Is There Such A Thing As Bad Yoga?

For the most part, yoga is like pizza (or, perhaps more accurately for this particular Thai cuisine obsessed gal, Tom Yum soup) . . . Even when it’s bad, it’s good. Are some variations better than others? You bet. Are some off-the-charts authentic masterpieces while others are pedestrian meals that simply get the job done? Absolutely. On the other hand, for those of us who know our pizza or our spicy, tangy Thai soup, there is such a thing as a bad slice of pie or not-so-yum Tom Yum.

From its inception more than two years ago, set out to reveal the best classes, teachers, products, trends, and tips in the world of yoga and wellness. If something isn’t worth the word count, I save my syllables for another topic. However, I also aim to be authentic, and, to that end, I have to admit that sometimes bad yoga is, well, bad yoga. Hence, here are my top 10 culprits for a crummy yoga class, as compiled through highly scientific research including 15 years of yoga practice, my own teaching experience, and listening to my friends, students, and you, O.G. readers, kibbutz about what you like and don’t while doing yoga. Please feel free to add your own.

The Bizarro Fake Accent: Thankfully, this trend has waned in recent years, but yoga teachers concocting bizarre accents and awkward patterns of speech in order to sound more exotic or authoritative was mysteriously prevalent at one time. Surely, this trend originated from the first generation of yogis to bring yoga to mainstream America, all of whom were foreigners (e.g. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S. Iyengar). Thus, it made sense that they had accents; English was their second language. But, you, native of the United States who grew up in Massachusetts or Pennsylvania or Colorado or wherever: Stop talking like you’re British or Indian or a Shakespearean-New-Age-Surfer. You sound ridiculous. It confuses and distracts your students. So, please, STOP IT.

The Bait & Switch: If you order tofu and vegetables at your favorite restaurant, the waiter better not bring you veal parmigiana. If you ask your hair stylist for Giselle’s long, sultry layers, you’d be miffed to leave the salon sporting Posh Spice’s pixie cut. If you order a smart looking wrap dress online but open the package at home to discover a moo-moo, you’d want a refund. Where yoga is concerned, expectations and consistency are equally important. If the class is described as advanced, then the level of teaching should fulfill that description. If the style is listed as Vinyasa, it’s poor practice to serve up a Forrest class and hope no one notices (or vice versa). Of course last-minute changes and substitutions occur in all small businesses, and students are understanding of this; however, a persistent lack of consistency on the part of a studio makes for spotty classes and sub-par yoga.

The Chronologically Challenged: When assembling a yoga class, timing is an art. The most obvious examples of this point are studios and teachers starting and ending classes on time; however, the timing of the class’s sequence is also crucial. Any style yoga class should have a rhythm, whether it’s a flowing, fast Vinyasa class or a slow, languid Hatha practice. I once attended a 2-hour class during which the teacher’s lack of preparation became painfully obvious when the class seemingly concluded after 90 minutes (the traditional time allotted for most classes). The teacher knew he/she needed to fill an additional 30 minutes of “air time,” so the result was a poorly organized afterthought of a sequence tacked on to the end of a traditional class. Alternatively, it’s no fun to plod along through most of class, then have to rush through the latter portion (including sivasana!) to finish on time. Like a good pizza, timing is key. The crust should be crispy, not burnt; chewy, not undercooked.

The Inconsequential Sequencer: Similarly, a fine meal follows a logical sequence– appetizer, entree, and dessert. A sequence of yoga asanas should do the same. Does yoga class have to be a narrowly defined set of poses performed in the same order each time? Heck no! But, the sequence should make sense for the students’ physical, energetic, and emotional bodies. The best teachers know how to craft sequences that maximize their students’ energy and ability level. Perhaps there’s an anatomical focus (e.g. hips or backbends) or central theme (e.g. balance or clarity); whichever the case, the order of poses should build and evolve in a way that keeps students safe from injury by not doing too much too soon, work the body in a balanced and mindful manner, and allow students to integrate each movement fully through the use of counter-movements and rest. Put simply, each pose should make sense independently and as part of the larger context. Arbitrary or disorganized sequences lead to inconsistent experiences for students or, worse, injury.

The Agenda Pedaler: Ever walk into a studio, think your going to a yoga class, and end up getting a lecture in politics, religion, or veganism? Or, you sense that a portion of class is a thinly veiled sales pitch for something? This isn’t to say that yoga teachers shouldn’t have opinions or should dilute the content of their classes to be utterly uncontroversial. However, yoga classes shouldn’t be confused with soap box opportunities. The best yoga classes inspire change naturally, rather than force it upon students.

The Incessant Talker: I don’t need to belabor this point. Good yoga classes contain quiet moments of reflection for all. Bad ones often contain aimless yammering.

