Critical Thinking For Yoga Teachers

Dearest yoga teachers,

The purpose of this article is to inspire both yoga teachers and yoga practitioners to think critically about the science, philosophy and teaching pedagogy of yoga.  Cultivating critical thinking skills will promote a clear orientation towards inner locus of control, autonomy, wisdom, strength and resilience.  Moreover, from an interpersonal perspective, critical thinking will prevent some, if not all of the conflict that arises from blind faith and enmeshment with human teachers who are of course – fallible. We will define what it means to actually think critically, and explore how we can apply this method to three distinct examples: choosing a yoga teacher, examining yoga claims and exploring yoga research. This article is not an attempt to educate you around these aspects of the practice, rather it is an attempt to offer insight around how you can learn to think for yourself (especially before you go out and teach something).

Finally, I’d like to add that thinking critically about yoga is not mutually exclusive with loving your yoga practice.  You will become a more compelling teacher by cultivating the ability to ask questions and by encouraging that quality in your students and colleagues.

What is Critical Thinking?

Critical Thinking is an active and disciplined process whereby the thinker objectively reflects on, digests and evaluates information that is collected through multiple sources, including, but not limited to: observation, direct experience, communication, valid research, and sound literature from a variety of experts.  This process then guides both belief and action and is supported by open-mindedness, fairness, clear communication, asking questions, non-dogmatic thinking and the willingness to question our assumptions, biases, uninformed opinions and prejudice”

(Source: Synopsis from Richard Paul and Linda Elder, The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools, Foundation for Critical Thinking Press, 2008, and Michael Scriven & Richard Paul, presented at the 8th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform)

This robust definition reinforces the fact that the thinker participates in an active process of acquiring and digesting wisdom.  He or she is not just a passive recipient of collected information that is passed on without objective analysis of either personal bias or any inherent conflict in the information itself.  By engaging in such a process, the learner has the opportunity to stop and think before adopting a myopic or dogmatic viewpoint, or sharing information that is false or simply based on someone’s opinion.

Thinking Critically About the Teachers We Choose

In light of the scandals surrounding teachers like Bikram Choudhury, John Friend,  Kausthub Desikachar and the horrors that have emerged from Australia’s  Satyananda Ashram, it behooves us to talk about how to choose a teacher that is worthy of our trust.  There are stories of abuse (sexual or otherwise) from all spiritual traditions, pointing to two things.  First, people who are in positions of spiritual power, are still people.  They are not gods, they are not enlightened, they are other human beings who have the opportunity to do something good or something awful with that power – either way they are human.  Second, the people who follow any spiritual teacher (yoga or otherwise) must not give away their trust if it is not earned.  Just because someone practices something that is “good” doesn’t mean that they aren’t capable of deeds that are harmful.  So how can we go about the process of choosing a yoga teacher?

The Basics:

It is essential that any yoga teacher is oriented around the central goal of facilitating autonomy, self-sufficiency and internal locus of control in the student.  In order to offer this, the teacher has to be very aware of their own inherent tendencies towards co-dependence, enmeshment (poor boundaries) or their susceptibility to transference and counter-transference.

What to look for in a teacher:

Healthy Boundaries:

  • The teacher clearly communicates their role, body of knowledge, scope of practice, fees, and all the details of what they are offering. There is nothing shady or confusing about the role of the teacher in the student’s life.
  • The teacher demonstrates restraint around self-disclosure. There are some rare circumstances where it is appropriate for the teacher to share personal information (perhaps to illuminate a teaching point).  However, it is inappropriate to develop a relationship with a teacher who dominates the student’s time with their own self-disclosure.
  • Classes begin and end on time.
  • Questions are limited unless they are directly applicable to the teaching curriculum or subject at hand.
  • The teacher seeks permission to touch or adjust the student and communicates that permission can be withdrawn at any time.
  • The teacher shares the practice of yoga in a way that is free of hierarchal power dynamics, inappropriate touch, or inappropriate comments about the student’s body or practice.

