September 2, 2013

Taking the Seat of the Student: Can Teachers Allow Themselves to Be Students? ~ Julie Dohrman

A student walks into the classroom unassumingly and sets up her mat in the back.

She’s familiar to me. I know her because she’s a well-known yoga instructor with national fame. She’s headlined all the major festivals and conferences, been on covers of yoga magazines and offers whisks of yoga-advice on social media. She sets up, closes her eyes while I begin and offer the path of today’s class. Eyes closed, I offer a quiet centering, surrounding the theme. We Om. I cue down dog.

Soon thereafter, this student picks up her phone, which I realize she has tried to carefully hide behind a block.

I think:

“What an amazing picture that would make, a student texting in class.”

I’m instantly reminded of the delightful Sarah Court and her Yoga Thugs videos outing such outrageous yoga class blunders. This wasn’t just a student; this was a teacher as student texting in class.

Yoga-teacher-as-student continues to receive and send texts in class. She manages to follow along in class though and I hope, takes a couple of good ujjayi breaths along the way. There was a vibe created that she was not really present, separated somehow by a lack of full attention to class. Our class ends, she thanks me and laughing it off, apologizes for texting with the excuse of trying to help some out-of-town friends meet up with her. I’m mixed on whether that’s a good enough excuse but leaning on “it’s not.” I am left really pondering, teacher, how could you do that? Be that student in class, texting?

Cut to another well known yoga-teacher-as-student months later, who also sets up unassumingly in the back. This teacher doesn’t follow along and instead does her own thing throughout class, adding on to certain poses or even doing a different pose altogether. This also set up a dynamic of keeping separate from the class, with more of an “I don’t need to hear your instruction” type of presence.

Hmm, I think:

“If you have particular needs today physically/energetically/spiritually and I assume, being the experienced teacher that you are, you know how to meet these needs. Then why are you in a public class willfully?”

I’ve seen this with local teachers, as well as those with larger fame.

I’m not impervious to such things and at times, I make exceptions to add a little something to a pose while in class. As often as possible, I try to be conscious of how it may affect those around me. As a teacher of teachers, one of the first things I teach my trainees is the beauty, benefit and necessity of remaining a student, even though they are learning to take the “seat of the teacher” with dignity, confidence and humility.

It’s the basic teaching of “beginners mind” and the humbling component of becoming a leader and guide to others.

Even as a teacher, we don’t know everything—the reality of what’s happening at any given time is so vast. Knowing that I also know there are a ton of different variables involved in why teachers—or any student for that matter—do their own thing in class.

As a teacher, taking a class is a sacred, personal and gifted time. Oh, to have time to actually take class!  Besides just practicing, it’s a chance to hang up the teacher/leader hat and simply allow yourself to be led. Allowing yourself to be told what to do, trusting that the teacher—essentially a peer—will guide you well.

Why aren’t more teachers able to do that? I want to start this important conversation.

I’ve witnessed and experienced other examples where teachers, as students, “un-seat” the teacher and chime in, uninvited, to offer teaching or sequencing suggestions while a peer is teaching. I am open minded, I can hear a suggestion with no problem, but why do this to a peer in the middle of his/her class? It creates subtle doubt in the teacher, sets up a power play between teachers and more importantly, sets a potential tone of distrust from the students toward the teacher leading the class. Perhaps a private chat after class would suffice.

Why is it so difficult sometimes for teachers to just be students?

Photo: Ben Gerstein

When it comes to phones in class, there are also variables and exceptions. I teach a lot in Brooklyn, a haven for families and new moms. Most of them respectfully let me know before class that they have the phone nearby because they hired a new babysitter or they are staying alert with a sick or elderly parent/relative they’re dealing with. I’ve even had a student say before class they’re waiting to hear back about an interview and it was time sensitive.

Totally respect and understandable.

They agree to take the call outside of class. I’ve toured parts of Asia to teach and an alarming number of students text during class. For whatever the reason it’s accepted there, it’s not really accepted here to Instagram, Facebook, Tweet or chat during class. There are times where it is necessary—and I understand that.

