Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Boundaries, Mistakes and Insights

Back home in Texas and enjoying the early morning hours due to the jet lag of being across the globe for over a month. In general, my approach to jet lag is to get myself as close as possible to the new schedule as soon as I can and then I do not worry about the very real fact that a big transition like this takes time. For instance, I stayed up as long as I could last night- which was about 7pm and then slept as long as I could this morning which was about 3am. Then I got up, made some tea, meditated and got some work done.  If I am still awake at noon I hope to get to the Advanced Practice at the Bikram Yoga studio.

So, the month overseas was really good for me. I had a chance to rest and re-evaluate my life and goals and get a fresh perspective. One thing that is on my mind  a lot these days is that teaching yoga is simply not easy. I love teaching yoga and  I am grateful for the work I do and the more I go about this task of teaching yoga the more amazed I am by all that is involved. Anyone who makes the leap from yoga student and practitioner to teacher gets the wake-up call right away that there is more than meets the eye going on in any yoga class. In both teacher trainings I taught last month, we spoke about that a lot and so many new teachers were a bit blown away at what their teachers are doing to make the class seamless and effective.

I remember when I was in college studying counseling. I was also in therapy with a great counselor at the time and I would be in a session or in a group session and watch her work and think to myself, "I can totally do that. I mean how hard can it be to get people in touch with their feelings and to help them make connections between their current situations and their history and conditioned responses."

And then I got my first group to run.

And I began the painful process of realizing that the easier someone makes something look, the better they are, not the easier the thing is. The reason why my therapist was able to help people so much was not because therapy was easy to do but because she was very skilled and this very obvious distinction was not so obvious to me at the time.

Teaching yoga is a lot like that. I have watched more than one "yoga connoisseur" (meaning someone who is well-practiced and very clear about their likes, dislikes and ideas about what makes a good yoga class) suddenly realize that providing that great  yoga class experience is not as easy as it looks. It's actually a very fun process to be part of, truth be told. A yoga teacher is managing so many things throughout a 90-minute class- the knowledge of the postures, their contraindications, the sequence, the modifications, the special physical needs, the knowledge of people's temperaments and abilities both physically and emotionally, a theme, verbal cues, adjustments, breath cues, and which side is right and left and so on. It's just not as easy as it looks and anyone who makes it look easy is generally very well seasoned and well-practiced.

And that is just on the semi-technical front of executing a decent public class. As we go deeper in the task of teaching yoga we encounter a whole layer where we interface with some pretty challenging material that is full of opportunities for self-examination. I recently read a blog entry about the "mean girl" phenomenon in yoga teachers and in yoga communities. Also, there is the mass upwelling of feelings and outlooks in the wake of the Anusara debacle. And the commentary on this recent blog entry was fairly unforgiving about said yoga teacher. And, as we know, the commentary on the Anusara situation ran the gamut from very forgiving to not-so-forgiving-at-all. (And those situations are not the point of my blog entry this morning but are simply a springboard for my musings. I am not advocating "forgiveness" etc. in either case. That is another entry for another time.)

So like I said, this gave me a chance to reflect on my own sordid history of teaching yoga and all the mistakes I have made and all the people over the years who I have helped and who I have also hurt. It has not been easy for me or for some of the people I have taught. I have definitely made a lot of mistakes and had a lot of work to do on my personality manifestations over the years. And I still work on it.  I do my best, but as we all know, our best is not always good enough. We fall very short sometimes. One weekend I teach and I know I had an edge. Too much edge. Another weekend I teach and I was spacious, compassionate and wise. Depending on the weekend, very different assumptions might get made about me, my teaching, my efficacy, etc.

So one thing I know for sure from talking to my colleagues is that every single one of us has had difficulty with students over the years. Every single person I know who has taught yoga professionally for a long period of time has behaved in a way that unconsciously hurt someone else and we have had varying degrees of effective processing relative to these upsets. In some cases, I have been able to "talk things through" in a way that was healing and led to greater intimacy between me and the student. In other cases, permanent harm seems to have been done and hard feelings and negative impressions still linger. It's painful for both parties involved. I know that for sure.

I have thought about it a lot over the years and I think it is a complex issue. Certainly I think that whatever  unexamined hurts, angers, violences and axes-to-grind a teacher has come out over time, no matter how hard we try to keep them out of the classroom. (And sometime we don't seem to be trying very hard, we seem to use the teaching role as our own personal platform and soapbox. Oy vey. ) And while we, as teachers,  may be practicing asana, meditation, pranayama, going to therapy, writing in our journals and taking retreats, still we have our issues, blind spots and shortcomings that are never "done" but are simply "what we are working with in this incarnation as people." So there is that. And we have to work with that. It is our responsibility to ourselves and to our students to keep chipping away at that conscious and unconscious material, even knowing that we will never work through all of it.

