The other night, I pulled myself out of bed, wiped a pool of snot from my upper lip, took a shot of blue Tylenol cold and flu medicine and headed out to teach a yoga class.
I was sick, grumpy and stoned as a goat off the medicine. I arrived at the studio dazed and over an hour early—an accident. I was so entirely out of it, I was surprised I had managed to show up at all.
As a yoga teacher, I’ve found myself in this situation dozens of times throughout the years. I’ve taught through shoulder injuries, wrenched backs, cranky knees, colds—not to mention break-ups, breakdowns and badly-timed bowls of chili.
There was that rookie mistake back in my 20s where I taught after a very long night at a Halloween party, a Halloween party where I’m told I attempted to do a keg stand and ended up flat on my ass with my dress over my head. I commanded my class to grab as many props is they could, while I allowed a scratched-up meditation CD to play for the next hour, skipping every five minutes or so. I failed to notice this because I was so busy feeling cheap and nauseous. I spent the next six hours on the bathroom floor surrendering my sins into the toilet bowl and begging for forgiveness. Or, at least, compassion.
Part of being a yoga teacher is the understanding that what you take into the studio, your students will leave with. You are the the maestro, and the students, all of various instruments and pitches, follow your notes. On your best day, it is a creative and spiritual synergy where everyone is in tune. A transformative team effort. On your worst, you’re a clumsy, earsplitting violin student. The students do their best to block you entirely.
Becoming a yoga teacher did not, as I had hoped, make me an object of perfection and grace. I’m not spared flatulence, bad moods, spiritual doubt, relationship drama, the delectability of chicken nuggets and fries, sprained wrists, or colds.
These are things you don’t want your students thinking about when they are breathing into a delicate crow pose. My break-up has no place in your Warrior I, and at no point during savasana do I want your mind working on how to solve my mother issues. These are the plot points of my life—what I attempt to leave alongside my shoes outside the studio door.
Easier said than done. I once saw a teacher collapse into a wet, messy child’s pose midway through class. Tears were running down her face and pooling on her sweat soaked mat. We students gave each other sideways glances and followed the teacher in kind. Most of us knew the teacher personally—knew about her recent divorce. Some students cried for her. Some for themselves.
The teacher later told me she was humiliated and wanted to apologize to the class. I told her it was was one of the most beautiful moments I’d ever experienced on the mat. No need for apologies.
It doesn’t always go like that, though. I was on a road trip and decided to stop in at a studio that was foreign to me. It seemed nice—a bit posh, even. I was ready for a top-dollar class, ready to stretch out my road-weary hips. What I got was a lecture about the yoga instructor’s boyfriend. She hated his band, she hated his cheating, she hated his hatred of yoga. I began to hate this man, too. So much so that I lost my balance in triangle and fell to the floor.
I left that class with very tight hips and a hankering to buy a baseball bat. Not the effect I was hoping for.
I know I have overshared and let students in a little bit too much from time to time. It’s hard to maintain control of yourself when you are in the thick of illness or loss. There was very little in my early yoga training that prepared me to handle teaching through these things. We adjusted lower backs and combed Patanjali for wisdom. We spoke of music choices and making sure that you purchased good teacher’s insurance. But there was no section on teaching when you think you’re entire life is collapsing around you, when Mercury is retrograding all over your relationships and bank accounts.
I was sure if I had the right chimes and playlists, everything would kind of work itself out, that I could use special effects to create a little magic for me. So, it took a few years of humiliation and student rejection to recognize that I was going to have to figure out how to teach with my life instead of trying to teach my way out of it.
As a teacher, I am all I have to offer. This is not an ego thing but a fact. My experiences as a yogi and as a human being are the foundations of my practice. Every teacher is unique, has a style and heart all her own. This is what makes going to a class so different from, say, busting it out in the basement on the Wii Fit.
You, teachers, are not factory-made—you are flesh and bone. This is why students fight self-consciousness and long work-days and every kind of life drama to come play with you.
So you have to show up. This doesn’t mean that the facts and details of your home disclosure or your raging case of IBS are fodder for the flow. You have to keep the exact details to yourself. But if you’re heart is freshly broken, why not celebrate it with your students through a smiling, big-breathed fish pose? Why not land them in a chest-tingling supported bridge for a few minutes or so? Why not give them the gift that you hope to give yourself when the hurt settles a bit?
It is very likely that they are experiencing that same pain as they bravely make their ways into the studio. Almost weekly, some student will approach me and say, “that’s exactly what I needed. How did you know?”
I’d like to claim I got it like that, that I can read each student’s needs the minute they walk in the room. I don’t. As I said, yoga didn’t give me a miraculous third eye. It gave me, it continually gives me, an acceptance of myself and my story. I no longer need to cover things up, push them to the back of my mind, distract, distract, distract, damnit!
It also made me see, no special effects needed, the oneness of the universe. My pain is not some undiscovered island. It’s a land inhabited by pretty much every human being on earth. It takes different forms for different people, but essentially it’s the same. We humans know death. We know fear. We know true joy.
As a teacher, it’s your expression of that experience that makes you an inspired teacher. Taking what everyone feels and experiences, and making it move. It can be the choreography of grief or elation. It can make vulnerable or empower. These are the decisions that you have to make as a teacher, and every moment of your lives will form those decisions.
I made the decision to focus my class, that very congested evening, on encouraging my students to take excellent care of themselves this cold and flu season. To move at the earth’s more relaxed pace. To not let stress make them sick, as I tend to do. Then we all melted into bound badhakonasana until I heard a student snoring.
Afterwards, that snorer approached me and said she hadn’t slept in days due to a sinus infection, that her very distracting nap had been the closest she’d been to sleep in days. She said the class had been perfect for her.
“You must have known I needed it,” she said.
At least I think that’s what she said. I was two sheets to the wind on that cough syrup. I didn’t know where the African drums on my i-Pod stopped and I began. Never again. Namaste.
Ed: Kate B.