April 10, 2012

Teacher Appreciation.

Photo: Andrzej Szymański

Teachers are great, right?

We love them. They inspire us, challenge us, push us to be the best possible versions of ourselves. A good teacher can make the difference between an okay class and an amazing class. She’s the difference between, “ho hummm, time to go to yoga…” and, “Oh my God, Hooray! It’s time to go to yoga!

And while all yogis have heard that “the true guru is within,” sometimes it takes the guru without to lead us to our own inner teacher.

Part of the challenge as a student of yoga is finding a teacher who resonates with you, one who—as a favorite teacher of mine used to say, “speaks in your voice.” Sometimes you stumble a little before you find that person that has the elusive blend of enthusiasm, humor, physicality, pushiness, kindness, compassion, spirituality, heart and soul that’s just right for you. But when you do find them—wow, it can blow your practice wide open.

I’m sure you know what I mean; you practice yoga too.

Of course, sometimes we hate our teachers. You know, when they hold us in poses for way too long, and when they don’t open the door or the window or turn on the fan even when it is stifling hot in the room, or when they reprimand us for drinking too much water, or drinking it at the wrong time, or for having ice in our water bottle.* (Oh my God for real, can’t she get off my back? For god’s sake, I’m literally about to freaking pass out and die right now right here on my sweaty gross mat in this horrible hot room! Gahhhhh!)

But even then, as we are dying a slow sweaty yoga-death, deep down we still love them.

Being a teacher isn’t easy. In fact, it’s damn hard.

I know, I’ve been there. Teaching is so much more than just vocalizing a bunch of instructions, verbally manipulating a student into a pose (although that is a formidable task on its own). Real teaching (as opposed to “instructing”) is about gaining the trust of a roomful of strangers, guiding this crew of all ages and all ability levels safely through a series of physical postures as if navigating a ship through a storm, offering daunting yet attainable challenges, and providing both the inspiration for students to push their limits and the safe environment to cushion them when they fall. A teacher often has to play the role of entertainer, emcee, clown, carnival barker, life coach, doctor, therapist, friend and confidante all at once. It’s hard.

We tend to ask—no, demand—a lot from our teachers, and we’re often quick to judge when we find them lacking. But really, our teachers are just people. They are living, breathing, human beings just like us. At other times, in other places, it may have been different, but here and now, in America, our teachers walk among us. They don’t live on secluded mountaintops. They don’t spend the whole day studying sacred texts, or engrossed in silent meditation, or chanting the entirety of the Bhagavad Gita while clarifying butter to make their own ghee.


Your teacher is probably a lot like you. She most likely lives in the same city you do, in an apartment or house much like yours. She might work a day job, logging countless hours each day behind a desk, or maybe waiting tables, or doing any manner of random odd jobs before she heads to the studio to teach your 6:30 Hot Core Power Vinyasa Flow Fusion Arm balancing Inversion Funshop Whatever Class. She probably got into this teaching business because she loves yoga so much—because it changed her life, and because she wants, more than anything, to share this practice with others.

Your teacher’s life is probably not as different from yours as you think. Except that while you’re taking class, she’s teaching it.

Teachers teach because they love it. Many do so at significant cost to themselves, both financially (teacher trainings can be quite expensive, and the business of yoga is often not as lucrative as one might imagine) and in terms of time and energy. But these teachers are committed to doing what they do. Which is to say, not only instructing their students, but challenging them, inspiring them, pushing them, ultimately changing their lives and the way they see the world.

Yoga teachers don’t just create better yogis, they create better people.

I was reminded recently that teachers, no matter how good they are or how well-respected, often hear far more negativity and criticism than praise. Let’s face it, most of us are much more practiced at expressing dissatisfaction than expressing gratitude, and many of us only speak up when we sense a problem or feel mistreated. It’s easy to let the exciting, vibrant, revelatory moments we experience in any class pass us by without expressing thanks or how much it all means to us, even though you, like me, probably feel it profoundly.

Photo: Gustavo Peres

As students, we have a responsibility to keep our teachers teaching. Teachers need our support just as we need theirs. It can’t be all take, take, take. Many of us neglect that, or think for whatever reason that we (the students) are powerless—that we just aren’t that important, that our opinion is just one of many and that it doesn’t really matter. We may think that the teacher is too important, or successful, or yoga-famous, or just too immune to praise and criticism to care much about what we think. We perhaps believe that what we think couldn’t possibly make any difference to anybody.

But I assure you, it does.

The lessons we learn from yoga sometimes aren’t so physical. Yoga is more than just doing a bunch of poses and getting sweaty in a hot room. It’s the way we communicate with each other, the way we treat each other, and knowing that no matter how insignificant we feel, all of our actions, words, and thoughts greatly impact the people around us.

So with all that in mind, if there’s a teacher you really like, who has changed your practice, inspired you, touched your life in any way, take a moment and thank them. Talk to them, send them an email, text, Facebook message or tweet. Write a comment card and drop it in the box in the lobby (most have them). Send a message to the studio owner telling them how amazing your teacher is and why (studio owners like to know these things). I guarantee your teacher will appreciate it. It may even make her day.

Everyone likes to know that what they’re doing is making a difference in the world. Sometimes all it takes is a simple “thank you” or a few brief words of gratitude to give our teachers that feeling. And isn’t it nice to be able to give something back to those who give us so much?

Yes, yes it is.

*I am now cured of this malady, thanks to one particular teacher’s merciless haranguing. Yes, it was tough love. And let me tell you, I am better and stronger for it.


Editor: Brianna Bemel

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Alison OConnor Apr 11, 2012 10:24am

Hey guys! So just FYI, that dangling footnote at the end of the article–you know, the italicized sentence about tough love, etc. that just sort of jumps out at you out of nowhere and seems to refer to nothing–well it actually refers to the bad habit of putting ice in your water bottle that was mentioned in the fifth paragraph. There was an asterisk (*) there at one time that seems to have been lost in the editing. Also, I realize it's "Hooray" and not "Horray" (so vulgar!). Again, technical glitch that I can't seem to figure out how to fix! Hopefully we'll get these taken care of soon. In the meantime, sorry for the extremely nerdy update, just wanted to clarify! As always, thanks for reading–you are ALL my favorite person!

Tanya Lee Markul Apr 11, 2012 4:15am

Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
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Alison O’Connor

Alison O’Connor is a writer, performer, and yoga teacher living in New York City. Her writing has been featured in The New York Times, online on Elephant Journal, as well as in many other less-prestigious sounding publications, online journals, and blogs. Alison spent pretty much every moment of 2013 on a quest for self-realization that took her to the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts, the jungles of Peru, the bright blue oceans of the Virgin Islands, and the sandy desert of Nevada (among others). She meditated for hours, took roughly 500 yoga classes, went on retreats, studied with shamans, read every book she could get her hands on, and got really deep with herself. She learned a lot. Most importantly: we already have within us all the answers, and everything we need. We have only to trust ourselves, follow our desires, and trust fully in the power of our own knowing. For more on Alison, you can follow her on Facebook (alison.oconnor.33), and Twitter: @AOCinNYC, and investigate her blog: alisonoconnor.tumblr.com . NAMASTE.