I myself was teaching yoga before I had any business doing so. Society told me I could though. There were no laws or regulations against me saying I was a yoga teacher and no assessor came around to check on my classes or question my knowledge.
Even a respected institute of yoga, the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta School, gave me a paper certificate with a fancy Sanskrit title and ordained me to teach yoga. It only took $1500, one month of following the ashram rules and passing an exam and I was a teacher of what?
It’s no big deal though, right? It’s just yoga, right?
It is a big deal that myself and millions of people in the world are considered certified teachers of the MOST COMPLEX AND HIGHLY PSYCHOLOGICAL FORM OF SELF ACCOUNTABILITY AND PURIFICATION SYSTEM EVER STANDARDIZED BY MAN THROUGH HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH SUPERNATURAL BEINGS -. A SYSTEM OF LIFESTYLE REGULATION AND MEDITATION SO INTRICATE, COMPLICATED AND ULTIMATELY LIBERATING THAT OUR OWN SCRIPTURES DEEM IT APPROPRIATE FOR FEW BEINGS.
Here, as a person who has made mistakes in the past and learned from them, I offer a list of what makes a yoga class a yoga class and what makes a stretch class a stretch class.
What makes it Yoga?
It’s religious. Boom. Most teachers won’t admit it to their classes and some don’t even know it. The religiosity of yoga cannot be extracted from the goals because they rely on each other. Marketing something as religious puts limits on the potential for paying customers since most people come to yoga for physical and mental health related reasons – not because they are interested in spiritual liberation through the instruction of Lord Shiva or Lord Krishna or Patanjali. Studios need more, not less students - because of money. So they leave the deities out of the teachings, which just as with Christianity or any religion, nullifies the goal of the practice.
(If yoga teachers would honestly push for legislation to make yoga studios religious centers, they could become tax exempt, couldn’t they?)
The primary scriptures are what the teacher focuses on. Even during exercises. The Yoga Sutras and Pradipika are gold for teaching material yet if you find that the teacher isn’t especially focused on teaching the substance in them, you'd be wise to become suspicious that she’s making up what she thinks Yoga is, or wants it to be, combined with what she’s been told by mainstream culture and new age books on the subject.
No music. This one isn’t popular. Personally I had way more students when I was a two-bit-new-age-happy-little-know-nothing teacher offering ‘themed’ classes which included music. I even did a class to the tunes of Led Zeppelin back in the day. (major face palm)
Music has its place in our lives and in the execution of conscious living. However, when it comes to practicing yoga, Patanjali requires elimination of distraction. Music stirs emotion and that’s not what we’re doing. We are instructed to purify and take control of the tendency of emotional and mental fluctuations. Yoga requires proper focus on lifestyle, postures, breathing, mystic exercises, internalized focus, lack of emotion, lack of memory, lack of imagination, deep concentration and completion of insight. We don’t let ourselves be dependent on music to get us into a certain mood for yoga. The yoga itself will shift you in the correct mood but it takes effort. It’s that effort that empowers us.
As a former kirtan band leader I say this with due respect to the honored practice of devotional chanting. But as my own practice progressed, I left behind the activity of group chanting. Eventually I admitted to myself it was barren of authenticity.
Yoga postures are performed so that the subtle body can be moved into certain positions for optimum cleaning access. Subtle body anatomy is the focus in class, not physical. Yoga teachers aren’t physical therapists or physical anatomy experts. Indeed, they should strive always to be subtle, or psychological body anatomy experts. If any graphics of the body are used in class they should most often be of the subtle system not the physical. In a genuine yoga class the teacher is regularly redirecting the students focus onto the subtle body.
Meditation, purely yogic, according to Patanjali, is required after the asana/pranayama/pratyahara. Meditation is the main point of performing the postures with breathing which serve to prepare the mental space for quietude and high vibrancy during meditation. Meditation is performed immediately after the exercises and is done in silence so that naad sound can be accessed and meditated upon. (Again about the music – it inhibits proper naad listening, it does not enhance it. The only instrument helpful is a singing bowl or chime, used momentarily only to induce the awareness of naad at the beginning of the mediation.)
What makes it a stretch class?
None or little of the above occurs.
Physical stretching and its health benefits are the focus.
You hear words like Namaste, Om, Om Namah Sivaya, Jai Ma and the like. You’ll likely hear Sanskrit names of postures. In fact you may hear them ad naseum (i.e. chaturanga).
It’s usually new agey and self-helpy. A lot of ‘yoga’ teachers are more like self-help-stretch teachers. Readings, that have little or nothing to do with the goals of yoga found in our scriptures, are favored, and often quite popular.
A lot of physical adjustments made by the teacher. This is an unconscious smoke and mirrors trick that makes the teacher seem knowledgeable as a ‘Yoga’ teacher. This illusion depends on the ignorance of the students because most people think yoga means postures. And if the teacher knows the postures so well, she must understand yoga, right?
The teacher tells you that there are many kinds of yoga, then says some Sanskrit words and names – such as vinyasa, ashtanga, kundalini, Iyengar, Sivananda.....but fails to explain that any form of postural yoga falls under the domain of Hatha yoga who’s instruction is found in our authority text the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. This error is so prevalent it is made regularly by some of the so called highest authorities on yoga in the mainstream.
That’s my list.
We have the documents explaining this magnificent Yoga, we have information from the gods of Yoga themselves for the highest inspiration and yet, most Yoga classes are just glorified stretch classes. I hope this changes and I hope my lists, cheeky as they may be, might help.