In 2004, I went to study yoga at a school in the Himalayas. Throughout the month-long intensive, my teachers continually opined that “people didn’t want to learn yoga, they just wanted to do asana.” I kept thinking to myself, “I traveled halfway around the world to learn. I can stay home and do.”
In 2007, I went back to India to study at a famous yoga institute. One of the main teachers began every class with some lamentation about how “Nobody wants to learn yoga philosophy, they just want to do the gymnastics.” I kept thinking to myself, “Why not just teach us some philosophy, instead of talking about how we don’t want to learn it? After all, here we are, a somewhat captive audience…”
In 2009, one of my yoga friends told me that the teacher of a class we both went to said to her, “Well, you know Christina doesn’t come to class to learn, she just wants to do the advanced poses.”
As much as students experience the grace of their teachers, teachers, too, live in the grace of their students. The power of the relationship between teacher and students exists because it is just that— a relationship. Teacher-student relationships in the asana classroom can be a bit odd because, generally, the conversation is a bit one-sided. Even a non-chatty yoga teacher is still doing more talking than the students. And the student is having a deep, interior experience while the teacher is having a more bird’s-eye outer experience of the class. This disparity can lead to all kinds of problems and hurt feelings. But that it is different blog entry for another day. My point is, one of the most sustaining and inspiring parts of being a teacher is helping people learn and when we assume students don’t want to learn, we block ourselves from the grace of the student, from the reciprocity that exists in sharing the learning process.
I wish I had a dollar for every yoga teacher who tells me their students don’t want to learn. I talk to a lot of yoga teachers these days and I hear this complaint frequently.
I get it.
I, too, brought up in a lineage of teachers who believed students didn’t want to learn, spent many years assuming students in my classroom didn’t want to learn. I had unconsciously assumed the bias of my teachers and projected it on the people who came to my class.
Being a teacher for people who did not want to learn did not make me happy. Being a teacher for people who did not want to learn made suspicious, angry, and defensive. And guess how many people want to learn from a yoga teacher who is suspicious, angry and defensive? Not many. (Which then re-affirms the original belief that people do not want to learn. See how that works?)
Look, I am not going down some new-agey road of “you create your own reality” as a yoga teacher here. Nor am I trying to ride some big high-horse about teaching. I have taught more than one forward bend class to people who seemed more interested in the state of their pedicure (or lack thereof) than they were in what I had to say that day. I have looked out into those seas of expressionless faces and I have lost my temper more than once trying to get people to come watch a demonstration that I knew would dramatically help them with their pose. I have subbed classes that students walked out of and I have received emails and letters with “suggestions for improvement" which included everything from my sequencing choices to my obvious need for psychotherapy. (I am not even kidding.)
I am not without reference points for the frustration so many teachers share with me.
Somewhere along the line, however, I realized that even though I love learning, my teachers didn’t see that love in me. They couldn’t see my love of learning because they were so busy expecting to see its lack. I realized that if they had been wrong about me, maybe I had been wrong about my students. I realized that even if people do not want to learn, being a teacher and assuming students were uninterested did not make me happy. I started assuming my students wanted to learn, even if for no other reasons than it made me happier to start with “they want to learn” as a governing assumption as opposed to “they don’t want to learn.”
And guess what?
People started to seem more interested. Not all at once. And not all the time. And not everybody. But I became able to see sparks of interest.
I began to see that:
a.) most people do enjoy improving in their practice even if they do not always like the means by which that improvement is realized (let’s face it, demonstrations and explanations can be boring, alignment can be tedious and even the most interested student can lose interest by the fifth repetition),
b.) some people are not ready to learn what I am teaching,
c.) some people are not able to learn in the way I teach,
d.) people’s interest in learning can be expressed in many diverse ways that I can not always recognize or relate to,
e.) just because someone may want to move and “do” a lot, does not make them uninterested in learning,
f.) just because someone has a different background and experience in their yoga training, does not mean they will not like or benefit from what I am teaching,
g.) I can let people decide for themselves what they get from my class and why, I do not need to decide for them in advance,
h.) most people will enjoy learning more from someone who sees them in a positive light than from someone who judges them harshly. (And, truth be told, even if a student seems to be attracted to a hard-to-please, highly critical teacher, that might not be the best pattern to reinforce and I would rather not add to that samskara, if I can help it),
i.) Being inspired and excited about what I am teaching is generally better incentive for learning than shame, criticism or threats of injury or rants about “right and wrong”,
j.) If my students are not interested, I need to look at what— if anything— in my demeanor, presentation, and/or our relationship might be shifted to create a more fertile ground for learning. I need to look at me first, not them.
Let me pause my list on that last one. I need to look at my rough edges, my personal indulgences in the classroom, my expectations and use my student’s seeming dis-interest to help me see some of my blind spots. I am not talking here about dumbing things down, catering to the lowest common denominator or turning my yoga class into a “Have-it-Your-Way-ala-Burger-King-or-Starbuck’s” kind of classroom. I am talking about looking at myself here.
And I need to see my students and their readiness to see if there is a place where what I am offering can meet what they are ready for. And sometimes, yes, Sometimes, no.
Case in point, one day I came in to teach my advanced alignment class and ran into one of my regular students leaving the all-levels flow class that was scheduled before my class. He looked at me, smiled, and said, “I just couldn’t focus the way you ask for today.”
I said, “You made the right choice— I have big things on deck that require a lot of work. See you next time!” And I did. He came back. A lot. For years.
And lest you think I am on a high and mighty tirade, I am the same way as a student. One of my favorite teachers at the Bikram studio I used to go to was really tough (nice and funny, but exacting and precise) and she gave me a lot of help when I would come to her class. I loved that about her class. But, I didn’t go on the days I didn’t feel sharp or when I felt too fragile for feedback. Some days I was more ready than other days for “learning.”
My point is that if, as a teacher, you find yourself in a rut, feeling like people do not want to learn from you, you owe it to yourself and your students to unpack why you feel that way. Maybe, the truth is, you haven’t been inspired or inspiring for a while. Maybe you need to give students some of what they want so you can give them a little of what they need. Maybe, just maybe, you are scripting the experience of learning together in such a way that you are failing to see the beauty of where the student actually is because of your expectations of where you think they should be or how you think they should be expressing their interest.
I could go on, but hopefully some of my personal examples are enough to help you get started in loosening the knot a bit and I want to steer clear of too much preaching.
And don’t get me wrong— I am not saying that any of this personal work will mean your classes are suddenly full and you are going to become the most popular teacher at the studio or anything of the sort. I am only saying that you might stumble into the field of your student’s grace to a degree that you can participate in the blessing it is to share the teachings with people who want and need them.
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"There is a light that shines beyond all things on Earth, beyond us all, beyond the heaven, beyond the highest, the very highest heavens. This is the light that shines in our heart."