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Wanted: Yoga Teacher of Nerds

Nerd noun /nərd/ :  a person slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits <was such a nerd in college that she spent Saturday nights at the library>

I became interested in yoga teacher bios when I got serious about my practice and contemplated teacher training. That was eight years ago.

Since then I have read hundreds, and beside being amused by how many instructors have adopted Sanskrit names, I have noticed a pattern. Many teachers are “body people,” with backgrounds in athletics including professional dance, gymnastics, running, circus arts, and acrobatics.

There have been few biographies that proudly state “I am brainy—a nerd through and through. I had glasses and zits growing up and used to beg my teachers for homework. My body would get me from the library to home, and into bed for more reading.”

That is a large part of my history and as a result, I make my living as a scholar. I teach yoga on the side, and my niche: being a teacher of nerds.

In many of today’s beginner yoga classes, it seems that novice students are more in touch with what is between their ears, than what is below the neck. They come to yoga without much body awareness and lacking muscle memory. Skillful teachers, whose body awareness is innate, are often instructing them.

Think about it—coaches train athletes, folks with well-honed bodies ready to work. PhD scholars train doctoral students—folks with natural aptitude for analysis and writing. In situations like these the teacher is a guide leading the student into their natural gifts.  What about the job of teaching the rhythm-less to dance; the couch potato to run with grace and freedom; the nerd to balance in bakasana (Crane Pose) and then lightly jump back to chaturanga?

Brainy people have a different relationship to their bodies than the kinesthetically gifted. As a nerd, I remember exactly what it feels like to be unable to make my lats engage—to recruit the wrong muscles in order to complete a posture. When my former teacher would tell me to “lift the kneecap” I would look down at my knee and think, what does lift mean?  Does he mean lift the actual cap of the knee? Is it a metaphor? What’s supposed to happen when the kneecap lifts?

If a kneecap lifts in the forest and no one is around to see it, does it really lift?

My pondering would be interrupted by my teacher swiping my knee as if physical nudging would make it lift. I am trying, I would think. He would look at my knee, then at me as if I was being lazy. The truth was my mind wanted my kneecap to lift but the signal wasn’t getting through to the bumpy protrusion between my shin and quad.

My mind’s desire was there but my body wouldn’t follow.

My teacher had a beautiful asana practice and the subtlest awareness of his body. When he told me that someday it would be possible for me to jump through to seated, I only half-believed him thinking, yeah right, you don’t live in this body Mr. ex-professional ballet dancer. Was that just my self-limiting belief?

I don’t think so. Venturing into new terrain is not just about overcoming negative thinking; it is also about one’s capacity to access the body in the way that is being asked.

Being frightened to go upside down and anxious about having to partner with someone are certainly mental perspectives that a good teacher can coax out of a beginning student.  Beyond that though is the understanding that “engaging the core” in sirsasana (headstand) is likely to be impossible for the beginning brainiac student as anything other than a mental exercise.

Yet, many body-people think they are inspiring when they say things like “you can do it.” I have observed this blind spot with my physically gifted husband who started playing a variety of sports at age four and was often the team’s star. Today he is a beloved personal running coach and fast ultra-marathoner. He repeatedly states, “People don’t know their body’s limits”.

This is true, I have watched him go from running 5K races to winning 100 milers—but what is also true is that an under-used body has real limits that need to be understood and respected. So while he believes that I could be an ultra-runner, I understand that he has no idea what it is like to be a 42-year old woman whose intellect is far more fit than her body.

It is hard enough to return to a beginner’s mind when you have been practicing your craft for years. It is far more difficult to teach the nerd when you have never walked in those shoes.

My nerdiness has helped me as a yoga teacher. I have in my arsenal of tools a plethora of modifications that are stepping-stones to the full pose, a humbleness about the practice, the memory of first connecting to my body in yoga, the need for instruction that focuses on key points and silences the minutiae that can easily geek-out an intellectual student. Most of all when teaching non-body-oriented beginners I tend to talk less and ask my students to breathe more.

I visualize myself as a beginning yoga student when my triceps were so jiggly that I tipped over in bakasana and hurt my pinky. I ran to my teacher traumatized. The fall, if you could call it that, was physically inches from the ground, but mentally quite a reach. It would take time for me to believe in my capacity to balance, and it took time to develop arm strength and core muscles to support that positive thinking.

This journey of mind-and-body doesn’t always mean that we start with the body and train the mind. It often means that in training the body, the mind begins to change.

About the Author

Erica Wagner is a professor, mom, wife, yoga teacher, and student who loves to write – but loves reading even more.  She has been practicing yoga since 2000 and teaching for seven years. Currently she teaches beginner classes to faculty and staff at her university.  The 8-fold path takes her out of her head and into experience – something she values enormously.  She occasionally blogs at

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