A Yoga Teacher’s Practice: What We’re Still Learning
Photo by Robin Fritzson
Think yoga teachers have it all figured out? Think again. While certain aspects of yoga may become easier for instructors, other challenges can arise, such as self-imposed expectations about what it means to be a teacher. Identification with the teacher status can impact how teachers show up in classes as a student, particularly when they perceive themselves being witnessed or judged by others.
About a year ago, I flowed into my most aligned, intense variation of Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II Pose), hypervigilant to the fellow instructor’s watchful eyes as she scanned the room for the next person to adjust. She knew I was an instructor and so did the other students; I feared receiving an adjustment or correction may undermine my credibility and deliver a considerable bruise to my ego. Would students still respect me if I were publicly corrected? Despite the instructor’s cues to modify and decrease the intensity of poses in favor of self-care—messages I conveyed in my own classes—I struggled intensely to do so, waging war with my ego and implicit beliefs that my self-worth was somehow tied into others’ perceptions of my asana.
Assuming the role of a teacher commonly suggests to others that you should have some things figured out. Yet yoga is an ever-evolving, iterative process that entails continually interrogating one’s experience, honoring one’s limitations and embracing the imperfections inherent in being human. Take, for instance, my years-long resistance to formal meditation, believing the “meditation in motion” of my asana practice to be adequate. I have since learned that strong identification with the abilities and limitations of the physical body can restrict access to the deeper wisdom, insight and compassion facilitated by meditative practices.
In developing a more traditional meditation practice, we gain critical insight into otherwise unconscious patterns that may not be seen during our yoga flows—and in life. Loving-kindness (metta) meditation in particular can retrain our relationship to the ego and present moment, helping us to express more self-compassion when the ego inevitably asserts or threatens to dictate our actions. This is aptly illustrated by my experience in a yoga class following my first metta retreat. Lacking push or strain, I tenderly nourished my body throughout the practice, relinquishing my ego’s battle for supremacy and resting in the sweet awareness that, in being completely average and human, I was more than enough, advanced asana or not.
As teachers, embodying self-care through modifications and refraining from expressing the maximum of every posture (unless it’s truly called for in the energy of the moment)—can be the greatest gift to ourselves, other students and fellow instructors. The “myth of advanced asana” is detrimental and may affect even teachers who espouse the eight-limbed path and see asana as but one small piece of the whole. This may partially be attributed to yoga’s common equation with advanced gymnastic asana in pop culture and many modern yoga classes. For myself, after years of implicit buy-in, engagement in intensive meditative practices broke my identification with this myth and cultivated two aspects of “advanced” yoga practice: Skillfully elucidating the ego’s defenses rather than allowing them to unconsciously control the reins, while attuning to the heart as a source of guidance.
If you’re a teacher, how has your yoga practice been affected since you began teaching? If you’re a student, what words of wisdom would you offer to your instructors?