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.