When the comment got back to me, I was embarrassed. “Bitch from hell” was not what I was going for. I resolved to be nicer. Later, in my twenties, I was a new yoga teacher, lacking in confidence and longing to be liked. I pumped out nice by the gallon. My classes grew.
After a couple of years, I decided all this niceness was utterly insupportable. The inauthentic nature of my niceness was wearing on me. I was sick of it! I decided I had been babying my students. I turned off being nice and I turned on…something else. If I had a bad day, I’d show it. If one of my students seemed disturbed by the way I spoke to her, that was her problem—she needed to face her shit! During this era of my teaching, I often received feedback that included the words “drill sergeant” and “Nazi”. My classes were PACKED.
Here’s the problem: I didn’t go into teaching to arrogantly boss people around (although that has been a fabulous perk. Kidding!) And I didn’t go into teaching yoga to be liked. (Oh, all right. Maybe I did, a little, at the beginning. Okay, A LOT, at the beginning. Cut me a break, I was 23.) Way down, underneath overtly manipulative bossiness and the covertly manipulative niceness, was a desire to make a difference for people. At this point I’d met John Friend and I had a name for what I wanted to do. I wanted to serve.
And the nasty approach was not serving. I’ll relate just one incident here. I snapped at a student for asking me to turn on the air conditioning. (“OKAY, you don’t have to CRY about it!”) I thought she was whiny. She got up and left. After class I called her to apologize. She told me she appreciated my apology, but that she could never take my class again. I thought about it, and you know what? I wouldn’t take my class again either. Who wants to be snapped at by their yoga teacher? Enough friction exists outside the yoga studio. Enough friction arises within you on the mat. And enough friction exists between you and your yoga teacher (thought bubble: “how much longer are we gonna hold this? Enough about shri—I want savasana!”) without the teacher being needlessly rude to you.
Newsflash: indifference, disrespect, and sarcasm are not empowering. Sadly, people who are used to indifference, disrespect, and sarcasm feel right at home with this approach, regardless of whether or not it actually works for them. Are there teachers out there who are interpersonally skilled enough to use negative energy with JUST the right person at JUST the right moment in JUST the right way to create an awakening in the student? Maybe. But you know what? I’m not that teacher. I’m not doing anybody any favors by being rude. I’m not teaching someone a special life lesson about how “the real guru is within you”. I’m not “being a mirror” and reflecting their essence back to them. I’m being self-indulgent and ineffective.
“Manners are an economy,” writes Henry James, and if our primary intention is to serve, superfluous nastiness is not economical. Nor is being ingratiating out of a need to be liked. It’s far more effective to be KIND. Kindness is going slow enough and being clear enough that people can truly understand. Kindness is making a genuine effort to see the good intentions behind unskillful words or actions. Kindness is patient. It takes the high road. It makes the inevitable friction of life and yoga a little more bearable. When I’m kind, treating my students respectfully and revealing deeper truths to them are the same thing.
Does this mean that I never snap at my students? No. I am human and I snap. It DOES mean that I no longer justify snapping at my students. Does this mean that when I DO snap at my students, that I feel really guilty about it? No. Guilt sucks. I just clean it up by apologizing if necessary. Does this mean I’m inauthentic? No. When I’m having a horrible day, I acknowledge it to myself and to my loved ones. But when I step into the classroom, I try my best to set aside my day and embody the wider vision of my role as the yoga teacher.
I am sure there are tons of yoga teachers out there who do not struggle with these issues, who understand from the get-go that the whole point is kindness. I am not that wise. The bitch from hell inside me says, “Ten years of teaching and ‘be kind’ is one of your greatest insights? How lame are you?” I’d like to tell her to STFU, but she needs kindness too. And that’s the great lesson. When I finally realized that the way to treat my students was kindness, I realized that was how I had to treat myself too. Not bullying. Not babying. Kindness.