Classroom culture is the ground upon which all teaching happens. I would not have said that when I began teaching yoga. Twenty-something years ago, I thought the most important thing about teaching yoga was being good at asana and knowing a lot about the practice.
To that end, I spent years working on my poses. Long hours alone on a mat with a copy of Light On Yoga was a fairly standard way for me to fill my time. While many people saw my behavior as “discipline” or “commitment,” practicing asana was simply what I wanted to do, aided in no small part by my compulsive relationship with exercise. I lusted after drop backs, scorpion poses, and intricate flows of arm balances strung together with integrated fluidity. You get the point. And, as luck would have it, I learned how to do a lot of those things. Some of them I can still do.
Next, I got interested in teaching methodology. I honed my ideas about sequencing, verbal instructions, demonstrations, and adjustments. I spent a lot of time and energy figuring out how to teach alignment to people who liked to flow and how to get alignment-oriented people to move more. I taught thousands of hours of teacher training, never losing my passion for helping trainees perfect the basic format of “verb + your body part + in a direction.”
And, while I still love to work on asana, and I still think active commands stated in active voice are the best way to give instructions in class 90% of the time, my primary interest in teaching is classroom culture. Classroom culture is the context of the class, the psychic atmosphere of the community, and the deciding factor of whether the class facilitates transformation through learning or simply the dissemination of information; the work-in of self-inquiry or the workout of physical fitness.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with a workout. I like to exercise as much as anyone. There is nothing wrong with an information download either. I am a fan of facts, figures, techniques and analysis. To be clear, I am not interested in setting up a dichotomy that does not fundamentally exist. I am simply interested in a classroom culture where physical prowess and intellectual knowledge are in service to the recognition of a student’s greater depths.
For me, classroom culture boils down to “See and Be Seen.”
I start most of my intensives in a circle. I usually say, “Stand up and join hands. A circle is optimally aligned when you can see everyone in the circle and everyone can see you.” See and Be Seen. That means I want to see my students. I want them to see each other. I want to be seen by my students. I want them to be seen by me. I want them to be seen by each other.
On a practical level, “seeing” as a teacher means looking at student’s poses in the outer form as well as the inner action. Seeing students means looking for the effort, the sincerity, the energy behind the execution as well as the outer shape or common misalignments. Seeing students means paying attention to who speaks up all the time, who never speaks up, who always sits in back, who never sits in back. Seeing students means acknowledging when they have more expertise than me in a given area— be that area psychology, anatomy, philosophy, life, fitness, writing, etc. and allowing students to shine brightly in their hard-won expertise. Seeing students means learning names, finding out about their lives, and seeing the tender places of vulnerability that always sit alongside the well-springs of our resilience.
Seeing as a student means watch the demonstrations. Get in a place you can actually, literally see when more specific techniques are offered that might help you with your poses. On a contextual level, seeing as a student means recognizing your sincere efforts, validating your commitment, and accepting your body, mind, and emotions as they are in the moment and responding as lovingly to yourself as possible. Seeing as student is giving yourself, your classmates, and your teacher the benefit of the doubt as well as the respect of your self-examination and honest communication. Seeing as a student is as much about working within our limits as it is about breaking through our barriers.
Being seen as a teacher is to be seen in my strengths and also in my shortcomings. Being seen as a teacher requires that I do not pretend I can do every pose, that I know everything, that I do not struggle, get tired, feel frustrated, and/or that I love my job all the time. Being seen means I come with my humanity, as a work-in-progress, able to offer from all of who I am, not just the shiny parts. (Obviously, within professional boundaries and so on.)
Truth be told, as important as this kind of classroom culture is to me, I fail. I teach a room full of people and I see some people and not others. The more people in the room, the harder this vision is to fulfill on both practical and esoteric levels. And, as much as I know my students want to see themselves with love and be seen by me in love, they won’t always be able to— they will fall prey to the tenacious grip of self-criticism, self-condemnation, and my failure to see them in that moment will make them feel even worse.
Learning is a humbling process that requires vulnerable sincerity, repeatedly, over a long period of time. Most of us came to yoga because we needed it, not because we were so well-suited to it. We are learning together how to live up to, and live into, the contract we have as teachers, students, and companions on the Path. We all need safe places to fall down and we all need help rising back up. We need to know when to accept responsibility, when to acknowledge when we are at risk, when to stay, and when to walk away.
I have no magic formulas to offer that make any of this easier. The one thing I know for sure is that I will fail to adequately “see” again— probably the very next time I teach. I also know that I just spent three days in Tucson with twenty-six long-time students and two of my mentors, our ages ranging from 28-75, discussing writing as sadhana and truth-telling as a means to access the universality of human experience. I do know that the struggle to see and be seen is the struggle of a lifetime, giving my life depth, meaning, and the opportunity to storm the gates of Heaven through the power of a single, declarative sentence.
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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."