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.