My cousin and friend David Rubenstein recently asked me how I practice yoga: “I’ve always wondered what classes yoga teachers go to. Do you practice mostly at home? How much of your practice is about you, and how much is about your teaching? (And how much of a difference is there?)” So these are fascinating questions, but my initial reaction took me on a more roundabout journey, because first I wondered about the category itself. Yoga teachers. And this category does exist, I have met quite a few people who are yoga teachers. However they are pretty much all individuals (as I’m sure David knows, I don’t mean to imply he doesn’t, he was querying me personally), but my more literal reaction was: who knows? Who knows what they do? I’m sure it varies from person to person. And then I was sort of taken aback at the idea I could even speak as a yoga teacher. Yet it’s a very reasonable question; I teach yoga professionally, and therefore I should certainly be able to answer a question as regards my practices. But before I even began to attempt that, it sent me into some thinking on what it means to be a yoga teacher in these times.
I’ve been teaching asana yoga for about five years. It’s been quite an exciting, wondrous ride, for which I am profoundly grateful. I’ve had some of the best, most fulfilling experiences in my life while doing this job and this service. I’ve had ups and downs, of course. Quite often I’ve had to encounter my demons and to try to stand up to them. One of those demons goes by the name of Ego.
It’s wonderful to feel like you’ve helped someone overcome their difficulties. It’s terrific to feel you’ve helped create a “space” where someone feels safe, accepted, interested, calmer. Jillian Pransky writes in her most recent newsletter: “Being a yoga teacher brings endless gratification on so many levels, but what I find most amazing is the profound and positive effects it has on everyone who practices” (Yogalicious 94 — Love Is In The Air).
Of course the yoga commentaries often teach that it’s rather a mistake to get too egoistically attached to these results. In essence one needs to teach with as little ego involvement as possible. On a human level, when it goes well, it’s quite nice, that’s undeniable. When I teach a rockin’ class (or at least, what I perceive as a rockin’ class!), I naturally think, I rock! And maybe that’s not all bad. Maybe it gives me sustenance and confidence, and enables me to rock it even more next time. (Okay, maybe rockin’ it isn’t really the right sort of description, and I swear to you I don’t use such terminology in class, as in Let’s rock it!, yet I do sometimes frame it that way to myself, I have to admit.)
Yet there needs to be a steady, questioning perspective. To illustrate the dangers are recent stories of spiritual teacher/celebrities crashing and burning, e.g. John Friend, Lama Christy McNally (for more on whom, click here). When I was in early adulthood I followed a guru named Meher Baba who had declared himself God Incarnate (trust me, he was quite persuasive), whom I later came to believe was a charlatan rather than a prophet.
The cult of personality is generally an ugly phenomenon. It’s a tough one for those of us drawn to Eastern philosophy, because deeply embedded in that belief system is the notion that the student needs a teacher, a guru who functions as a guide in the perilous journey toward enlightenment. Maybe that’s true, too, I really don’t know, I’m certainly not certifiably enlightened, I’m not even sure I’m on that journey in any kind of real way. I know I don’t follow any gurus, at least not at this point (“never say never”). And in any case, we’ve seen so many examples of the abuses of such power that to follow anyone uncritically is, I would say, just plain naive.
But it’s not only about being on guard as regards one’s relation to more advanced teachers, one has to look into one’s own heart, and if one is acting as a teacher, I believe one has to tread carefully. It’s easy to see how much we all seem to crave power, and I know I’m not immune to that. We want love, we want to be recognized for all our effort. How much of this craving is natural and defensible, how much is perilous? Will I always work on the right side of the boundaries? I want my teaching to expand, I want more students, I want to be successful. Sometimes I observe other more established teachers and for a moment I want what they have, I want the recognition, I want the retreats and the workshops, even the branding.
And I want not to want these things, too. Because I know that’s not what it’s really all about, I trust that the bullshit trappings are illusion. At this moment I trust myself that I won’t sell the real deal out, and the real deal is the giving and the service. But I know one has to be on guard. John Friend most likely did not become a megalomaniacal yoga celebrity overnight; it was likely a gradual process, in which the adoration changed him, an alchemical process in which his gold turned to lead. My email friend Norman Blair writes in his newsletter analysis, “Broken Gods, Breaking Hearts,” of Friend and more generally, of sexual boundary issues; he says in his conclusion, “The question is what can we learn from this? It is always good to look thoughtfully on relationships as the entirety of this path is relationship: community. We have to avoid the tendency to let mistakes be overlooked because frequently it is in these mistakes that we are learning. We have to keep our eyes open for those abuses and corruptions.”
It’s often been noted that yoga teachers generally don’t have all that much training before they set themselves in front of a class, and sometimes one encounters people I’d personally regard as youngsters (in more ways than one) dispensing wisdom on which they don’t seem to have much handle. In other words, just because you attended 200 hours of classes about yoga doesn’t mean you have an entitlement to tell me how I should live, or make wild analogies which sound wise on the surface but are essentially hollow. Well heck I’m probably as guilty as the next teacher, sometimes I’ve heard myself sound like a holy fount of knowledge, spouting what is most likely utter nonsense. I can defend myself that I have (all too) many years of exposure to what I would consider wisdom, because I’ve been exploring this stuff since I was a kid and that was some time ago, but I also know I’m a miserable guide as far as all that goes. I can’t pretend I know what life’s all about; I have my gut feelings and that’s about it. I guess I just try to teach with as little bullshit and as little pontification as possible, but it’s a fine line, because on the other hand one wants to assure students that one knows a little something, otherwise why the hell is one up in front? And, irony alert, here I am with my MrYogaTeacherMan blog and 25 posts in the Philosophizing category!
So I guess the best I can do is try to be ethical and to be as humble as possible. It’s a paradoxical sort of ride, of course: boy am I humble! And yet there can be a strong intention, anyway, to fight off the demons, to at least fight the good fight, trying to reduce the ego, and appreciating it when one gets kicked in the nuts, in the core of that ego… on some higher level at least!
Recently I attended a class with a teacher, an old friend who’s done quite well in recent years. She has a strong following, and is invited to teach workshops and festivals. But she was trying something new at a new studio, and this class was in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday, and I was the only pupil. Of course knowing how sensitive my ego can be about attendance, I imagine that at least at first she was disappointed. But we both managed easily enough to make it more about the yoga, about what we were doing, and I think we both enjoyed the session a lot. And sometimes I’ve been able to swallow my own such disappointments, and really learn. I remember a story Pema Chodron tells (I can’t find it at the moment) in which one of her teachers sometimes made her feel like she was a big deal, and sometimes like she was a nothing, and how useful that was to her development.
Anyway I like to think of having the intention of being transparent, of letting what’s heartfelt come shining through. Being human it’s not easy, but of course it’s not meant to be easy. It’s a challenge and a struggle, but — hopefully not to be too very cliché about it — maybe that’s just part of the beauty of the process. On balance one wants to do more good than harm. One wants, as Norman says, community – as opposed to the illusory riches of the unbridled ego.
And so may it happen for you and for me.
Please feel free to click on Leave a comment above and tell me how brilliant you think I am.
And special thanks to David, Jillian and Norman for inspiration.