment of people with their own life experience.

    There is nothing in sacred spiritual tradition of yoga that I am aware of that would give you the “qualification” to teach yoga even after 5-7 years. I am not even sure where that specific number comes from. Is there any real number?

    One could demonstrate asana technique to others competently after a very short spell. One might actually “teach” asana in the postural sense in a safe and meaningful way after another much longer spell. That’s just asana, though.

    Some people think that the mere practice of asana, done correctly, that is, mindfully, triggers positive spiritual energy, because the body is allowed to “talk” in a special way. The body finds its “voice.” If nothing else, a voice of self-acceptance. That’s why some people don’t think formal meditation in yoga is necessarily the key. Even asana-based yoga is much more than calisthenics or fitness, they believe.

    Let me put this in the form of a question: What level of lived experience allows someone to impart a sacred spiritual art “competently”? In my experience, it’s way beyond the purposes of “yoga teacher training.” YTT, in its current quick and dirty format, is chiefly designed to finance the yoga studios.

    As for voice, it could just be the opposite. Many people had their voice when they were very young, but they actually lost it with time as they “matured” into adulthood, and conformed to their external environment, or demands from family and various institutions.

    So it’s a balance between something rising up within, and a need “calling” you from without. You are answering a call, and it’s a call to service that somehow becomes authenticated in the way it flows and resonates. Only you and those called can probably know and feel the “organic” and natural quality of this, when it is present.

    • :D

      This. Except the part about nobody under 40 being qualified.

    • I agree that if you want to teach yoga as a whole package (i.e physical asana, but also the deeper spiritual and mental elements) the teacher needs to have some level of spiritual and emotional maturity as well. And while there might be some old souls among the under-40 set, it’s usually the exception and not the rule.
      Most 20-something yoga instructors (not all!) I’ve come across seem to be in it because yoga is trendy and popular right now.

      Your own “voice” will come out of who you are, your own life experiences, your own insights. Synthetic voices as opposed to authentic ones are like polyester, itchy, cheap and very easy to spot.

  8. Great post and discussion! I totally agree that a person can learn to teach *asana* relatively quickly — perhaps after a few years of dedicated practice and some teacher training (or not). But teaching yoga as a full package, including the spiritual and intellectual, takes a lifetime of learning. I, too, have never had a teacher younger than 40 or so who was truly a complete teacher. I’ve had wonderful asana instructors as young as 26. But those few teachers who can really inspire are wise from years of lived experienced, not because they got a stamp of approval from Yoga Alliance.

    As far as “voice” is concerned, I think this is something that will naturally arise when you teach from a place of honesty and personal dedication to yoga. A false voice is one that amounts to reading off a script, or stealing someone else’s style or approach. Unfortunately, you hear this all the time in yoga classes today, with so many teachers saying the same pat phrases and repeating the same (often empty) jargon. Teachers who have a real and authentic voice (I nominate my former teacher Raghunath! http://www.raghunath.org) are, first and foremost, honest. So when it comes to finding your voice as a teacher, I don’t think it’s really about uniqueness or originality. What’s most important is honesty.

    Too many yoga teachers today put on guru shtick, instead of focusing on actually teaching and guiding their students. This is not finding a voice; this is putting one on.

    • Garuda

      Who is to say that Raghunath isn’t / wasn’t “putting one on” as you like to conclude? For all we know, this dude was just another Hindi Guru with a double standard , and maybe what you perceived as ‘Honesty’ was really just rose colored glasses toward the Guru Shtick.
      If it is true that teaching yoga comes from the heart and is not an imitation of another, then I would posit that nobody should ever, ever, ever need YTT. I mean if the only qualified teacher is the guru within, then any and all Yoga teachers are fakirs…myself included.
      No I will not deny that I hear my teachers voices as I teach. I will never deny that those intimate bonds are very real, and the direct transmission I received was revolutionary as well. It is my opinion, it may be wrong or not but at least I own it.

      • Garuda- I don’t think the question here is to deny the importance of teachers and their needed roles in our evolution and growth. We need teachers- we are social creatures, hard wired to learn from each other- but hopefully what we learn (in any context) is not taken in blind faith and as unquestioning gospel. Both on the part of the student and the teacher… Which then takes us into the delicate dance of the student/teacher relationship which is much to big to get into for this comment! Another day… Another post maybe….