Practice is sacred time to connect inside and cultivate greater awareness altogether. 

To me, it’s a chosen time to unplug from devices, responsibilities and be with yourself and others on the path for a mere 90 minutes.

I also acknowledge there are many variables surrounding a student bypassing teachers’ instructions and doing their own thing in class. I’m referring to that student who takes the advanced form of the pose automatically, doesn’t wait for the teacher to finish his/her instructions explaining what to work on in the pose or simply does a different pose altogether.

Barring a need to modify due to injury, a student who rushes into an advanced form or ignores the use of props to teach a particular action borders on disrespectful. More importantly, these students are missing the link of yoga’s message:

“To align with what’s being offered—especially if you chose that offering by stepping into class.”

Bottom line, it is a question of respect—for the teacher, the class and yoga as a whole. In my book, fellow teachers are peers regardless of the style, especially seasoned teachers. As a teacher, living a lifestyle steeped in awareness (supposedly,) you should not just know better, but do better. I was always taught that the best teachers are the best students. If you show up to take a fellow teacher’s class, you’re there to be led in and through the path they’re offering that day and to have your experience of it.

Even with a newer teacher, if I am in his/her class, I keep “beginners mind” and I usually learn a new way to teach a particular action or different use of a prop and always hear a wider perspective of the practice.

Part of the practice of yoga is empowered embodiment. However, if you don’t get what you want, it’s not an excuse to just do what you want instead. I think teachers of all people should know this and practice it while taking the seat of student. When the teacher-as-student creates division in class it also disrupts another valuable gift of group practice and that is creating energetic community.

A regular student and good friend of mine offered the perspective that a balanced yoga classroom is similar to a circuit board, with each person aligned, yet separately charging to create a stronger overall charge. This is part of what bonds people in communities, aside from satsang, pot-lucks and other such gatherings.

Some students innocently do their own thing because they practice in a variety of places where teachers are just guiding and giving options (“maybe you’ll want to do this”) whereas others actually teach actions, methodology and how to do poses. I understand that style of teaching, but I fall in to the second category. I can suss out those students and I always kindly invite them to stay with the class and instructions and that there’s a reason I’m teaching it in this way.

I’ve examined another fascinating thing that happens in the class when students do what they want—aside from breaking the circuit board of energetic connection and they usually don’t realize it. Other students near them get confused into thinking they’re doing something wrong, in addition to distracting the teacher. In a mixed level class you commonly have a beginner student next to a more intermediate or advanced student.

The beginner student probably isn’t ready physically to take an advanced form of the pose, but also energetically with prana. 9 out of ten times, if they see someone next to them doing it, they’ll try to follow. It could be that as a less experienced practitioner, they haven’t developed the awareness to move in stages and steps of opening and they impatiently rush ahead. They may be having anava mala flare ups of

“I suck at this and if I don’t do that more advanced pose, everyone will think I suck more.”

Sometimes it’s from an ego that wants to show off a bit. They’re all present in a class and the teacher patiently asks students to slow down to learn.

Usually beginning practitioners are simply and innocently eager, and don’t want to fall behind pacing. They’ll scramble to keep up simply because that’s what they’re working on; endurance and balancing breath and movement. I don’t think there’s intentional disrespect in these cases with experienced or beginner students, but it’s a deep opportunity for them to learn, slow down and listen.

And maybe there’s no intentional division either when an experienced yoga teacher does this stuff too. But I think teachers should know the difference between a teacher who guides and a teacher who teaches; if they are in that latter class, honor and respect the seat of the teacher.

Every teacher should be a great student.

Every teacher should also know what they need that day, and choose accordingly how and where to get it. If none of this can be done, then maybe “home/self practice” is the answer. Yoga teachers should—of all people in class—be an example of studentship.

So let’s have a dialogue:

What kind of student is your favorite teacher?

Teachers, how do you respond to students or teachers who do their own thing in your class?

Teachers, can you take a class and fully take the seat of the student?

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Assistant Editor: Gabiela Magana/Editor: Sara Crolick

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Julie Dohrman