Then there is the domain of expectations of the student which vary a lot. Some are very realistic expectations and some are not so realistic. It really runs the gamut. I think its realistic to expect things like being on time, politeness, respect and so forth. I want those things as a student. But how those look differ a lot from teacher-to-teacher and how a student perceives those things varies a lot student-to-student. For instance, some students feel cared for with lots of adjustments and some students feel picked on. The other thing that further complicates the student's expectations is that our expectations as students are not always conscious. We may not think we want to be "special" in the teacher's eyes until we see someone else get a "special" kind of attention and then we feel disregarded.

I think about inner circles a lot because I have been in them and I have been out of them as a student and member of various organizations over the years. And as a teacher I have students I am very close with, who we might say are in an "inner circle"  and  some who I am not very intimate with and students who are everywhere in between. I have very personal connections with some students I have worked with for 15 years where we are best friends and in other relationships the intimacy we share is more squarely in the teacher-student domain and where the topic is much more on the shared love of practice not on our marriages and our personal struggles. So, it varies. A lot.

And I think it can hurt to be on the outside of an inner circle, depending on what we make of that and what our histories were like with belonging, cliques, etc. (Nothing triggers high school baggage like a yoga retreat where this is a cool kids table.)  And I know it is impossible for any teacher to manage large numbers of intimate connections. Each teacher has a bandwidth. So feelings of inclusion and exclusion are really hard to avoid, especially when this job gets scaled beyond an intimate studio setting.

Then there is another phenomenon that I have been talking to my therapist about lately and that is that we are not clear as a profession about boundaries. In fact, we deal in a somewhat boundary-less world at times-- (we are all One, serve others, etc.) and the lines of teacher-student boundaries often get blurred. I am not talking about the sex dynamic here although that would be an extreme variation on the theme. I am actually just talking about the "friends with the yoga teacher" idea or the fact that how close a student feels with the teacher and how vulnerable a student feels is often different than the intimacy a teacher feels for that student. Not better, not worse, but when I am doing the asana, I am in a certain energetically open place that I am not in when I teach due to the way the asana is affecting my energetic channels. I know this one from both sides of the dynamic, believe me.

So when a therapist sees their client at the store, the professional protocol is that the therapist does not say hello unless the client says something first. The client is entitled to confidentiality and so if the therapist ignores the client, it is out of respect.  By contrast, I seriously hurt a student's feelings in the grocery store one day because I didn't spend some time talking with her. I mean, I really hurt her feelings and she felt disregarded and ignored. It was bad. So that is a huge contrast in terms of professional expectations and protocols.

Also, it would be a breach of ethics for that therapist to ask the client, "How are you?" since, given the nature of the relationship they share, that kind of question would be  inappropriate to ask in the vegetable aisle.

Furthermore, if, in the course of therapy, a client gets mad at the therapist, the therapist is trained to work with that reaction as transference or projection and to guide the client  back to their own work. (Now if the therapist is angry at the client, they go to their own therapist for that or to their supervisor.)

Both the client and the therapist are clear that therapy is "client and therapist getting together to talk about client." They are not going to be friends, the therapist is paid by the hour and they do not follow each other on Facebook. Obviously, teaching yoga is not therapy but my point is that their professional boundaries are clear and there are mechanisms system-wide, profession-wide and governed by the state to help them behave professionally and to help their clients know what to expect from their relationship.

So in yoga, I do not think that we are really clear about that stuff. Sometimes I wonder, what are we actually doing in yoga? Are we teaching the asana? Are we teaching philosophy? Are we creating community? Are we exploring deeper themes of relationship? Are we practicing intimacy? Are we sorting out parent-child wounds? As a student, if my feelings get hurt, do I look at myself or do I look at the teacher? And to what degree? And where do I process that? In what way do I communicate my insights? When do I speak up? When do I just find another class or studio or program to go to? What if I am enrolled in a long-term professional training and I am worried that conflict will mar may chances of success within the program? What if I am certified in a system and there is no established mechanism for feedback? And so on.

As a teacher, these same kinds of questions come up. What if I am frustrated because the students are not listening to me? To what degree do I express my frustration? To what degree do I sort out my feelings of "not being listened to" that date back to childhood? To what degree do I get to be myself and to what degree do I put my own feelings and personality quirks aside in the classroom? Do what degree can I? If I unconsciously hurt someone's feelings, do I apologize? If my perspective is different that someone else's do I share it? If I  correct an idea or a posture and it hurts the person's feelings, was I rude or too strict or too fierce? Were they too sensitive? To what degree and in what way do I ask the student to reflect on themselves and to what degree and in what way  do  I look at my part?

