Let’s be honest, we yoga teachers love to micromanage.
Think about it — being a yoga teacher is the perfect job for card-carrying control freaks. We tell people how and when to move —and they do it! We even tell them how and when to breathe, for pete’s sake — that’s some serious control! (Insert maniacal laughter here.)
I’ll be the first to admit it — I totally want to manage everyone and everything around me. Not in a blatantly bossy or Jedi-mind-trick kind of way. I’m more subversive about it; I try to manage the people around me through managing myself. This means allowing myself to say and do only the things that I think will elicit the response that I want (i.e., people saying and doing the things that make me feel comfortable and happy). This essentially means that I replace my real self with the self who others will like and respond to in an equally well-managed way.
I’m aware of managing myself in this way with friends, family, strangers and my yoga students. For example, a few months ago when I came into the studio, I had an exchange with someone right before class that got me agitated — well, flaming pissed off, really. As I began my class, though, the manager inside of me said that it’s not OK for me to be angry, so I shut down how I was feeling.
Unfortunately, that shutdown turned me into a robot. I was so disconnected from myself—because my self in that moment was feeling decidedly combative. And since my inner manager deemed that it wasn’t OK to be angry while teaching yoga, I had no idea what to be and had no other choice than to teach class on autopilot. I’m pretty sure it sucked for my students just as much as it did for me.
This managing of ourselves is where I think yoga teachers take the cake as control freaks. How many times have you seen a teacher cry? Be angry? Be pessimistic or a total mess? For the most part, yoga teachers show cheeriness, love, faith and service.
I’m not saying that’s bad; it’s absolutely lovely to exude that—when it’s real.
But have you ever screamed in rage or sobbed heavily as you drove to teach your class and then walked in as if you were the embodiment of peace and wisdom?
Now you might say that it’s not appropriate to bring your stuff into the workplace, and I agree that our classroom should not be our own personal therapy office. But I’m also strongly suggesting that the studio should not be a stage for us to perform the role of blissful and balanced beacons of perfection.
If we can’t show up in the studio as human beings, then we’re teaching our students that they can’t, either. And then we’re only reinforcing the belief that yoga is a practice through which you manage your mess or bypass your shit, rather than a practice that’s really about being fully yourself.
I think this is one of our biggest obstacles to being truly transformational teachers — our unwillingness to accept that we’re human. Some of us thought we’d get the secret backstage pass to grace and enlightenment when we got our teacher certification. (And some of us strut around as if we actually did.) We think we can sutra, chant, asana, breathe, mantra and mudra our way around the muck, and we spread that gospel to our students in a way that keeps the studio one tightly-managed collection of people pretending to be someone other than who they really are.
Yoga isn’t about developing techniques to bypass the muck, it’s about developing techniques to give us the courage and humility needed to venture into the muck full on. Some of us know this and teach this, but I’ve seen very few teachers actually embody it in a real way. The ones who do humble and inspire me, because it’s one of the most vulnerable and loving things anyone can do for themselves or for someone else.
I’m not suggesting that we need to engage in demonstrative emotional outbursts when we teach, but I do think that we shouldn’t hide how we feel. The day after my automaton experience mentioned above, I was even angrier than I had been the day before. This time, instead of trying to pretend otherwise and getting all tight and shut down, I simply told my students I was furious at something and that I wasn’t going to try to hide it.
Just saying it made it OK for me to stay in my body. And what I found was that I could actually feel present, balanced and furious at the same time; it’s not my anger that makes me feel prickly and disconnected, it’s my resistance to feeling angry that does. I also found that about ten minutes into class the seething softened and I was able to feel the fear that was underneath, which was a sweet and welcomed revelation for me. And despite being mad and scared, I still taught a kick-ass class because I was present through it all. Thank you, yoga.
But the coolest part was all the emails from students I received that evening saying thank you because I had given them permission to be themselves, simply through seeing that I was a human being, too. And not only that, but also that seeing me be angry and present had expanded their idea of what yoga actually is and what it allows for.
Sure, it’s true that if you do yoga you can heal a shoulder injury. You can sew together tattered faith. You can open yourself to experience more joy. But this isn’t what it’s all about, and we need to be careful as teachers that we aren’t preaching and personifying only the fixes and the fluffy, comfy stuff.
Instead of trying to manage our students into playing the acceptable role of student by offering them yogic tools to get out of their emotional, physical or spiritual pain or discomfort, what if we offered them our presence that said “I see your pain and discomfort,” and then offered them the tools to be with it in themselves? To truly do this for your students, you have to be willing to do it for yourself. So what would it look like if you managed yourself less? What aren’t you free to be or do as a teacher? What if you did it?
Jay Fields is a yoga teacher and writer who wears her heart on her sleeve and loves connecting with other human beings at their growth edge. Having taught yoga for over a dozen years and having earned a master’s degree in Integral Transformative Education, she doesn’t just teach poses, she teaches the whole person. Jay offers public classes in Portland, OR, leads workshops for teachers and students internationally and nationally, and mentors new teachers. To find out more and to read her guide “How Not to be a Poser: 12 Principles for Transformational Teaching” visit her at her website.