Lies My Yoga Teacher Told Me

Apr 20, 2018 at 8:00 a.m. ET
Image: Ashley Britton/SheKnows

Yogalandia is rife with hilariously bad platitudes. If you’ve done any time on the mat, you’ve at some point been told to surrender your toxins or melt your heart or make your inner body bright. And though I never asked my students to honor the goddesses that live in their inner thighs, even I cringe recalling some of the silly, nonscience-based claims I subjected people to in my youth.

But there were lines that even as a rookie yoga teacher I knew not to cross. For instance, I never told my students with mental health issues that they should stop taking antidepressants and meditate instead. Nor did I tell my students who had cancer to do a juice cleanse in lieu of chemotherapy. I would never have dreamed of informing my pregnant students who had C-sections or epidurals that they hadn’t had a “real birth.” I never told students who were grieving, sick or sad that their suffering was a result of their karma.

Believe it or not, teachers are actually out there making these ignorant claims. We don’t talk about it because critiques and callouts don’t mix well with mainstream yoga’s “love and light” ethos. But it disturbs me how many yoga instructors push anti-science health advice and ill-informed judgments on their students.

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“It’s actually a serious problem in the yoga community that some teachers overestimate the ability of yoga to treat diseases and conditions,” Nina Zolo writes at Yoga for Healthy Aging.

When they first start teaching, yoga instructors are often in their “honeymoon phase” — a rose-colored-glasses period when they see yoga as the solution to all of life’s difficulties and the remedy for all illness. Yoga and “natural” wellness are good; Western medicine is bad. This kind of black-and-white thinking in the yoga world leads to a great deal of presumption, misinformation and outright denial of reality. Here are just a few of the lies yoga teachers have told me (and I assure you these tales are only the tip of the bad-advice iceberg):

  1. That I wouldn't need to go to therapy if I did yoga daily.
  2. That I didn’t need to take antibiotics for my urinary tract infection: “Just drink cranberry juice and it will go away!” (Note: Do not try this unless you’re OK risking an extremely expensive emergency room visit and a week off work to recover from your kidney infection.)
  3. That if I had my uterus removed, I would lose my identity as a woman and the "seat of my creativity."

You may be asking why on earth anyone would seek out health advice about a serious medical condition from a yoga teacher in the first place. They’re not doctors. They’re not therapists or nutritionists. But spend any time in Yogalandia, and you’ll learn three things:

1. We put yoga teachers on pedestals. For some of us, they are the people we went to after doctors shrugged off our health problems and told us there was nothing they could do to help. Never overestimate how much faith yoga students have in their teachers. And while there are some teachers who’ve spent decades studying anatomy, psychology and health, others haven’t a clue, which brings us to No. 2.

2. There are inexperienced, poorly trained yoga teachers everywhere. The yoga industrial complex and its glut of yoga-teacher training is partly to blame here. As yoga has spread to gyms, beaches, schools and senior centers, studios struggle to make money, and lucrative teacher training has become the financial foundation of most studios. But unleashing hundreds of green teachers on the world every few weeks isn’t elevating the quality of the teacher pool.

3. Because we live in America, many of us don’t actually have access to medical doctors, nutritionists or therapists. If you lack decent health insurance, your vinyasa teacher might be the only person willing to spend 15 minutes talking to you about the sciatica pain that makes sitting down agony, the endometriosis that’s forcing you to lose a week at work every month, the nausea from your chemotherapy or the anxiety you can’t seem to shake. If we’re going to call out yoga, we also need to call out Western medicine and the disgrace that is the American health care system, both of which fail millions on a daily basis.

Still, yoga teachers need to realize this deeply flawed world is the one we live and teach in. And we need to do better.

To a vulnerable and struggling student, a teacher’s offhand comments can be deeply traumatizing. For instance, Janelle* told SheKnows about a painful experience she had at a studio in New York City where she practiced regularly. “Someone in class who knew I was battling cancer asked me how I was doing (I was going through radiation after chemotherapy and surgery),” she explained. “Before I could answer, my teacher physically walked into the middle of our conversation and informed me that diseases of the immune system are related to a doshic imbalance and that eating a balanced doshic diet as well as the thoughts we tell ourselves can lead to disease.”

