Serving Our Students

Yoga teachers constantly must ask themselves how the practices they teach serve and support their students and the lives they lead today.  So much of what we see in the marketplace of Yoga is a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.  This is really a shame.  Yoga was not  intended to be taught in classrooms to large swathes of people sweating and grooving to the latest hits.  I am not saying that there is anything particularly wrong with de-stressing or feeling good.  These are definite side effects of doing Yoga, but if we stop there, our students will never get to experience the promise of Yoga’s complete transformation. The way we discover whether a practice serves and supports our students is to first maintain our own personal practice.  Simply put, we must practice what we preach. Yoga learned in teachers’ trainings does not replace that which is cultivated in self-study and on the mat.  When we put our time into something, we begin to know it.  It’s only through understanding something in our own body, mind, and spirit that we have the ability to impart something of its flavor and nature.

Likewise, done with heartfelt yearning for personal transformation, our practice can teach us who we are: our strengths, our biases, and the things that fluster our beings.  Without taking steps on the path of self-discovery teachers run the risk of manipulating their students; of creating messes in the classroom; or of being taken advantage of.  All of these experiences are natural for a young teacher, however, if they go undetected below the radar of our awareness, they take over, leaving our students lead in wayward directions.

A similar trap many young teachers fall into is teaching a standardized approach to Yoga.  The young teacher fails to recognize that each of her students is unique.  Some are relatively more flexible than others.  Many come to class with acute and chronic injuries that must be tended to.  In general, each body is peculiar.  Likewise, the stages of life our students are in need to be recognized.  A teenager or someone in her early twenties, for example, might benefit from an active and dynamic practice to mimic that stage of development.  Likewise, as our students age, household and career responsibilities may preclude them from vigorous practices.  Aging students might benefit from a more static, less active approach to postures and increased focus on the internal aspects of Yoga: breath, meditation, and study.

A great teacher not only recognizes the impact of age and the capacities of her students, but she will also recognize the effect of the seasons on her students’ beings.  Winter, for example, is a time of hibernation.  Forward bends, long exhales, long holds in postures, and slow transitions from one posture to the next tend to bring forth an introverted state of mind.  We might choose to emphasize these aspects in order to help our students harmonize with the season.  Or, if we notice that a particular student experiences depression at this season, we might reverse the tendency and emphasize the opposite: backbends, longer inhales than exhales, and a more staccato transition from one asana to the next.  In order to find out what is absolutely appropriate for our students, a great teacher will recognize her students as individuals.

The spirit of an individual can only be discovered in a one-to-one relationship of student to teacher.  This is a relationship that develops over weeks, months, and years.  When a teacher can watch a student over a great span of time, she has the ability to recognize when to push, when to hold back, when to cradle and support, and when to take away.  This is a dialogue that takes place over time.  And the dialogue is not geared solely around postures and practices.  These merely serve as the medium through which some of the dialogue takes place. The relationship is a human one-to-one relationship[1].

Some teachers are particularly gifted at recognizing and working with the spirit of a student and understanding his or her needs, while others are particularly fixated on the dogma of their respective lineage or tradition.  Tradition provides us with insight and guidelines, but the past has no monopoly on wisdom. Practices and beliefs that were applicable only a few hundred years ago might no longer hold sway in the lives of students today.  What applied to young forest dwelling, sexually abstinent, Indian boys and men one hundred years ago may not apply in the same way today.  We have been influenced by the internet, the nuclear bomb, Starbucks, and global warming.   The challenge for most teachers is not to throw the whole thing out, to just turn the music on full blast in order to teach “Hot Sexy Yoga.”  Likewise, because something has been done in a certain fashion for hundreds, if not thousands of years, does not make it divinely inspired.

This point is illustrated by an old, Indian story about a man who owned a precious gem that he kept hidden in his closet.  Toward the end of his life, he gave the gem to his son and told him to wear it daily and pass it on to his oldest child.  Being an obedient son, he did as he was told and handed it on to his son.  The son, wanting to honor his grandfather, decided to bury it in the backyard and marked the spot with a stone so future generations would be able to honor their ancestors.  When he grew old, he showed his son the spot.  When that son grew old, he forgot what was buried there. He had never seen the gem, but he told his daughter to mark the spot with a stone because it was very important.  She did as she was told.  Her daughter and her grandson and her great-grandson and so on and so forth for countless generations also added stones.  After a time, an enormous pile had accumulated, and no one knew there was a gem buried underneath.

A great teacher must have enough of a discerning mind to recognize what is dogma and what is essence.  She should take tradition seriously enough to challenge it, wrestle with it, and help it evolve. To do so it helps to steep oneself in the tradition from which she teaches.  It is critical to understand the sources of our teaching, to comprehend the spirit of the tradition, and to differentiate dogma from truth, cultural biases from fundamental truths.  Without this foundation we flounder between self-doubt and hubris.

Also, if we stop only at the doorway of our tradition without understanding or respect for other traditions, we can become chauvinistic and small-minded.  Different methodologies and vantage points can enhance our teachings incredibly. The Ashtanga system, from which I teach, does not emphasize anatomical alignment, but I have found that some of the methods espoused by Iyengar Yoga teachers can both prevent and treat repetitive strain injuries that come about in the classroom.  We live in a time when we have access to a myriad of ideas.  The point is not to close them out and pretend that they do not exist.  This is an oversimplified method to dealing with the complexity of life today.  Likewise, if we merge it all, we run the risk of watering something down to the point where the essence of age-old traditions is lost.

Each of us who practices and teaches Yoga today has the responsibility to bring it forth from the past and make it as true and applicable today as it was hundreds, if not, thousands of years ago.  To do so, it is important to have a healthy respect for the traditions from which they spring, but if we stop there and don’t make the practices applicable for our students and the lives they lead, Yoga will not survive.  And if we turn it into another form of calisthenics with a pseudo-spiritual overlay, Yoga will become just another sport or feel-good activity.  Our role as teachers is not just to disseminate directions, but we are the current lineage holders, to one degree or another.  We cannot take this challenge lightly. Each of us must struggle to bring forth a Yoga that not only is applicable for our students today, but that will set the stage for their students tomorrow.

[1] The most accessible method of finding one to one relations is a Mysore-style Ashtanga class or through private yoga instruction.  Mysore-style classes are unique within the Ashtanga Yoga tradition. Each student receives individual instruction, practices at their own pace, and develops a practice that suits his or her own needs. The teacher's role is that of facilitator, helping each student via verbal and physical adjustments. The Mysore approach allows the student the benefit of an individually-adapted practice while benefiting from the energy and support of the group setting.