Yoga: what are we Teaching? ~ Kim Roberts

Via on Oct 14, 2010

We can only teach from our experience—from what we know.

There is an old saying in the academic world: those who can’t do, teach.

I hope the opposite is true when teaching yoga. As my teacher Richard Freeman once explained,

“When you can do it, you can teach it.”

What is this “it” we are teaching? If yoga is union with our divine nature, enlightenment, freedom, samadhi, or whatever you call it…and we don’t have first hand experience of it…how can we claim to teach it?  How can we call ourselves teachers of yoga, if, in fact, we have not understood what yoga is?

I must admit that I don’t really know.

Of course there are basic skills that are very helpful to teaching yoga:  the practices of asana and pranayama and meditation.  But this is not the yoga.  This is the practice that may (we hope) lead us to yoga.   It is possible to teach others how to structure the practice.  But suddenly, as teaching yoga becomes fashionable, many instructors might not have the understanding of the subject we claim to teach.

There is a solution to this dilemma. It is called practice.  So the answer to the question “what are we teaching?’ is, “what are we practicing?”  This, whether or not we are aware of it, is what we are teaching.  So if you want to teach, practice.  If you want to deepen and expand your teaching, deepen and expand your practice.

We can only teach from our experience, from what we know.  If we try to go beyond, then we may end up parroting concepts and ideas about what we think we know.  If we practice strictly adhering to someone else’s guidelines about practice, lacking the courage to examine our own unique approach to walking the path, then we might teach rigidity. If we focus exclusively on strengthening muscles, striving for physical perfection, then we could be teaching gymnastics.  If we practice fear, avoiding our inner voice guiding us to further depths, and instead follow what everyone else is doing, we may teach fear.  If we cannot be alone with our experience, how can we teach others to relax into their experience?

If we practice confusion about our personal boundaries and need our students to reinforce our egos, then we risk teaching confusion and ego reinforcement. We cannot “teach” others to be fully awake beings, especially if we are not there ourselves.  We can practice wisdom and compassion, we can model it or create structures to reinforce it.  We have yamas and niyamas, and Buddhist precepts.  We have tools, such as asana and pranayama and meditation practice.  But how can we teach someone to behave?  We cannot.  Each must discover for herself where these practices are leading us. One sure thing is that we will never find our own way by following someone else’s path.

There are no rules in life!  There is cause and effect, or karma.  So if a teacher is trying to impose her view on you or discouraging you from doing your own personal investigation, then you might wonder why.  Our wisdom comes from within; by training ourselves (through practice) to listen to our inner guide, this guide becomes stronger and more reliable.  As Matthieu Ricard points out,  “The Buddha always made it clear that his teachings should be examined and meditated on, but never simply accepted as true simply out of respect for him.”

Cultivating the qualities of compassion, generosity, peace, strength and patience seems to have a positive effect on the quality of our life, moment to moment.  Cultivating anger, hatred, greed, anxiety, intolerance and jealousy seems to make us miserable.  We have a choice, each moment of which to practice.  We can either accept and live with life’s present manifestation, or we can struggle against it, reject or deny it and further our own suffering.  We have this choice each and every moment of our lives.  We can choose any moment to start practicing acceptance, why not this one?

At a certain point the practice becomes the teacher and our allegiance shifts from external to internal.  This does not mean that we disregard the external teacher.  Just as we trust our teacher, we must trust our inner guide.  Our trust in our inner guide then leads us back to trust in the teacher.  If not, then we need to examine the discrepancy and see which one is false.  Over-reliance on the teacher can become a lack of responsibility to oneself at a certain point.  The teacher is a guide, not the leader.

As students, we must make distinctions between gurus and spiritual guides.  A teacher who does not have realization of enlightened mind cannot guide you there as a realized guru can.  But she can show you techniques and practices learned from her teachers.  It is extremely important to recognize this.  Teachers who earn my respect are those who freely admit their limitations.  If there are areas where we are still unclear, be honest, rather than drawing unsuspecting students into the drama.  We can only take students as far as we have come.

But as a yoga teacher without realization in the fullest sense, what I can offer is a sincere devotion to the practice of increasing awareness and acceptance.  I can share my experience of the path, the path that leads us to become fully awake, wise and compassionate human beings.  What makes you feel fully alive?  Do that.  And if you can do it, you can teach it.

When not on pilgrimage or retreat in Crestone, Kim Roberts leads yoga and meditation retreats in Bhutan.  Visit her website, or follow her travels on the blog, Diary of a Pilgrim.

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4 Responses to “Yoga: what are we Teaching? ~ Kim Roberts”

  1. Ali says:

    My first reaction is to explain that what we practice is not Yoga though in the West everything tends to be abbreviated, the Hatha Yoga postures are really for the advanced and what is imparted to most is what is more aptly called Pre-Yoga. My contribution as a former Pre-Yoga instructor for some years. The exercises are known to some as psycho-physical exercises because they involve a body-mind connection for the purpose of developing the body rhythm which is unique to each person. Basically, they are stretching exercises to move as many muscles that otherwise go without exercise. The way I liked practicing Pre-Yoga was doing it on a daily basis and then go swimming on the weekends which is an even more thorough exercise of those dormant muscles. Thanks for taking the time to read this and I hope your better health. Another component of Pre-Yoga is diet which for more serious practitioners includes vegetarianism and for space sake will leave for another time. Again thanks and have a happy mind in a happy body. Ali

  2. Charlotte says:

    Thank you for such a wise article. I completely relate to what you are saying. Even though I fell totally in love with yoga in my 20s, I knew somehow that it was not just about rushing into a teacher training and then hanging my sign out. I have such respect for the depth of the practice, and I knew that it would take years, maybe decades, to even have an inkling what I was doing. This is even more important for me in meditation. I've been practicing insight meditation since the late '80s, and have attended many 10- and 30-day retreats, but I don't yet feel qualified to teach. Then I see 20-somethings in my town teaching meditation after they've taken a few classes. I never teach anything I haven't fully embodied. This, of course, decreases the number of techniques I can offer, but like you, I feel that I can't teach anything I don't know in my cells.

  3. [...] be a totally on fire feminist vegan, and that is totally lovable. 9. Sometimes I know more about some things than my teachers. 10. Working in groups is uplifting. I don’t have to do it alone. Ever. 11. I can use political [...]

  4. Kim Roberts says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments…no matter where we are, it seems right to just keep looking, and sharing what we know. Even if I don't always have answers, I appreciate knowing that my words inspire questions!

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