I am a yoga practitioner and I teach yoga. This July will mark the 10 year anniversary of my yoga journey. After years of practicing and over 1,000 teaching hours, I'd like to think I am an experienced yogini. In reality, I feel opposite. There is no doubt that I've learned a lot throughout these years, but my confidence level isn't quite there yet especially when it comes to teaching. I often ask myself, "Am I qualified to teach? Do I have valuable content to offer students? How can I be a better teacher?" All these questions are the driving force for me to continue learning, taking workshops and training courses, and most importantly, keep practicing.
One day, I brought up my feeling to my partner. He told me what I've gone though was normal and shared Dunning-Kruger Effect with me. It sounds a little bit geeky, but what can I say? We both have engineering background. I was impressed by how well Dunning-Kruger Effect reflected my journey as a yogini as well as a teacher. I overestimated my yoga knowledge after being RYT 200 certified, two years of practicing yoga. I was overconfident and suffered from ignorance. As explained by The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, "ignorance, the cause of suffering, can be removed by the practice of the eight limbs of yoga." Luckily, it didn't take long to see my deficiencies; however, it wasn't until 2015 when I started practicing Ashtanga yoga did I truly recognize my "incompetence." Incompetence may be too strong of a word, but I did have a lot more to learn for sure. The Asana practice is only one limb of yoga. There are seven other limbs, Yama, Niyama, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dhyana and Samadhi worth deeper study.
What is Dunning-Kruger Effect?
"In the field of psychology David Dunning & Justin Kruger talk about an illusory superiority that people believe (suffer from) in. This happens because of misjudging their cognitive abilities as greater, than it actually is. It is the inability to understand your incompetence, leading to inflated self-assessment." - Vunela
Here comes how I feel and what I have gone through in the different stage of the yoga journey (refer to the chart above).
1. Yoga? That's Just Stretching -
I can do the split. Of course, I can do yoga. I seriously thought I would nail it because I was flexible.
I took the first vinyasa class in July 2010. Besides having some background in dancing, I knew nothing about yoga. I assumed it was just stretching and being flexible, which I could easily do. I was in the state of "Know Nothing" as described in Dunning Kruger Effect. When the teacher asked students to do chaturanga, I was shocked. What? A push-up? What did yoga have to do with the push-up? Then there were bakasana (the arm balance) and sirsasana (going upside down). Shouldn't yoga be a relaxing practice? I expected to be in child pose, downward facing dog and maybe warrior poses at most. I was clueless. As I went to classes regularly, three times week, I started gaining both knowledge and confidence. I learned more poses including their Sanskrit names. I started to understand what vinyasa yoga was about.
At this stage, it was about learning and figuring things out.
2. RYT 200 Certified! I can Rock It -
About one and half years in to my practice, I signed up the 200 hour yoga teacher training. It took me six months to complete the course in September 2012. As soon as I was certified, I felt that I knew everything. I've learned yoga Sutras, yoga philosophy, yoga history, asanas alignments, sequencing, anatomy, and etc. I started teaching everywhere. I dreamed of being a full time yoga teacher (well, that's still my goal today). The most class I taught a week was eight in addition to my day job. I was burned out. Teaching so many classes left me no time to practice, which wasn't a good sign. I practiced at most twice a week. Compared to teaching eight classes, that was definitely not enough for a new teacher like me. The rule of thumb is to teach as many hours / classes a week as the practice. On top of lacking practice, I somewhat despised other teachers' classes. I stopped attending classes unless they were taught by my teacher. I followed her anywhere she taught. I purchased class passes from various studios to practice with her. Looking back, I was ignorance and arrogant. Every teacher has something to offer. I was blind to see through that.
At this stage, I was full of myself.
3. Hmm... Time to Take Some Workshops -
Very soon, I realized that I didn't know everything. To be a better teacher and a practitioner, continuing education was necessary. One occurrence stopped me from being overconfidence and brought me back to the reality. A studio took my class away after teaching there for two months. I was basically fired without knowing the reason. At that time, few of my friends whom I trained together with experienced the same treatment from the same studio. My initial thought was that the studio management was flaky and it was not our problem. BUT... if that was the case, how come senior teachers were able to teach there for long term? The truth was that I wasn't qualified for the job. That said, there was definitely better way for the studio to communicate with me and my friends. Though it was crucial, I didn't blame them for "firing" me. In fact, self reflection brought me realization that I have more to learn.
I actually had no idea what to describe my style of teaching. I could teach any flow class like vinyasa, power and gentle yoga. The only style of yoga I wasn't comfortable to teach was the restorative class. So I decided to take a 25 hour restorative yoga teacher training. Was that a good idea? Of course, it was. Any training that could help me grow would be beneficial; however, I don't think I will choose restorative yoga again because that isn't my style. I thought a good teacher had to be proficient in any style of yoga, which was wrong. Sure, a yoga teacher needs to know different styles of yoga, but it doesn't mean that he or she needs to be good at all of them. Most senior teachers develop their unique signatures and expertise in one or two styles of yoga. For example, Kino MacGregor is a well known Ashtanga Yoga teacher, while Bernie Clark teachers Yin Yoga. So, what was my style?
