April 30, 2012

The Seat of the Teacher. ~ Erica Wagner

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“I could have decided to leave the workshop and never study with this teacher again–a pattern that is common for me. It boils down to ‘checking out,’ leaving a relationship and leaving the moment.” ~Christina Sell  

I am a yoga teacher without a teacher.

I had a teacher and at first, I loved him. I put him on a pedestal; I was his devotee. Then, over time, I saw that he was human and it annoyed me.

Yet, I wanted more of his humanness because it meant that he was picking me to be his confident. I got all the gossip, the mean spiritedness, the complaints about others—and I felt special.

When I entered his teacher training, I signed a non-compete agreement with all the other trainees. We agreed to work only for him as long as his yoga enterprise existed in name.  In return, I received world-class asana teaching incorporating alignment and Uujayi-driven flow, soulful kirtan, and the inter-related nature of the eight-limbed path.

My aesthetic was shaped. I came to love the understated design of our studio, the skillfulness of giving confident and helpful adjustments, the joy of creating playlists and practicing to music in a community of dedicated practitioners. He raised me up and helped to form my point-of-view about yoga in the world.

I was taught that teaching class was not an opportunity to ‘get in my own practice’ and that as the teacher, I was to sit at the front of the room for the duration of my students’ savasana.  I learned to appreciate the precise folding of blankets and returning of props. He taught me to practice, practice. Practice without grasping and to practice differently when injuries arrived.

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After graduation from teacher training, I was immediately added to the weekly teaching schedule. When he told our group that to become talented teachers we must lead at least three classes a week, I said yes even though I knew it would be a lot with my full-time job. I stayed silent when he banned two core students from his studio—my dear friends. I stayed and practiced when he delved more deeply into a method that did not resonate with me.

In my staying, I learned a lot.

In my humanness, I complained and I gossiped and I never said how angry I was that the teachings were changing—that my teacher was changing.

My teacher’s journey was one that changed almost everything in his life—through it all he practiced. The first thing I noticed were his comments about back pain and, as a result, how he was finding it difficult to practice and teach vinyasa and Ashtanga styles. Less experienced teachers took over all of these classes. I was teaching a lot. I got calls every time he was unable to get back to teach because he was taking asana classes 5 hours away. He often asked me to cover the Sunday satsang. I was in his seat.

I was losing my teacher.

After a while, he stopped coming to guide the dwindling group of Mysore students and it became an unmoderated practice. Then, it became me practicing alone in the studio.

I didn’t tell him that I wanted him to return from his trips in time to be there for his scheduled classes. Nor did I say that his newly trained teachers needed teaching—that I needed his teachings. I stayed silent rather than begging him to “stop studying Iyengar yoga; please just keep things as they were.” Instead, I said OK every time he asked me for help, and I attended a minimum of three alignment-focused classes a week.

At home, I complained to my boyfriend about the changes in my teacher and his teachings. I b*tched with friends from the studio about it all. The ones who had left told me to join them at this-studio or that-one. Silently, I swelled a bit with pride because I was still the chosen one—my teacher’s go-to person.

When his studio lost its lease, I was the last of the original community who moved with him to teach in other venues. The rest of my cohort were practicing elsewhere and were no longer teaching—afraid they would be sued because of the non-compete my teacher would surely enforce. I was teaching alignment-focused vinyasa now that I practiced Iyengar yoga most regularly.

He wanted me to love this method as much as he did. He began traveling to India for concentrated study in medical-based Iyengar classes. I assisted his classes when he was home.

During this time, I watched him change his name, his romantic relationship, his teachings and his spiritual practices. I saw new students coming to take his classes. Folks who needed a slower-paced class, folks with medical concerns, people who fell in love with his teaching—who put him on a pedestal and became his devotees.

I finally spoke to my teacher about being unhappy with his new focus, his desire for me to love what he loved, my feelings of loss around the Mysore community and being overwhelmed by the amount of classes I was teaching. I said, “I am not getting from yoga what I used to get. It isn’t filling me up; I am not happy.”

He replied, “Yoga isn’t about getting happy. If you are seeking pleasure, then perhaps you will be like so many others who practice for a few years and then give up when it gets difficult.”

I didn’t work for him after that. I didn’t practice asana for a long time and I blamed him for it.


For a number of years I told this story: “I lost my community and my teacher. Now I practice and I try to get back the love I had for it, but it is gone. If I could find a great teacher—I would practice more.”

Then, I told this one: “Yoga is just so commercialized and teachers are hypocrites. I am so tired of putting on the cloak of ancient Indian practice—we look foolish.”

The facts are this: My life changed as a result of yoga. When I first started practicing with my teacher, I had moved back to the states, after living abroad for eight years, because I received a prestigious job for which I felt totally unqualified.

I was clinically depressed and almost immediately started going to a yoga studio thinking it might help. I was out of shape physically and terrified of living my life. My skin had a grey tint to it from drinking, smoking and not sleeping well. I was fearful of partner poses and inversions. Each time I did full wheel, I broke down in tears from the emotions.

Day-by-day I practiced. And one day, I was in the seat of the teacher.

The fact is that I signed a non-compete agreement without bothering to understand what it meant.

Another fact: I said yes to a lot of teaching and I became a very good teacher because of this.

The truth is that I left my teacher because it was easier to leave than to stay.

I left because it wasn’t enjoyable anymore.

When I practice now, I think of him and all he taught me. When I teach, I am regularly grateful for how I learned to be a good teacher. When I think back to him as a human being, I consider how difficult it must have been for him to be in the teacher’s seat during a time of dramatic change in his life.

It has been a long time now since I have seen him.  I am living in a different part of the world, practicing in the back corner of many different yoga studios.

I hear he is too—in different parts of the world—practicing and teaching. 


Erica Wagner is a professor, mom, wife, yoga teacher, and student who loves to write – but loves reading even more.  The eight-fold path takes her out of her head and into experience –something she values enormously.  She occasionally blogs at www.yogicooperative.com.



Editor: Cassandra Smith

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