November 23, 2014

We Are Yoga Teachers, Not Doctors.

yoga pose meme

It’s Monday morning and I drag myself to yoga—not because I want to but because I know I should.

At least, I think I should.

I’ve been having terrible back pain that may or may not be the result of a pose I am doing, but I have no idea which one.

I love my teacher. She is so smart and compassionate. She seems to know all the answers and to be vibrating health herself. Halfway through our sequence, my back starts making noise.

“Ouch!” I slump down into child’s pose. My teacher passes by right at that moment and puts a gentle hand on my shoulder.

“Are you alright?” she says.

I nod into the mat, but I long to say, “No! Not even close! Make it better!” like a child might to their mother. And in my heart I believe my teacher knows, she really does know, how to make my pain go away.

But I don’t ask, because as a teacher myself I know the position that puts her in.

This is a woman who trained for 200 hours to do what she is doing and she’s damn good at it.

But the fact is that even though she spent an afternoon studying physiology and has the textbook to prove it (The Key Poses of Yoga by Ray Long M.D.) she is a yoga teacher, not a doctor.

Just like me, I’m sure that students ask her every single day about her opinion on complex and obscure medical problems. And like me I expect she feels the need to—not diagnose-no, that would be unethical—but to give the best sort of input we can.

Perhaps we might share a story of another student with a similar problem, or we have had the same difficulty ourselves, or maybe we legitimately have some insight into what’s going on just based on the fact that we work with people moving their bodies day in and day out. But no matter what our response, it comes from the empirical evidence we have gathered on the yoga mat, not in the doctor’s office.

You might be saying to yourself, “Duh. I know that. I would never presume to treat my yoga teacher like she was Web MD.”

But people do it every day and it frightens me because some well-meaning instructor might unintentionally convince a student not to seek true professional help—or they might suggest something not just un-helpful, but actually harmful.

I am reminded of my time as an Ashtangi when I was encouraged, despite the loud complaints of my body, to wrestle myself into certain poses and just deal with the consequences. As the saying goes—

“Old man, stiff man, weak man, sick man, they can all take practice, but only a lazy man can’t take practice.”  ~ Sri K. Pattabhi Jois

Well, not really.

Yes, it’s true, the foundation of yoga is the breath, and anyone who is alive can breathe, but who goes to a Yoga class just to lay on a mat and not move for an hour and a half?

Last I checked, that was called meditation.

I am not saying our yoga teachers can’t have valuable insights into the state of our health and wellness, how we got there and where we might best go, but I am urging us all to keep in mind exactly who we’re talking to when we seek them out for medical advice.

Just as we wouldn’t ask our primary care physician to show us how to do trikonasana (triangle pose), so should we not ask our yoga teachers to diagnose what ails us.



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Author: Erica Leibrandt

Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: Darian Wong at Flickr 



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