In 1999, I was a new yoga teacher. I lived in Prescott, Arizona at the time, where my husband and I also owned and operated a small coffee shop/cafe in town. I taught a 9:30-11:00 Level 1 class every Tuesday and Thursday. My class was composed of several retired school teachers and principals, a handful of practicing psychotherapists, several bodyworkers, teachers from the local liberal arts college who were specialists in experiential education and a few college students. Well over half of the students who came to my class had children my age. As time went by, it was clear to me that the students came to class to see each other, as much as they did to learn yoga or to learn yoga from me, specifically. And, in retrospect, I can say in all honesty, that those students gave me the best teacher training I have received.
At that time, I had bitten the bait of Anusara yoga and was swept up into the vision of both the Anusara philosophy and asana methodology. I was experiencing huge shifts in my own practice and was so excited to share what I was learning with my students. I would come home from a weekend or weeklong training full of “heart-opening” tips and tricks and sell them to my students.
“Guess what?” I would ask. “If you get your arm bones back and really work shoulder loop, one day you will be able to drop back into urdhva dhanurasana! How cool would that be?!!”
And I would look expectantly out into the classroom and see blank looks. And even eye rolling.
Crickets, perhaps, but no certainly no enthusiasm for “advanced postures” and no recognizable “zeal for improvement” and no interest whatsoever in my pep talk of “continual expansive growth.”
Occasionally— well, regularly, might be a more accurate word, truth be told— I would get a hand-written card from one of my students. Keep in mind that many of these women were career educators from a day and age when penmanship was a priority, so these cards came written in perfect cursive with specific tips for how I could improve my teaching. After a while, the cards also contained feedback about how well I was—or was not— improving based on the previous suggestions.
For instance, they told me that they had a difficult time getting up and down off the floor and if I was going to do floor postures, I should keep the students on the floor until we were ready to stand for a while. They told me they did not enjoy the room too cold, but they did not like it too hot either. They told me I needed to talk slower, louder and not trail off at the end of my sentences. They did not like my use of passive voice in instructions and thought active voice would be better. They told me they needed to work into poses gradually. They told me that they were not interested in big poses, that they wanted me to understand that they had been injured before and they were cautious for a reason. They told me they didn’t expect to do back bends, they mostly wanted to improve balance and to stay strong enough to get up and down out their chair as they aged. One woman was an avid birdwatcher and wanted to maintain her hiking prowess as she aged.
At every turn, they shared with me their interest in the practice and without saying so directly, helped me see that what inspired me at my stage of life and practice, was not particularly compelling for them. In fact, often when I was in the middle of pitching a theme with a philosophical premise, one of the psychotherapists would interrupt me and tell me how unhealthy such a perspective was or share the many ways they saw it differently from their own vantage point. I had never seen anything like it before or since, truth be told.
They also wrote me about how much they liked to learn. They explained how the details of alignment engaged their minds and how much they liked learning the how and the why of the poses as much as they enjoyed actually doing the postures. They told me that the community of the yoga class had become a source of camaraderie, connection and joy for them.
These students of mine were hard-working. They were also really hard on themselves. Highly competent people, they were coping with a change in their physical capacity and life circumstances and the yoga was as confrontational as it was nurturing. They wanted a challenge and yet, without warning, any challenge could become fuel for self-criticism and self-condemnation. Like with so many things in yoga, we walked a fine line together. And we walked together for many years. In fact, many years after I left, that class stayed together, practicing with Rachel Peters when she took over Prescott Yoga, and then Cheryl Walters, when she founded Lotus Bloom.
I could go on about the many ways this group of people taught me as my students, and truth be told, not a day goes by when I do not rely on the training I got in my initial days as a yoga teacher. My Iyengar yoga teachers definitely modeled the inventive use of props and progressive teaching strategies but those skills were an absolute necessity in a class that never strayed far from the Level One syllabus. I came to see that advanced work in poses happens, not in fancier shapes or crazy contortions, but in the interior aspects of the postures— in the intelligent application of action within form that can only happen when awareness, heart and effort come together over a long period of time. And when that work happens in the context of a supportive community, the synthesis is greater than the sum of its parts and is nothing short of transformative to everyone involved.
This was, of course, before the days of Yelp or Twitter or Facebook. Certainly, this was before the time when there were yoga studios and classes on every street corner. Clearly, not everything about my classes worked for my students and yet they invested in the class, in my growth and in one another by communicating honestly and directly with me about what they wanted, needed and hoped for. And while I look back appreciatively, to be sure, I was not always psyched when those little cards came my way. As much as I know that feedback is essential for growth, I do not always find feedback easy to handle. In fact, I was often prickly, defensive and angry when my offering wasn’t positively perceived and/or received.
So we grew together. I like to think we have all kept growing, although I haven’t seen some of these people in many years. Be that as it may be, over 17 years later, what remains the same is that community requires investment, and growth— both as a student and as a teacher— does not happen in isolation, without difficulty, and without a few prickly moments. And, unfortunately, we can’t always know in said prickly moment, how the lesson is going to turn out. At any rate, the beauty of sustained efforts is that, through them, we get to glimpse the bigger picture as time goes by. Time can yield an expanded perspective.
When I was a new teacher, I never heard any stories of the struggles my teachers experienced when they were getting started teaching. And I can’t tell you the number of times new teachers look at my career now and make comments that reveal they do not believe I was ever new, inexperienced, poorly received and/or struggling in any way. And it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that the work I do now stands on the long-developed foundation of fifteen public classes a week for over a decade. At any rate, as I make my way home from a lovely weekend in Kansas at Yoga Gallery, I am reflecting on the many ways through which we grow and “advance” as both teachers and students.
In the same way that advanced work in asana does not depend on fancier poses, improving as a teacher is not always evidenced by bigger classes, fancier venues and more compensation. It may be. And that is great. Of course, improving as a teacher may also take the shape of greater sensitivity to the needs of our students, of increased confidence to set limits with what and how we offer our expertise, with less defensiveness regarding our shortcomings and by owning up to our prickly sides and sharp edges.
And one thing I know for certain is that whatever current challenge you may have in your teaching, in your community or in your personal practice, that challenge is likely to be the very circumstance you look back on 15 years from now as some of the best training you ever received. Of course, that doesn't mean you have to like the lesson, but it is a reminder to keep in mind that the work of teaching is a long-term investment and the pay-off is not not always what you expect.
Keep the faith.
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