July 16, 2012

Teaching Yoga: Keeping It Real.

Teaching Yoga: Keeping it Real

Because yoga is a spiritual practice, being a yoga teacher can set you up as the “expert” on all things spiritual, emotional, physical and mental, whereas in reality, you simply teach—wait for it…

a s a n a.

No one had to sign an agreement when they graduated from yoga teacher training that said they must now serve as their students’ spiritual leader or guru. We teach people postures and occasionally some historical teachings that apply to being alive in the modern world.

Yet, students (and teachers) often erroneously assume that because you are an asana teacher, you are not only supposed to know the secrets of the Universe, but that you should always be happy, a spiritual role model and, oh yeah, unconditionally loving and peaceful.

If you buy into these assumptions about yoga teachers, it is very easy to get sucked into the trap of having to be “perfect.”

When I first started teaching, I mistakenly “bought my own hype” (as Seane Corn recently described this behavior in yogis). I let students put me on a “pedestal.”  The projections were there, and instead of fighting them, I let them pressure me into acting flawless. This had consequences.

I never let down my guard, so students were often disappointed or completely disillusioned if I was having a rough day, or if I was going through a tough period.

This created a distance, and made students feel intimidated by me, which was the last thing I wanted.

After some humbling experiences born out of students’ inevitable and understandable disenchantment with me when they learned that I was far from perfect, I learned that it takes much less energy (prana) to actually be real around my students, than to try to maintain the façade of some holy saint.

It became a practice to soften and share my humanity, to take responsibility when I made a mistake, to admit my ignorance, and most importantly, to be genuinely interested in student’s lives.

The result of this shift has been powerful.  Relationships with students are closer, students have become more committed to the journey, and the community has expanded.

As teachers, we are not “other” than our students, we are all experiencing the same Universal energy—just in different ways.

On the other hand…

Does the fact that you are just an “asana teacher” and not a spiritual leader give you full license to be a hedonistic schmuck?

Let’s put it this way: Would you want your coach, doctor or therapist to have questionable ethics such as being dishonest, stealing or sleeping with their patients or clients? And more importantly, would the professional institutions from which they received their degrees or licenses think this was fine?

Should professional yoga asana teachers be any different? Just because they are yoga teachers, should they be held to a different standard than doctors or therapists?

Newsflash: Having a spiritual practice and being psychologically mature are not mutually exclusive.

Yoga is not the be-all-end-all practice for living a masterful life.  However, living a masterful life is yoga.

Modalities such as psychotherapy, bodywork, cardiovascular exercise and good medical care all help us live life more adeptly in ways that yoga alone cannot provide.

There are no hard or fast rules, but my hunch is that the yoga world would benefit greatly from its asana teachers being real, telling the truth about their liabilities, and getting the support and supervision they need to skillfully practice the Yamas and Niyamas in and out of the classroom.

If you teach yoga, fortify yourself with good outlets, such as therapy once a week or bi-monthly, getting out in nature, and daily cardiovascular exercise to help you blow off steam.  Bolster yourself up with coaching to help stay accountable to your family, your dreams and your goals.

Keep it real for yourself. Keep it real for your students—who are waiting for your authentic teaching.


Editor: Kate Bartolotta

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