Training & Experience:

  • Ask questions about a teachers training and experience. A teacher can only offer what they have digested either academically or practically at a given point in time.  Thus, the hours of training they’ve had, coupled with duration of practice and years teaching are all relevant.
  • Next, in thinking critically, recognize that just because an individual is good at something (i.e.: executing a yoga posture), doesn’t mean that they have the ability to teach it. The teaching pedagogy is essential.
    • Is the teacher able to communicate clearly, using concise language, specific to anatomy and terms of movement?
    • Is the teacher able to alter his/her teaching style to meet the variable needs of the adult learner?
    • Can the teacher recognize an individual’s strengths, and capitalize on those strengths, thus creating a safe learning environment?
    • As yoga includes a physical practice, does the teacher possess a solid foundation in physical assessment and functional mobility?
    • Is the teacher mature enough to say “I don’t know” when they don’t know? In essence can they offer humility?
    • Does the teacher offer information that is consistent with scientific evidence rather than opinion? Moreover, does the teacher identify areas that are lacking clear evidence or that require a more complete evaluation?
    • Does the teacher challenge their own bias and prejudice through research and experience?
    • Is the teacher willing to change their practice and/or teaching in the light of new evidence that supports a more therapeutic way of practicing yoga?
  • Finally, does the teacher possess any credentials (academic or professional) outside of the field of yoga? What are they, and how do they impact the way that the teacher functions?

Red Flags:

Co-dependence, Counter-transference, Boundary Transgression:

  • If a teacher’s identity is dependent on class numbers, compliments, blind faith and student adoration, this is problematic. Their need to bolster their self-esteem through external validation will lead to co-dependence and transference.   One example of what can happen is that the student will transfer their need for an all-knowing, benevolent parent/teacher  to the teacher, and the teacher, desperate to maintain this attention and adoration will pretend to be this all-knowing benevolent, enlightened individual – which they’re not.  Instead, look for a teacher who is happy to direct you to other teachers (who may have alternate skills), or who refrains from indulging in the fantasy that they are perfect or all-knowing.
  • Boundary transgression feels yucky. In this case, you might feel like you are responsible for someone else’s emotions or you might want someone else to be responsible for yours.  Beware of this in your relationships as a teacher or with a teacher.  It can occur in literally thousands of ways, but the key is that you will walk away from an interaction feeling uncomfortable, flustered or confused and perhaps not understand why.  Moreover it might include inappropriate touch or comments that leave you feeling vulnerable and uncomfortable.

The Rock-Star Phenomenon

  • It is not a bad thing if a teacher is famous – especially if their popularity is the result of excellent teaching skills and a large and comprehensive body of knowledge. However, if fame is the purpose of teaching, then all of the above red-flags will be present.

A Final Note:

It is important that we separate the human teacher from the practice of yoga.  Too often, our disappointment in the lack of morals or ethics in a yoga teacher will cause us to abandon our yoga practice completely.  Learn to evaluate the techniques of yoga objectively and independently of the person teaching them.  This can be said for breathing techniques, yoga nidra, meditation and all types of stretching.

Thinking Critically about Yoga Claims

As a clinician, I am continuously surprised by the flippant claims that yoga teachers make around the benefits of yoga.  This is not to say that there aren’t incredible benefits to yoga – there are many that are clearly evidence-based.  However, not all claims have been adequately evaluated, and without evaluation we can unknowingly perpetuate practices that are harmful.   I’m not saying that there is currently evidence for everything – we don’t have evidence for a lot of things that seem to be beneficial.  Yet, if we don’t ask questions, we’ll never be able to discern what works from what doesn’t.

I encourage you to question some of the following things:

