Saturday, April 24, 2010

Yoga Ethics: It's Not about the Teacher

As you may remember, on a recent visit to San Francisco I attended one of Darren Main's classes at Yoga Tree studio.  Afterward, I spoke with Darren a bit about his teaching, and I shared that I was a beginner teacher.  We talked a little about that, and I told him my teaching philosophy, which is basically that I need to do a really good job when I'm teaching so my students can forget about me as much as possible and focus on their own practice.  Teaching yoga is about me to the extent I can control how present I am, how prepared I am, and how knowledgeable I am, but that's about it.  My job as an instructor is to get out of the way so the yoga can do its thing.  This, of course, means letting go of my ego as much as possible.

That can be difficult.  I want my students to feel welcome and safe and successful, but, if I'm honest, I also want them to like my class, my music, my personality.  Most of all, I want them to come back.  I would be heartbroken if a brand new student attended my class and then never wanted to try yoga again.  If that happened, no question about it, my ego would place 100% of the blame on my teaching.  Similarly, it's hard to keep the ego at bay when a student pays me a compliment.  As a new teacher, I'm craving any validation I can get!  The slightest kindness can keep me going for hours after I've left the studio.

At least theoretically, these sorts of ego problems are solved through my teaching philosophy.  The students are not there to see me; they've come for some quality time on their mats.  When they leave the studio happy, it's not because of me; it's because they just practiced yoga.  I'm not saying a good teacher doesn't contribute to a good experience, but I do think it's important to remember I'm just a small component of my students' practice. 

I shared the gist of this with Darren (although I wasn't nearly as long-winded, I assure you!), and he told me he teaches an ethics class for a yoga teacher training program.  In that ethics class, he uses the analogy of Pavlov's dog to make a similar point.

In many instances, the instructor is a constant for his/her students as they undergo transformation through their yoga practice.  Darren explained that the instructor is in the room when this amazing change and growth happens, and the students can easily - and erroneously - credit the instructor for initiating all of this transformation.  Really, though, it's the yoga that's making the difference, not the teacher.  The teacher is the bell in the Pavlov's dog analogy; the yoga is the dog food.  The yoga is what's transformative.

I haven't been teaching long enough to know the best way to help my students understand this distinction (and, trust me, at this time there is zero danger my students will confuse my teaching with the dog food).  When I teach, I try to remind my students that I'm just a guide and their practice is their own, but I'd love to hear what the more seasoned yoga teachers have to say about this.  Does anyone have any suggestions or stories to share from dealing with issues like this one?


Update: If you haven't already read this article in the New York Times, I think it's worth the time.  I found the comments even more interesting than the article itself - there's enough there to keep us talking for days.



  1. As a teacher it can be hard to let go of your ego. And hey, let's face it - part of being a teacher is that you want people to have a good experience in your class. There's nothing evil about that. Far better for you to care a little too much, than not to care at all (which is also a sign of big ego!).

    When you're just starting to teach, it can be nerve wracking! But be patient. You will make mistakes, and then you will have small successes. Eventually you'll develop your confidence and your own teaching style, and slowly the obsessive-reliving-each-moment-and-mistake after every class will fade. ;)

    I agree that it's important to bring students back to their own "work" on the mats. I encourage students to set a focus, goal or dedication for their practice to help bring home that what they put in, they will get out. A dedication can be particularly powerful - putting the energy of your practice towards someone or something else, like a sick relative, or world peace.

    I also like to remind students at the end of the practice to thank themselves for the hard work they put in, and when people say "thanks, great class" or some such thing, I say, "thank yourself - you did all the work!".

    Finally there's one thing that I think gets you further than anything else - a sense of humour. It's important to show students that you, too, are still learning, that you, too, screw up sometimes! Tell stories of what poses were or are hard for you, and of all the times you fell on your face trying something. It deflates your own ego and reminds people not to put you on a pedestal - or take yoga too seriously!

    Great post and good food for thought!

  2. @La Gitane - Thanks so much for your comments! My nerves are definitely improving with each class I teach, but I do still obsessively relive each moment and mistake afterward. I cannot WAIT for that to stop!

    I absolutely love your recommendation to remind students to thank themselves and not the instructor after class - excellent advice. And what you said about a sense of humor is so true. The times I've connected most to my students have been the times I was able to laugh at myself and show vulnerability.

  3. what a fantastic observation. I love your philosophy.

    I think the association of transformation and spiritual growth with the teacher also runs the risk of adoration... which is why the 'guru' aspect of Yoga (no matter with whom) makes me nervous.

    I would love to take one of your classes! :)