  9. Amen. How can you find your voice in a yoga world that puts more emphasis on the teacher and not the teachings? Where we bow down to someone else’s wisdom but are not taught or encouraged to listen to our own. How much easier is it to follow someone else’s path, spout off someone elses’s words? Look at religion, look at all these different yoga schools where you can buy into a certain way of thinking, a certain way of practicing and not have to do the deeper and often harder work of truly thinking for yourself and living life through the filter of your own heart and intuition… which is how you will find your voice anyways – Do the work, question everything and practice yoga a way that is right for you…

    And such an important point about teachers over 40. I recently wrote a post about this http://theteacherwithin.org/2012/10/18/hello-world/ Why are we revering relatively young teachers in the yoga culture, yet when we really start practicing yoga, don’t we realize we have so much to learn and wouldn’t we inherently trust someone much older to share this path with us?

  10. Adriana

    YES! The best advice I ever got about teaching yoga was that I was there to serve the people in the class. Now that may sound obvious but it wasn’t to me until then & it’s not for many. If you are speaking to the room & the people in it you are present & the “voice” & energy you share will be no more yours than anything else : )

  11. My response to this post was a sort of unease I couldn’t quite place at first. It’s fetishization of age and experience, of grueling years of daily practice that I find incongruent with the way I experience yoga. I’m a youngling, not really age wise but yoga wise, I’ve only been practicing consistently for 2,5 years. I started my two-year teacher training, because I was already being pulled into teaching yoga but didn’t know enough about the variety of yoga. I was scared of not knowing enough. Half way through, I realize I know even less than I thought. But I also know that knowing is not really the point.

    I’ve been teaching $stuff for about 17 years and the most important thing I learned is that my job isn’t to know things, but to make space available for the student to learn things that teacher and students, or students and students, construct their own intellectual and emotional building. That it will be different with different people configurations and that I will be changed by it too, as by any experience. To speak of ONE identity as a teacher, ONE voice is impossible, as it is transformed each time I teach.

    I believe students-clients will come to you asking for the things that you can actually give. I can’t give spiritual guidance, so people don’t come to me for this. They come to me to learn to inhabit their body, or to inhabit their emotional world. This I can give. Maybe I need to do one of those weird “spiritual world” capitalization tricks, like self and Self, and say I teach yoga not Yoga? What I want to teach is pretty much contained in the first four steps of Raja Yoga. I make no pretense of teaching actual spirituality or enlightenment.

    What I want to say, I can’t really see the harm in teaching those things I know and have experienced, even if I’m not 40 yet, or have practiced them daily for 5 years. But I come here to learn and maybe my desire to teach again is blinding me.

    • Paula

      Nevermind, should have read todays post first.

      • There’s something to be said for teaching forgiving (gym) yoga–particularly YogaFit, being old enough to experience existential irony, and (possibly) understanding diversity. Even if you used to teach aerobics or were a marketing whiz. These things come with age, in practically all cases. These skills and experience attributes are transferable and not able to be “bought” before their time.

        Again–as far as spirituality? Trenchant youth translates spirituality in yoga into the obvious. Tapas and always chasing past your edge in yoga are both overrated. And, personally, have caused me injury.

        Of course, in rounding close to 60 years of age without being some kind of freak like Tao Porchon-Lynch, I’m biased.

        • Paula

          I think this is where the disconnect for me happens; I’ve never been in a yoga situation where someone encouraged me to chase my edge, or live some form of willpowered austerity. Plenty of non-yoga situations though. Maybe this is different from Germany to the US? Or maybe my distrust of stardom and my dislike of fairgrounds has kept me safe from hot young teachers selling me that type of spirituality?

          Spirituality is such a personal path, of course I can only talk about the parts that I have walked, or the tools that I have used. Do I assume too much if I expect people to be discerning and pick the bits that are helpful for them, or go to someone else entirely?

          Ah I see. I’m arguing like a capitalist. Hm, nothing beats finding your soul’s pools of darkness in public 😉

        • amphibi1yogini

          I’d been in a yoga class in 1991, long before the boom. I was not particularly encouraged to be there even though the teacher was in her late 70s. You could hear the rumblings from underground at that time: “Beginners Not Welcome”. I could never come back–that was the exact description in that course at the local Y next semester. But–still–compared to today? I DO know the difference.

          I was lucky enough to find a hippie yoga place, after a nightmare with a 25 year old “old-soul” and his ex-dancer partner. Main teacher 69 years old, teaching sorta-throwback mellow yoga.

          in New York City, I found something irretrievably lost …

  12. JK

    I think William H. Macy finally found his “voice” in the film version of Mamet’s play, “Oleanna”. A good dissection of the teacher/student dynamic.

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