  • It’s Ancient, therefore it’s Good/Therapeutic:
    • History is filled with examples of practices that are archaic, barbaric and harmful at the very worst and just plain silly at best. People used to consume mercury for everything and women have only been able to vote in the last century.  Just because something has been done for a long time, doesn’t mean that it’s good for you, so ask questions and explore things for yourself.  Yoga has not persisted in an isolated state over time.  Historians have established that this practice has been influenced by social structure, culture, religion, geography, gymnastics, calisthenics, acrobatics and even modern science.  Develop an understanding of the evolution of “Yoga” across time, and see where you personally fit in.  Anthropologist Joseph S. Alter has written a beautiful book: “The Body Between Science and Philosophy: Yoga in Modern India”.  If you seriously want to understand both the physical and philosophical practice you’re engaging in, this is a great place to start.
  • Explore the validity of specific medical claims:
    • Always ask: How? Why? In what circumstances? Who has evaluated this? How was it proven?
    • For example: I’ve had at least 4 teachers in the last four weeks claim that shoulderstand is beneficial for stimulating your thyroid gland.  The thyroid gland is actually stimulated via the anterior pituitary gland, and that stimulation has global effects on metabolism, growth, development, mood and serum calcium.  Specifically, the up-regulation of the thyroid would have very obvious and potentially negative results.  Moreover, in order to test this, you would have to draw blood from students before and after practicing the asana – and I’ve found no evidence of this being done.  This is just one example in thousands that I can think of where unfounded myths are perpetuated by the fact that teachers are simply not thinking critically.
    • As a yoga teacher, think very specifically about what you say. If you are simply repeating something you’ve heard, but have no idea how to validate what you’re saying, then you damage your integrity by saying it.

Thinking Critically about Yoga Research & Our Bias

What Counts as Evidence?

This can be a hard thing to suss out, so I’d like to offer up some examples of weak versus strong evidence, and the overlying effects of our own minds.

  • Weak Evidence: Anecdotal Reports or Expert Opinion

If we all meet in a group and chat about our anecdotal experiences with yoga, we have the opportunity to raise some great questions – we even have the ability to illuminate a teaching concept through a personal story.   However, the anecdotal reports that people offer do not count as strong evidence.  Moreover, even an expert’s opinion is not considered strong evidence.  They are in fact only one person and susceptible to their own bias as well as limited by singular experience.

  • Moderate Evidence: Case Reports or Case Studies

Case reports or studies are observational in nature and they establish correlation NOT causation (more on this later).   In these observational situations a researcher might track individuals and note specific changes in relation to practices, or the researcher might go back in time and look at a population with one outcome versus a population with an alternate outcome.

  • Moderate to Strong Evidence: Randomized Control Trials

These are experimental situations where two sample populations participate in a trial that has a test group and a control group.  The results of the evidence are stronger if the study is “double-blind” (i.e.: neither the researchers, nor the participants are aware of which group they’re in).

  • Strongest Evidence: Systematic Reviews

A systematic review will examine the methodology and results of several randomized control trials and report on the results of all the studies together.  This is often effective at eliminating problems with sample size or bias.

How is this relevant to Yoga?

Much of the “evidence” offered up by yoga teachers is anecdotal at best.  The International Association of Yoga Therapists publishes a Journal of Yoga Research once per year that is beginning to compile evidence for yoga techniques (however the methods often suffer from low sample size).  Moreover, my own teachers (Yoga Therapy Toronto) compile both case studies and reports.   As yoga practitioners it is an exciting time to really test out our practice and determine the most efficacious techniques for developing a strong body and mind.  Further to that, it is an equally rewarding opportunity to sort out how specific yoga techniques can offer up complimentary healing for specific clinical conditions.  But in order to do that, we have to be willing to test out this practice that we love!

Correlation Versus Causation:

Correlation is noted when there seems to be a relationship between two things, it may indicate causation, but it may not.  For example, I recently saw a graph that plotted out the consumption of organic foods as well as the incidence of autism.  The curves over the same time frame were almost identical.  However,  this does not mean that organic foods cause autism!  In this particular example, the relationship was the time frame; there was a correlation, not causation.  As clear as this might seem, many people confuse correlation with causation.

Causation is proven cause and effect.  For example, if I am folding forward in a gentle forward bend (and I can feel that I am at my end range of motion) and a yoga teacher comes over and lays their whole body on top of my torso – and I suddenly experience sharp shooting pain in my back – this is causation.  There is a clear cause and effect.

Understanding Confirmation Bias:

Confirmation bias is tricky!  This happens where we deliberately search for information that supports what we already believe whilst ignoring any information that counters the beliefs that we’ve bought into.  This innate human habit can be systematically weakened through the practice of critical thinking, so that we are shaped how things actually are, rather than by our perceptions of things.

In culmination, I hope that this article will infuse you with the desire to refine your own thinking skills.  It will slow things down a lot, but the wisdom you accrue with be sound and well-earned.

© Tracey Soghrati 2015, All Rights Reserved

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