January 8, 2014

In Praise of Older Yoga Teachers. ~ Charlotte Bell


Truth be told, this post has been brewing in me for a while.

But when author and yoga blogger extraordinaire Carol Horton posted this blog on Facebook,

how to determine the value of a yoga teacher?

You can’t be around the yoga business for too long without hitting up against this classic dilemma.  Picture this…You own the local studio. It’s doing nicely, but, as with most studio-owners, your eye is regularly attuned to the bottom line. You know the critical role that great teachers play in keeping your yoga business growing. Looking at your recent attendance reports, you notice sometime interesting. You’ve got two teachers on faculty, one has studied for some 20 years with the cream of the yoga crop, lived in an ashram, rocks the ayurvedic lifestyle, treats everyone with compassion, is moderately fit from an exercise standpoint, has a gentle, somewhat subdued presence.

The other recently graduated a 200-hour training, has been practicing for about three-years, drinks the occasional beer, loves cheeseburgers, is young enough to maintain a lean, uber-fit physique, is drop-dead gorgeous, has a jaw-dropping asana practice and a ton or personality and energy. Oh, and, one other thing. Though they both teach the same type of class, a level-2 vinyasa practice, the former teacher draws a consistent, highly-loyal yet smallish group of students, while latter, packs the house, mat-to-mat, toe-to-nose, like clockwork.

Now, here’s the brutal question…who’s worth more? Youch. How do I answer this without sounding profoundly un-yogalike? …read the rest at Yogi Times.

…I finally decided it was time. (Please note that Carol didn’t write this blog; she found it and posted it for discussion.)

Let me start with this disclaimer: I am an older yoga teacher. I’m 58 years old and have been teaching for 27 years. So you may choose to filter this blog through the lens that it is self serving of me to opine about this issue. But I will add this to that filter: Even when I was first starting out in my 20s, I recognized the difference between a young, newly minted yoga teacher and an older, more integrated teacher and always gravitated toward the latter.

I’ve always craved the depth that comes from experience. Deep roots—the unseen foundation that has integrated so fully as to seem like nothing—have always attracted me far more than a showy exterior.

The blog Carol posted posed this question: Should a yoga studio pay an older, experienced teacher more than a younger teacher with much less experience even though the younger teacher may pull in many more students?

After some discussion, the blog came to this conclusion:

“… if your community members are telling you, with a five-to-one ratio, that a particular ‘newbie’ teacher, regardless of his or her experience and education, is impacting their lives on a level that far exceeds your more experienced staff, maybe it’s time to listen. After all, aren’t we here to serve the needs of our students, in the end? If the wisdom, experience and depth of your senior teacher truly has value, it will show itself in the form of impact, both in numbers and depth of transformation. Money goes to talent and motivation. Always has. Always will.”

This conclusion overly simplifies the issue.

Money, in fact, doesn’t always go to talent. In Western culture, we value youth, beauty and charisma. We value these qualities because they are easy to see at a glance. We don’t have to invest a lot of time and energy into seeing the value of externally manifested qualities such as these. They are immediately apparent, and are, in fact, quite attractive.

Depth, wisdom and experience are more subtle. Seeing and appreciating these qualities require a bit more focus, commitment and experience. Depth, wisdom and experience do shine through for those willing to look deeply themselves, but they are not as sexy or as immediately attractive as youth, beauty and charisma.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with youth, beauty and charisma in a yoga teacher. It’s just that there are many qualities that can come together to make a great yoga teacher, and sometimes digging a little deeper to unearth what’s underneath the surface can be rewarding in ways we can’t imagine.

The above-referenced article points out that older teachers are often burned out, not as enthusiastic as newbie teachers.

Actually, I don’t think this is true.

My observation is that our passion for yoga is simply more integrated. It’s true that we may not be visibly alight with religious zeal over our newfound love of yoga practice. Instead, we have a deep, abiding friendship with our practice that has weathered the inevitable highs, lows and plateaus of any long-term relationship. We understand that yoga—as well as life—is not always sweetness and light.

The journey inward is fraught with humbling, sometimes anguishing, obstacles and unanswerable questions. Our practice has been both the light that shone on these obstacles and the lifeboat we’ve clung to for ballast through the most frightening waves.

We are much less likely to tell the public what they want to hear, that when you practice yoga it’s all good. But we love our practice precisely because it has given us the opportunity to shine a light on what’s not working in our lives, which gives us the opportunity to make sometimes difficult, but freeing, choices. Our practice glows on the inside.

There is room for many kinds of teachers.

Inexperienced teachers have to start somewhere, and I have seen a few new teachers that were competent and wise right out of the chute. I wasn’t one of them. I’m grateful for the students who put up with my religious zeal and naivete in the early years of my teaching. I wore my enthusiasm on my sleeve, and I’m sure that my younger, bendier,  brunette self made for a more immediately attractive package.

But one thing I know for certain is that I can’t go back. Nor would I want to.

While my attendance numbers are not impressive by today’s standards, every time I sit in front of a class—every time—I feel infinitely grateful for the wise, experienced beings who commit a couple hours each week to yoga and to each other.


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Charlotte Bell