Yoga teachers draw inspiration from every wellspring imaginable: places they've visited, music they've heard, books they've read, and instructors and colleagues with whom they've studied.
But after teaching a class recently in which many of the moves I used were borrowed ones, I began to worry that maybe I was drawing my inspiration from stealing.
I confessed to Jill Zimmerman, a yoga instructor at Greenhouse Holistic in Brooklyn, that I'd lifted a move I'd seen her make: placing your left hand over your heart, then your right hand over your left, before chanting the first and final "Oms."
"Fine by me," she said.
I told Jacqueline Stolte, a teacher at Yoga Tree in San Francisco, that I'd adapted hand positions I'd seen her use during a Prayer Twist in Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge).
"That's no problem at all," she shrugged.
Eric Elven, an instructor at Om Factory in Manhattan, gave me his blessing to continue teaching his "Sparrow with Wisdom Mudra" pose: a raised squat in which the heels are lifted, the thighs are parallel to the floor, and the arms are outstretched, with the thumb and first finger touching.
"I learned that from another yoga teacher friend," said Elven. "She learned it from somebody else. And it's possible that the 'original' teacher isn't even sure where she learned the pose in the first place." How else, besides borrowing, could we have developed yoga, a practice that was for centuries passed down by word of mouth?
The simulation starts when you try your first asana, and continues as you do teacher training, learning the building blocks of basic instruction and the sequences that are part of your lineage. "Study with a handful or perhaps hundreds of different teachers, and it's possible you'll pick up new techniques from each and every one," says John Friend, who created the alignment-minded Anusara Yoga after studying alignment with B.K.S. Iyengar in India. New moves filter in from classes, workshops and trainings. They come from inside and outside your lineage; from yoga DVDs you've seen and yoga CDs you've heard. You may remember learning these techniques—or you may have no conscious recollection of picking them up. But each move deserves consideration as you work to maintain satya (truthfulness, which is one of the core tenets of yoga), in your own teaching practice.
When you see a technique you like in another instructor's class, is it ethical for you to adapt it as your own? Those who train other teachers—and who've developed signature yoga moves—recommend following some simple guidelines.
Practice Asteya (Non-stealing)
"I think it's an honor when someone steals my jokes, and I'm happy when someone uses a phrase of mine—like 'Shine out,' which means stretching out in terms of optimism and shakti energy and not just your muscles," says Friend. "But I would have issues with someone taking my entire Anusara method and using its template and precise principles of alignment without giving it any credit."
When you borrow another teacher's move, are you parroting his or her exact words? Is the technique in question a signature one developed by that instructor? If so, ask the teacher for permission to use it. If asking isn't possible, credit the instructor by naming him or her when you teach the technique in your class.
Practice Ahimsa (Non-violence)
You may be able to borrow simple moves after seeing them once or twice, but advanced poses often require additional training. Before you teach a complicated new pose or sequence, ask yourself if you are able to perform it in your own personal practice. Has your training enabled you to fully understand its mechanics and its expression? If not, get formal training in the technique before you pass it on. "Ahimsa here is especially important," says Elven. "Your students can get injured if you teach them a new pose incorrectly."
Practice at Home
Regardless of an asana's difficulty, it's important to master it before offering it in class. "Share a technique just hours after you've learned it, and it will not be fully digested or fully effective," says Melina Meza, co-director of the teacher training program at 8 Limbs Yoga Centers in Seattle. "Home practice—sometimes for minutes and sometimes for months—will teach you the pose's intricacies so your sequencing is fluid and not jagged when you present it to your students."
Make It Your Own
As you master the moves that you've borrowed, you're bound to add new wording and new flourishes—personal touches that are among the countless examples of how yoga practice evolves. "Learning new asasas and adjustments is a lot like cooking," says Meg Galarza, owner of YogaOne Studio in Cedarburg, Wisconsin. "You learn basic recipes, then ask, 'What new flavors can I add? How can I teach these poses so my individual energy and spirit shine through?'" Just be mindful that you keep the integrity of the original instruction intact—and try your best to honor the original intention of the practice or pose.
Be Confident—and Help Your Students Be Confident, Too
If you're still developing your individual teaching style, you may be reluctant to cite sources. "Newly-licensed teachers can sometimes be insecure in wanting to look like experts," says Baron Baptiste, director of Boston's Baptiste Power Yoga Institute. "But when you credit a source, it actually makes you seem more knowledgeable because your students know you've had exposure to different instructors and trainings."
Tell your students where you learned a particular technique, and they'll have more confidence in you—and more confidence in their own study of yoga as you expose them to new influences that will help them deepen their practice.
Honor Your Teachers
Just as you may honor your lineage by noting in brochures that you've taken Bikram, Ishta, Jivamukti or Sivananda training, consider acknowledging your teachers—whether or not you pass on their signature moves. "When I instruct certain shoulder openers, I credit their creator, Andrey Lappa, and when I do certain lunges, I say they come from Ana Forrest," says Shiva Rea, who developed her Los Angeles-based Prana Flow energetic vinyasa after studying modalities that included Tantra, Ayurveda, bhakti, kalaripayattu, world dance, and somatic movement. "But even if I'm not teaching a specific move, I try to verbalize thanks to all my teachers. That's respectful. That's expansive. And that's how yoga practice passes through us and continues to thrive."