See, it's complex. For the students who come to yoga looking for a good workout it is simple and straight-forward. The teacher is more like a gym coach in that scenario. And while that is a big part of the yoga-doing population these days, there is another part of the yoga-doing population  coming for something in addition to the physical workout. And so, the expectations- conscious and unconscious- get layered and become multi-faceted. I mean it, I know those issues from both sides of the dynamic and I have made mistakes in judgement in both seats. So I am clear that I am raising these issues both as a student and as  a teacher.

 I would love for us to be in dialogue about this as a profession. (Therapists, chime in, we need your help!) See, I read the mean girls blog and I know in my own heart of hearts that I have been both people in that scenario. I have been "embarrassed by a teacher" and I have embarrassed and hurt students as the teacher.  I have sat at the cool kids table and I have sat alone and I have sat with people I adore who are my best friends but not the "in" crowd. I have felt included. I have felt left out. And so on.

And this is what I mean but the territory being full of opportunities for self-reflection and how managing a heart-based theme tied to en energetic action is really the least of it when we are talking about the challenges of teaching yoga!

More soon. Let me know your thoughts.


Leslie Salmon said...

I taught a class 3 days ago where my sense of humor (older, a bit sarcastic) collided with the ego of a much younger student. I knew it the minute I said it, and then got the 'look'. We had recouped by the end of class, but it certainly affected me for most of the time I dealt with this student. I may never see her again in my class, but I'll never forget the 'look'. Juggling, always juggling. Learning, always learning.

Thanks for this timely blog.

Christina Sell said...

Thanks, Leslie. I totally get it.

Rachelle said...

I'm a new teacher and that whole part of the article where you talk about the work it takes to teach completely resonates with me. I'm still learning how to create a flow that makes sense, learning right from left and am in awe of teachers who teach beautiful classes without notes about what poses they are going to teach! I am overwhelmed, but really excited about practicing and growing into a better teacher.

Do you have a blog about that - evolving as a teacher and allowing your "teacher self" to blossom? That would be awesome to read!

Christina Sell said...

wel, this whole blog is kind of that blog!

But stay tuned to some webinars I will be offering since some of that stuff unfolds there also.

Rebecca said...

Thank you so much for these thought provoking musings. As a newer teacher I am constantly in internal dialogue as to how I am serving my students, when my own stuff is coloring my perceptions and how lightly I should tread in the depth of my interactions with students. It is a fine balance...one one hand I notice if I become too concerned with boundaries and what my students' experiences are the flow of the yoga from my deep Self becomes blocked. Conversely, my personal teaching style, choice of adjustments and shared insights may not be everyone's cup of tea. And yes, we as teachers are quite perfectly flawed humans and our experience as teachers opens a whole new level of self-inquiry and growth. So much to ponder...

Christina Sell said...

Thanks, Rebecca. It is never dull, that is for sure!

KarenF said...

Thanks, Christina- this is truly a keeper. Teaching both pinches and expands me profoundly. I don't always know if I'm up to it. And in our small town, I chuckled the other day when a former student saw me at the farmers market just when I was digging in to an enormous gluten free cinnamon roll- it had been so long since I'd had a cinnamon roll, since GF is rare! And, like seeing one's kindergarten teacher in the grocery store for the first time (Really? My teacher Eats? That?) there was a pause for processing that information. Thanks for articulating so precisely the amazing nuances of doing this work!

Christina Sell said...

Thanks, Karen! Nice to know you are reading (and enjoying cinnamon rolls!)

Leann said...

I have been teaching part-time for about 4 years, and the boundaries issue is a tricky one. As someone who works a 9-5 corporate gig, and teaches yoga nights and weekends, all sorts of interesting encounters happen with co-workers, managers, and senior executives. I try to take the attitude of what happens in the studio stays in the studio, and let the other person take the lead in terms of discussing yoga outside of the studio setting.

I also find that some students want to add "you the yoga teacher" to their collection of friends. I move very cautiously here, as I am sensitive to creating any kind of a clique that could be hurtful in some way.

Add it to the long list of things no one told me in teacher training! Ha! :)

np said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
np said...

I would love to have a looong conversation on the parallels of being a therapist and yoga instructor.

A basic observation for effective clinical work, regardless of a clinician's approach/modality, is that the relationship is the therapy and that everything that comes up is relevant to change.

