What does it mean to be a Yoga Teacher? Why do some teachers inspire and others leave us feeling flat? What does it take to ensure the students in a yoga class have an experience that moves them? Thousands of people who participated in the Wanderlust Yoga Festival will probably have all kinds of interesting discussions about these questions. The big question though is “What do I think, what do I believe, what rings true for me?” These are my thoughts.
Teaching Yoga is like being a chef at a party with no menus or planning. You are making a meal for a group of people that you have no information on. You do not know dietary restrictions, allergies…nothing. You also do not know what kind of meal the group of people you are feeding are expecting. What if you serve dinner when they really wanted breakfast? What if you serve a plate of grilled meat to a vegan and they lose their appetite and leave the table? What if you serve gluten or dairy products to someone with severe allergies? Now, serving a meal to a group of people gets easier if you know what they are expecting and what they will or will not eat. You can cleverly plan your meal so that there is something for everyone and they all leave satisfied. But eating a meal, (or being a chef|), is not just about the food. It is also about the presentation, the atmosphere, the conversation, the comfort of the room and the mood of each participant. So many factors influencing the experience of consuming food! Yoga is the same! The teacher wants the student to have it all; to feel satisfied, excited, filled up and with all the expectations they walked in with having been met!
In discussion with other Wanderlust attendees, and a couple of overheard conversations, it became quite clear that no teacher has the guarantee of satisfying every student. Some of the biggest names in Yoga had students leaving their classes feeling a little disappointed. The class was “good” or “I liked it but I didn’t love it”. And yet other students leaving from the same class were overwhelmed with the depth of the connection. They were talking about mind blowing, heart opening surges of joy that left them “in love” with the teacher. How can this be? How can students in the same class have such different experiences? If the class was repeated, would it have the same effect on each person? The chances are slim. The magic of Yoga and the magic of teaching Yoga is that the magic only happens when it is the right time and the right place for both the student and the teacher. Other factors can influence the experience as well. Was the teacher truly engaged and able to communicate effectively to each participant? Is the student ready and willing to absorb the information being presented? Is the student tired, sore, emotionally open, happy, or distracted? Any change in the physical, emotional, or spiritual well -being of the teacher, or student, can drastically affect the overall success of the class and the individual experience of each student.
Several of the Yoga teachers at Wanderlust were very open with the students in their classes. They started the class by describing their class as an “offering”. I love this word. It implies that the teacher is simply offering an idea and the student is then able to decide if the method works for them. Often, the teacher would say that they were aware that many other teachers would dispute the offering. In fact, the teacher acknowledged that this particular “offering” or “approach” is what has worked for them personally and that it may very well NOT work for many. What is so unique and exciting about the Yoga community is that the vast majority of teachers want the students to know that it is truly the responsibility of the student to play and try different techniques. Not to try once, but to keep trying the different techniques and styles throughout the progression of their practice. As the body and the mind and the spirit of an individual changes, the needs change. What you didn’t enjoy once is now deeply relevant and transformative!
This can be called the Papaya effect. Like many foods, the Papaya is not always an instant favorite. It can take several “tries” of the fruit, “choking it down” and hating every bite before the shift occurs. It could take days or years but eventually your mind and your body decide that maybe Papayas aren’t as terrible as you thought. Something tells you to try it one more time, after all it is tropical and lots of other people like it! And then it happens….Papaya is amazing, delicious and before you know it you are craving it, looking for juice with Papaya in it, buying whole papayas and sitting down to eat it before anyone suggests sharing! The fruit didn’t change. The Papaya was a constant and the person eating the Papaya was variable! Yoga is the same. Yoga is the Papaya. The teachers of Yoga are serving the Papaya over and over again. How the Papaya is served is up to the teacher but it is the ever changing students that get to decide if they love or hate the Papaya. Some will like the Papaya over ripe, running with sticky juice, warm from the sun, others will prefer it blended into a juice or maybe cool slices with a side of whipped cream. It is up to the teacher to keep trying different ways to serve the Papaya and it is up to the students to accept the offerings!
The biggest challenge for Yoga Teachers is to get the student who has never tried Yoga to get on the mat. Once the student is on the mat, it is our responsibility to teach them that Yoga is not a “one size fits all” practice. It is whatever THEY want it to be and if we (the teacher) have not satisfied the need, they need to keep trying. Teachers need to encourage the student to try other teachers, try other styles of yoga, and to let the students know what is available! There is a Yoga class, or style, or teacher, for everybody, but finding them can be daunting. As teachers we should work together to help each student, or potential student, discover the best fit for where they are. And as teachers we must keep expanding our practice, learning from each other, trying different styles and techniques of teaching and most importantly keeping the excitement and joy alive in our practice. Teach what you know, teach what you love and be a good student.
It has been said that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert or professional at your chosen skill. In yoga, we consider ourselves to still be “practicing” throughout our career. This is such a beautiful reminder that the hours, the accolades, the popularity of our classes, are superficial. The real testament to our ability is that we are still practicing because without practice nothing can be achieved. So to all the teachers and students out there, or those who would like to be a teacher or a student, keep practicing, keep learning and know that there is no magic recipe. The magic is in the practice itself, when the student is ready and open, the magic flows in!
Shannon Robinson, RYT