At this stage, I started doubting my capability yet still felt confident.
4. Gosh! RYT 500 Please -
Since I was teaching in the evening almost everyday and had no time to practice, I decided to make some changes. In 2014, I was introduced to Mysore style Ashtanga Yoga, which is the style of yoga I am practicing today. It was a great fit for my schedule because I could practice in the morning before going to work and teach in the evening. Waking up early (5:30 AM) to practice wasn't easy because I had been a night owl my entire life. I never went to bed before midnight. I woke up around 9 AM and went to work around 10:30 AM. None of my friends believed I could wake up early to go to the Mysore class, but I did.
I was new to Ashtanga and had to learn from the beginning. Even though I've practiced yoga for four years, my teacher didn't give me many poses to start with. I was stopped at Janu Sirsasana A for the first couple months, which was considered a lot of poses for someone who was new to Ashtanga. If you are not familiar with Mysore style Ashtanga Yoga, it is the traditional method of learning and practicing Ashtanga Yoga as taught by Sri K Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, India. It is a self practice in a group setting. Students work at their own pace. The teacher gives individual attention to each student based on their needs. Students only practice what has been taught (poses given to them) by the teacher.
Inspired by many advanced Ashtangis around me, I realized how little I knew about yoga. I took a 100 hour Ashtanga intensive with my teacher in 2015 in addition to many workshops since then. I felt the urge to learn and to grow. However, the more workshops I took, the less I felt I knew about yoga. I started doubting my capability as a teacher. Did I have anything to offer to my students? I felt anxious because I lost the confidence in teaching. I spent years searching for my identity - what was my signature / style as a teacher? I was in the "valley of despair" for quite some time even though I've accumulated more than 1,000 teaching hours and became an E-RYT 200 certified teacher in fall 2018.
At this stage, I felt the worst and craved for more trainings.
I am glad that I take many photos and videos along my journey. They are the best way to document the progress of asana practice. Also, they allow me to check the alignment of the pose.
I would like to use these three photos of me in chaturanga to illustrate my journey and prove Dunning-Kruger Effect. Starting from the left photo. It was taken in Sept 2012 right after being RYT 200 certified. That was the time I thought I was the best yogini. My chaturanga was a mess. It was obvious that my butt was up in the air, higher than the torso. I leaned forward way too much and overloaded the shoulders. My legs weren't engaged, nor were they taking any weight off the shoulders. Moreover, the shoulders were rounding forward putting scapulae in the protraction and elevation position. Moving on to the second photo taken in Oct 2013. My butt was more in line with the torso; however, I still put too much weight on the shoulders and I didn't draw the scapulae in and down toward the tailbone. I thought my chaturangas were perfect when these two photo were taken. Looking back, I didn't know what I didn't know. The last photo on the right was taken more recent in Aug 2018. This is how I do chaturanga today. My butt and torso are parallel to the ground. The legs are engaged (heels push back) to take some weight off the shoulders. Then the scapulae are retracted and depressed, which in fact keeps my shoulders from injuring. I suffered shoulder injuries for quite some time when I first started Ashtanga due to repetitive stress to the shoulder in the poor chaturanga form. Even though I am happy with my current chaturanga alignment, I am sure I will find something to work on as I continue evolving.
5. Alright! I'm Making Some Progress -
I was desperate to learn more. In late 2018, I signed up 300 hour advanced yoga training and became RYT 500 certified in Aug, 2019. After the training, I regained some confidence. I re-learned Yoga Sutras, history, philosophy, Sanskrit, anatomy, sequencing and more. I found my signature, Vinyasa / Power Flow Yoga. My class focused on alignment and muscles strengthening.
It's only been five months since I completed the training, but I am still hovering the valley of despair. I question my capability as a teacher again. My mentor and my partner tell me that I do know more than what I think. Their encouragements help, but I still feel deficiency and want to learn more. Instead of worrying so much (suffering), maybe I should just remember my main role as a teacher is to hold a safe space for my students. As long as I don't stop learning and keep practicing, I will be gaining more knowledge and the confidence will come along.
“Practice, practice, practice... all is Coming” - Sri K Pattabhi Jois
Despite the fact that I am struggling to regain the confidence, I've made the most progress in the past year. In addition to seeing the return from my regular asana practice, my knowledge are recognized by students. Nothing is more rewarding than hearing positive feedback from students and having a group of followers.
This is the stage I am at today. Some days I think I am an advanced practitioner and experienced teacher, while other times not so much.
6. Maybe? Maybe Not! Yoga is A Lifelong Practice -
Nothing will stop me from learning. Since I am RYT 500 certified, I start working on getting different certifications. Two certifications I have in mind, Animal Flow and FRC. I am sure there will be more in the future, but these are my goal for the near term. And, I hope to study with R. Sharath Jois in India one day.
Until reaching this stage, keep practicing!