In a class that I took around the holiday season, the teacher began by laying us down on our backs with eyes closed as she talked about “how stressful the holidays could be with family drama, too much food, gift-giving, and other obligations”. As she described her experience of the holidays, I thought ‘wait a minute, that isn’t my version of the holidays. I love seeing my family! And eating too much food, holiday parties, and giving gifts!’ Then I spent the next several minutes trying to tune her out and focus on the physical practice. While the yoga class itself was lovely, she could not help but describe things in a way that were relevant to her experience only. She was completely self-absorbed, and tried to make our practice, hers. Her opinions and descriptions left no room for the students to have our own experience on the mat.
Using your personal experience to try to relate to your students understanding of yoga, does nothing but take away from their personal practice. As teachers I think it is extremely important that we respect each individual’s process on the mat, by keeping our own experiences outside of the our instruction within the class. Philosophy, light humor, and stories are all appropriate given the right timing, and add to the personality of the teacher. We want to know our teachers and understand their philosophy on yoga. We should be able to approach them and learn from their stories and teachings. While students want to know their teacher is a unique and authentic person, students do not need to know every detail of their lives or hear about their ongoing life stressors. Teachers should teach and create space for students to be their own authentic selves and have their own lived experience on the mat. Practitioners should have the freedom to process the sequence in a way that supports them, rather than have to hear what a pose or emotion is for someone else. Teach in the way that feels authentic to you, but do so in a way that creates space for others.
We all have different likes and dislikes of yoga poses, teachers, practices, breathing practices, etc… Because we are all uniquely different with authentic constitutions and makeups. A pose that brings one student happiness, can bring someone else a feeling of fear and depression. I dislike utkatasana. I love savasana. I dislike when teachers disregard the use of breath. I love when teachers have an intelligent sequence planned. I dislike when teachers offer no support to students who are struggling. I love hands-on adjustments. But that’s just me, and it doesn’t reflect the same likes and dislikes of my teacher or my students. When teachers use their own experience as a way to guide me through a yoga practice, I get so distracted and feel like my practice somehow has shifted to them. Can’t I have my own judgement of how a pose feels to me? Shouldn’t I be able to reflect internally on what a pose does for me? Or does it have to be the same as my teacher’s?
During a recent class, I instructed the students to ‘sit back into my oh-so-favorite pose, utkatasa!’ in my most sarcastic voice. As the words came out of my mouth, I immediately regretted cuing the pose in that manner and thought of the teacher who made me feel bad about loving the holidays. The students laughed and smiled as they sat and sweat through the pose. After the class a student said to me, “I know it’s funny, but I actually kind of like utkatasana because it makes me feel charged up”. The student reaffirmed exactly the mental note I had made to keep my experience to myself. A painful pose to me, is a delightful one to someone else, and who am I to take that delight away from them? Create the space for your students to experience every pose in an authentic and unique way for them personally. Having a yoga teacher you follow is an extremely important part of being a committed yogi. Having a teacher that encourages and empowers you to have your own authentic experience on the mat is maybe the best gift a teacher can offer you.