As it applies to yoga classes, I suppose we could ask what kind of "relationship" are you building as a teacher with your students? What are you going to use to observe and foster change?

I think Bryan Kest does a phenomenal job of using his students' vibes in a global way in the yoga class. His classes are large so they aren't big on technical or individual adjustments. But when he sees or senses students are judging him or others, he'll call it out and link it to what happens out of the classroom.

I suppose you need be a grounded person, not just a "good" teacher, to be able to process with your students. And this has to become part of the culture of yoga; that it is a given that your teacher was trained to get feedback. Is that beyond the scope of what (future) teachers think they're responsible for?
-nina perales

Scott Newsom said...

Hi Christina,

So glad to see you take on these issues, but I'm even more happy to see a teacher who is willing to admit mistakes, talk about harming students and who is willing to use "negatives" openly as a learning tool. I recently had to advise another teacher not to look to others to tell her how to teach within her own level of competence, that she would have to figure that out for herself. It means that her palatte of poses that she can actually use in class is much smaller, but if she cares about her students, she will stick with the level she can teach and only advance very slowly. Too many new yoga teachers think they can teach everything their own teachers have led them through and that is a grave disservice. Yoga is not about collecting poses, doing acrobatics or contortion anyway. If you can't teach a damn good class with basic poses, you won't ever be able to teach a good one with more complex or physically demanding ones.

Henry Pursner said...

I do believe that it comes down to respect (not only but significantly); space for each other, our faults, our anxieties, our failures, our successes, and to always look at your level awareness of a situation. And a healthy dose of just saying F*$K it, i'll get it next time or the next time, or maybe never. Nevertheless I did my best this time

Henry Pursner said...

I do believe that it comes down to respect (not only but significantly); space for each other, our faults, our anxieties, our failures, our successes, and to always look at your level awareness of a situation. And a healthy dose of just saying F*$K it, i'll get it next time or the next time, or maybe never. Nevertheless I did my best this time

Christina Sell said...

Thanks of sharing, Leann. It's great to hear how someone manages teaching yoga and corporate life. There are so many different variables of reach of us, isn't there?

Thanks, Nina. So happy to have this point of clarity about the context of the relationship being one that is about change. That is an important issue for us as teachers- defining what the overall, largest context is for our work because then the upheavals, difficulties, and victories are simply in relationship to the necessary challenges of evolving within that aim.

Well said, Scott. Great to hear your thoughts and observations.

Yes, Henry- I see that value so clearly in your work bodywork, yoga teaching and your approach to relationship in general. You really do live that value with great integrity.

Mary S said...

I just read the mean girls blog, wow. I've been around teachers that might disparage another method but never a student. I can't even imagine.

I have foot in mouth disease frequently, whether as a student or a teacher. I sometimes forget that I'm teaching students and not friends; they are there to practice. I even said something less that brilliant today, when a student went to the back to take a sip of coffee and sit on the bench. I said, "or you can bench this next pose." I knew right after it jumped out of my mouth, that sometimes the mouth is better closed.

On the other hand, you can't please everyone. As you said, some love adjustments, some feel picked on.
There is so much that goes into teaching - do I make a class that I would love: with many demos, repetitions, props for support, props to make poses harder - or do I make a pose that the majority of the gym goers would love: movement with breath cues, some sweat, one hard pose, and a decent savasana? Do I incorporate my sense of humor (hopefully not like above) and tell yoga stories, or do I stick to the facts at hand? Do I socialize with my students after class (about non-yoga things)? When asked a question, do I respond completely honestly (and before anyone says, yes, what if someone asked me what I thought about Bikram Choudhury or if they should go vegan? or something else that it doesn't matter what my opinion/belief is)?

Ok, brain hurts at this point, now did someone mention a cinnamon roll?

Christina Sell said...

Mary- smiling. Your wit and sense of humor definitely came through which I have always appreciated about you so even if your head hurts, you made me smile. Hope you find that cinnamon roll...

Dan said...

There is literature on this. Dual, or sometimes multiple, relationships. This is a major issue (very complicated) for clergy and there are ways that yoga teachers are very similar to clergy.

Kat Colibrí said...