Janelle remembers the last sentence her teacher said to her clearly. “'You have to think about what you did wrong either earlier in your life or in past lives that has made you sick.’ Basically, [she was saying that] it was my karma to get cancer.” Janelle never went back to the studio again.

More: How to Navigate Yoga While You Have Your Period

Similarly, yoga teacher Sheela Cheong overheard another instructor telling a student that yoga would cure her mother's cancer. Cheong intervened when the instructor advised the student against doctors and hospitals.

“At that moment, I had to interrupt and tell the student directly: No, that is not true,” she told SheKnows. The instructor defended her position, but Cheong objected again. “That doesn't make it either scientifically or medically correct information. Speaking directly to the teacher, I said, ‘It's not right to be giving students medical advice. We are not trained doctors.’ ”

Sadly, stories like these abound. In both of these instances, the teachers’ recommendations about cancer were unsolicited (as well as cruel and wrong). But as any yoga instructor will tell you, students ask them on a daily basis what to do about their particular maladies and injuries.

One hundred million Americans suffer from chronic pain, and many of them turn to yoga to try to fix it. And of course, yoga can relieve pain and help with chronic health problems — even doctors know that. But as instructor Andrea Leber described in a blog post titled “When Being A Yoga Teacher Isn’t Enough,” students often approach teachers with very general questions.

  • “I have this lower-back pain. What do you think it is?” 
  • “My knee is painful. What should I do?"
  • “Can I do yoga after surgery?”

Leber pointed out that most yoga teachers are coming from a good place and want to help their students — but they don’t have the training to diagnosis illness.

“It’s frustrating to tell people that unfortunately I cannot solve their issue…. But it’s also dishonest to pretend that I can,” she wrote. “In many cases, ‘doing the right thing’ means sending them to someone who has a medical degree.”

Students would be far better served if yoga teacher trainings emphasized the boundaries of our scope of practice. “Scope of practice” is a term that describes what a health care practitioner is allowed to do in keeping with the terms of their professional license. Medical professionals and massage therapists are highly aware of what their scope of practice does and does not include and know how important it is both legally and ethically to stay in their lane.

Scope of practice (or as teacher B. Grace Bullock calls it, “scope of service”) is a concept every yoga-teacher training should prioritize and every teacher should consider daily and should be clearly defined.

“Most yoga teachers do not have the skills or training to properly evaluate and diagnose physical or psychological complaints, or to recommend a course of treatment,” Bullock wrote at Yoga U. “Teachers can provide support and encouragement for those facing challenges, and share yogic teachings and philosophy that will aid students in their journey. This service is invaluable. The scope of service that yoga teachers provide is like no other, and it is important to stay within it.”

Scope of service in the yoga studio means healthy boundaries. It means you can offer breathing exercises, calming yoga postures and empathy to a depressed student, while at the same time encouraging them to seek therapy or medical attention. It means you can give students support and tools as they navigate pain and illness, which looks very different from trying to fix or cure them. It means asking students if their doctor has approved them doing inversions or given them the OK to return to class after giving birth. It means listening and staying aware that your opinion is just that: an opinion, not a diagnosis.

On so many levels, I owe my life and my health to yoga, and I can’t imagine my life without the wisdom and support of my teachers. Because of that, I’m asking the community to do better by asking more from teachers and those who train them.

I want yoga folks to let go of their knee-jerk hostility toward Western medicine and their dogmatic obsession with “natural” health (whatever that is). I want teachers to study both the yoga sutras and science. I want them to ask themselves before telling their classes that twists are detoxifying or backbends cure depression, “How do I know this? Is there any evidence to back up this claim?”

Students take our words seriously, and teachers need to do the same. I want all of us to engage in rigorous self-honesty and make sure we’re responding to students who are hurting from a place of service, not ego. I want us all to realize there is no shame in telling our students, “I don’t know.”

* Names have been changed to protect privacy.

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