At The Yoga House, my studio in Kingston, NY, I teach the Beginners Yoga classes, which I love because I get to expose people to this amazing practice that I’ve chosen to dedicate my life to. I have a wonderful relationship with many of my students and for the ones that are new to my class and to yoga, I find so much joy in introducing them to this practice that is grander than what we see on the mat.
One recent evening at the Beginners class I had an experience that I’m sure I’ve had before, but this time seemed particularly troubling to me. There was a gentleman there that had never practiced yoga and was coming along because a friend asked him to. I could tell from my first interaction with him that he was very skeptical about being at our studio. His overt skepticism made me question, does he have those stereotypical notions about yoga? A lot of flighty people, omming, meditating, and contorting their bodies into unreasonable postures for no specific reason? (Side note: we are omming, meditating, and sometimes contorting, but there is purpose to it all.)
The class began as many of my them do, with meditation and pranayama. Eyes closed, sitting tall, breathing deeply. I opened my eyes to glance at postures and to check in with students. All had eyes closed, and here was this newcomer in the back of the room, also with eyes closed, and sat in the “stereotypical” yogi seat with crossed legs, hands in what he probably did not know was jnana mudra, and although his eyes were closed, his brow was raised as he held in his laughter. I tried not to take his gestures personally, but my mission for this class was clear: Convert this man into a yoga lover.
I tried to make the class fun, which they often are, but the pressure was on. I tried to show that this practice was a physical challenge that had its very sweet moments. I found myself forcing jokes, forcing sequences, forcing everything. I had stopped teaching to the class and was teaching to this one individual who had become my focus of attention for the duration of the class. I knew it was a lost cause when we came into ardha matsayendrasana, or seated twist, and this student was struggling. With forcible niceness, I offered modifications and he wanted none of my “expertise.” I knew at that moment he wasn’t converting and wanted nothing to do with the thing that I held most sacred. I was deflated and, to me, the class was a total failure.
After class, the man rushed out and waited for his friend on the back stoop. I didn’t chat with the newbie, as I usually do. And it was confirmed: I’m not good at my job. I had failed to turn this person into a yogi.
The evening left me feeling very empty. Not only had I been unsuccessful at making this person love yoga, I had also let my other students down by concentrating so much on this one student’s experience in my class; in other words, not checking my ego at the door. Bottom line, the class was off, and even if the other students didn’t noticed, I recognized that it just didn’t feel like a good or true yoga class.
I will mention here that it is ok to have off days for teaching, or whatever your job may be. It happens to us all and we need to forgive ourselves and recognize that we’re human beings, not perfect beings. But with this class, what felt wrong was my intention for teaching. At the beginning of many yoga classes, the teacher has the students set an intention for practicing yoga that day and the teacher should join in with the intention-setting, reminding himself/herself why we’ve chosen to share this spiritual practice disguised in a an exercise regimen. We’ve gone through our trainings and discovered that through this practice, we’re unlocking a divine presence as we learn more about and connect deeper with ourselves, and it is the teachers responsibility to remind students that this is most important when we roll out our mats.
At the yoga studio where I truly “found” yoga, (and when I say “yoga” I mean union with something bigger) Ashtanga of New Paltz, and where I eventually received my teaching certification, there is a quote on the wall that has stayed with me almost every time I come to the mat. It reads, “When we do yoga for ourselves, it is good for us. When we do yoga for God, it is good for everyone.” This statement no doubt extends to teaching as well, because teaching is part of our yoga practice. I’m not saying that everyone needs to get on the God train, but we must recognize the greater power behind the teachings that we’ve chosen to share.
You might hear teachers often tell students to “check your ego at the door,” and that is as useful advice for the teacher. We are not teaching to convert or to convince people that we’re the best yoga teacher, and while, sure, we do want people to like our class, that should not be the reason that we stand at the front of the studio. We need to extend our hearts, the deepest part of who we are where the external factors of ego play no roll, to the hearts of the practitioners in the room so we can all communally connect with the divine presence within.
The experience that I had with the newcomer is going to happen to all of us teachers once in a while. And we might react the way I did, or we may choose to understand that this person isn’t ready to accept the practice of yoga. Whether we’re able to stay true to our intention of teaching or bring our ego into the studio is up to us. However we respond to the situation, I hope we can get back to the thought that if we teach yoga for the higher being, the divine presence of peace, love, and knowledge, that it will be good for everyone, even those potential future converts.