The Over-share: Sharing is good when it comes to dessert while on a date, a bottle of wine over dinner, comfy sweatshirts among roommates, or toys between siblings. Over-sharing, however, can be bad. Teachers who over-share personal information without applying it to the context of the yoga class are a drag. Typically, this characteristic is a strain of the Incessant Talker.

The Copy Cat: Nothing encourages students to check out mentally more than a teacher who puts on airs. It’s natural for teachers to absorb the habits of each other, particularly if they work together or mentor one another. Mimicry is another story, and whether intentional or not on the part of the teacher, it’s a snoozefest for students.

The Control Freak: Classes without freedom usually aren’t fun. From teachers who discourage drinking water during class to those who cannot handle students who modify or substitute poses, teachers stunt their students’ growth when they can’t relinquish a little control.

The Hypocrite: Hypocritical teachers are still capable of teaching good yoga classes, which makes this topic more of a hot button issue. Whether it’s having more dalliances with students than Tiger Woods with cocktail waitresses or talking more trash than Perez Hilton, a teacher might be able to relegate his/her shadowy quirks to outside the classroom. Eventually, students sense a discrepancy, and the yoga quality suffers.

And, people might begin ordering their pizza elsewhere.

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  • holly

    Such good stuff–as always–Om Gal!

    I particularly find the incessant talkers unnerving–and yes, they're usually the same people toting around a soapbox. While they might feel like they're taking me out of my head by distracting me from fixating on a challenging sequence or pose, I find it even more distracting. A little silence really is golden!

    I'll add a few more pet peeves to your list:
    * The "more is more" teacher. I'm all for encouragement and challenge, but the bootcamp mentality can really intimidate newer students who feel like they have to keep up with their neighbors (a lesson learned with time), as well as those of us who know to balance effort with relaxation.
    * The cold fish assists. Hands-on assists should be done confidently, or not at all. Just flopping your hand on someone is not meaningful. Conversely, I've had over-zealous assists from teachers who don't seem aware of their own strength. That's just as much of a turn-off.
    * Stompers. Walk slowly, tread lightly. Or, as my grandpa used to say, "Where's the fire? Slow down!"

    As a teacher myself, I can certainly admit to falling into more than a few of these foibles. Self awareness–and a willingness to accept constructive feedback–are essential.


  • Anonymous

    Yup Yup. Some bad examples of yoga for me are some gym yogas which are set to terrible music like Chris Cross ("Sailing", or even Beyonce). The overly spiritual yoga (but what spirituality is it exactly where we are visualizing flying soaring female eagles? HUH? Ah and yes the hypocrite yogis who live in mansions who tell you that the mansion is a manifestation of their law of attraction. (Whu? I thought yogis weren't supposed to crave bigger better material possessions?. And yes cracked me up I did take a yoga class at a gym once with a strange fake-o indian accent teacher. I thought she was channeling or something. So weird. But that's just my 2 little cents. Keep up the excellent question asking blogging!

  • Jen

    Thank goodness I have never encountered a teacher who fit any of these bullets! Thank you for the awareness though.

    Happy Tuesday!

  • YogaMaendy

    LOL great post! I have definitely experienced some of those "bad yoga" types – good job on pinpointing them so we can keep them away heheheh

  • Anonymous

    My pet peeve is a cousin to the weird foreign accent. I call it the yoga affectation. Its not an accent exactly but this strained overly "calm" voice affectation that sounds nothing like the instructors normal speaking voice. I find myself obsessing about it all during class–doesn't help my calm and focus.

  • elena

    I've been waiting for this one ; )
    I think you got them all – at least the ones I've encountered over the years. Love the post. The opening paragraph is creative perfection!

  • babs

    I really liked this post. You hit on everything that I dislike. Plus, you made me look at myself and decide if I yammer too much….ugh.

  • Om Gal

    Sister, we ALL yammer too much at times (myself included). Thank you for the fantastic comments here. Holly, I love, love, love the "Where's the fire?" image, and yes, limp assists are the worst. Anon., I vow never to play Chris Cross in class (seriously- WHAT?) and would recommend that we all do the same. Finally, Anon. (re: the yoga voice affectation): You nailed it. A fellow teacher pal in Boston calls it the "Miss Honey Voice." Affect, accent, whatever it is- it needs to stop. Maybe we should all start a campaign: "Friends don't let friends talk like yoga phonies."

  • kristen

    I'm having a bad yoga experience at my gym…they won't specify which yoga is which from their website to the schedule. They're all the same, they say. Each week I try a new instructor. I go from boring stretching to sweating cardio drenches and pretzels. I wish people were more conscious about helping newcomers.