Once again, THANK YOU for stirring what I agree is essential dialogue for the yoga community. I am excited to start my MA in Counseling Psychology to deepen my own contemplations around this and other matters. I definitely have not felt equipped with the tools I feel have been necessary to navigate the teacher-student )and student-teacher) scenarios that have unfolded for me - it has absolutely been a trial by fire. I think the transference/counter transference is a construct that would be important to have experience with in teacher trainings. I look forward to seeing how my own way of navigating being both student and teacher is evolved (and probably also further confused) through my studies and as I step into the role of therapist. Christina, I would be interested to hear more from you around what you see as parallel and likewise distinct between the roles of therapist and yoga teacher, in addition to what you've already mentioned here. Thanks for this great entry.

christy nones said...

stellar christina. such a good, open minded, real piece. love it, as i love you.

if only everyone were so spacious with their inner work and thought processes as you are - wow, our yoga communities would act very differently. and the work and dance continues...

thank you for being a great friend and great inspiration c. love you lady!

kwajnman said...

I am wondering if you think, Christina, that it is different and more difficult to teach yoga, and then why? I am not surprised by the observation that people are different and quite often are not aware of what they like. When I teach ( languages) people often say that they like lots of corrections and lots of pressure and then I discover that they really don't. Also most people are not aware that they probably learn different things different ways.
Another thing that struck me is that you mentioned teaching great yoga classes.I have in my yoga experience learned that some teachers want to teach great yogaclasses all the time. What wrong with a good yoga class??Most people come to get a work out and need to be guided through a series of poses but do not really need to feel ' the earth to move'or get a great spiritual insight. Actually I think it is important to teach a good solid asana class rather than always trying to create atmosphere and relate and care and...When you teach many classes it is not possible to be great all the time and simply teaching is a wonderful all time fall back.

Candice Garrett said...

I recently had an embarrassing outburst with one of my favorite teachers. I could go into details about what happened but it does not matter. There was a lapse in communocation and I sort of snapped at him in the process. I have never ever acted like thay before in class. So embarrassing, I struggled through the gamut of emotions the rest of class, from anger to embarrassment and finally guilt and shame and self justification.I could not see how Icould ever go back and show my face there again. But when I apologized to the teacher after class, he grinned and told me "that was all in your head." Perfect, because it was and it was the perfect thing to say to me in that moment. I want to be more like that when I grow up.

Unknown said...

Here's a link to a study about Social exclusion and physical pain. Thought it might be helpful.



Christina Sell said...

Well, a lot to think about.

Kat, I will be interested to see how your training in therapy and counseling clarifies these issues for you and how it will show up for you in your teaching work.

Christy- thanks, lady. Always good to know you are out there reading and sharing the journey. love you.

Karen, I actually thinking teaching is hard. (Worthwhile, challenging, awesome, inspiring and all kinds of adjectives as well.) My bias here on the blog is teaching yoga since that is my work but I bet that no matter what the discipline, the challenges are similar in teaching- be it language, yoga, driving, etc. people are involved. Parker Palmer writes a lot about this in The Courage to Teach, a must-read for everyone who teaches, in my opinion.

I agree also, that a good solid yoga class is a great aim. I wrote a blog about that a few entries ago which said as much. The pressure to be inspiring all the time is misplaced, in my opinion and just offering a solid yoga practice with some key points of instructions is of great value.

Candice- that makes my day. I can so relate to both sides of the equation.

Thanks for chiming in, folks.

Aunt Kat said...

Wow, The article about social exclusion really hits home. I am struggling with this. The studio where I practice has a very well-defined inner circle of which I am not a part. Every time I go, I feel it. I keep telling myself that it is my highschool baggage, my ego, my need for approval etc. But the fact of the matter is, it stings. The owner has every right to a circle of friends and she can't include everyone. But I have been driven to tears so many times. Thanks for sharing.

Courtney Stirrat said...

This blog, along with the Mean Girls blog, makes me want to hug my teachers for their kindness, encouragement, and generally open, clique-free approach. I am tempted to say it is because I am new to the practice, but I then that would be undervaluing the obviously intense preparation, concentration and love these women (and man!) bring to every class. Thanks to Southtown Yoga for balancing all of these expectations.

drwh0 said...

In a few short weeks I will be beginning teacher training with a teacher who has resigned her business relationship with Anusara. The prospect of this undertaking has given me pause, which is to say time for introspection. In my better moments, I think that the current state of the Anusara diaspora makes this the best time to be embarking on this journey. All such questions have come to the fore. It is a luxury, therefore, to have you lay out so many such questions for examination. I have scanned some of the names of the respondents here—I haven't even gotten to those.

I am grateful for your raising many of these, and hope to be able to roll some such considerations into my introspection, before formally embarking on my journey.

While I still seek to better articulate my own reasons for seeking to teach yoga I do have some provisional thoughts. I already teach college students an academic subject. Yoga affords me the opportunity to reach a wider variety of students without the constraints of that subject and that discipline. Where are the boundaries in that framing? That is an important question I shall now need to explore.