To Each Their Own, to Teach Their Own


By Dan Charnas  |  

A few years ago, I moved back to New York City after a decade in Los Angeles. It didn’t feel real to me until a friend asked me to sub his yoga class at a Manhattan studio. Here was my first opportunity to teach in New York, bringing what I had learned in California back home. I was excited. I planned. And I taught a class that was jam-packed with stories and sayings to illustrate the set I had picked. The students seemed to like it.

But after class, an older woman with short, sandy-gray hair approached me. “I liked the yoga set,” she said. “But you talk too much.”

My throat tightened. It wasn’t the first time I had heard that criticism. I was already sensitive, and boy, she went right to it. In the split second between her comment and my response, my thoughts raced. Was I chattering through class for my own benefit, or for theirs? Was this a critique I should heed? Or did this person think it’s the teacher’s job to cater to the preferences and peeves of his students?

The truth is that I come from a long line of talkative teachers whose words inspired rather than distracted. And I’m naturally verbal. If I have a teaching style, that’s it.

So I breathed and said, “Yes. I do talk a lot during class. My style is definitely not for everyone.” And that was the end of that. The price for holding onto my teaching methods was the loss of that student.

At some point in your teaching career, students are going to give you feedback. The question is this: How much of that input do you take to heart? What accommodations are you willing to make for students, and what adjustments are you unwilling to make? If you decide a student’s comments are valid, how do you act on them? If you decide they’re not, how do you handle the situation?

A lot of this depends on your own understanding of the fundamental relationship between teacher and student.

East Meets West

In India, where yoga evolved into the system we know today, and indeed across the East, learning an esoteric discipline was a privilege, not a right. Students often had to plead with masters to teach them secret, sacred arts. And when a teacher accepted a student, that novice was subjected to a rigorous regimen and expected to endure it without complaint.

But in the West, the tradition of the Socratic method made the teacher-student relationship more fluid and familiar. Students could more commonly talk back and challenge their instructors. With the coming of capitalism and the commodification of teaching as a service that students purchase, rather than a privilege for which they petition, students developed a sense of entitlement. They could choose their teacher, instead of their teacher choosing them. They could demand certain qualities and, if those demands weren’t met, they could let the teacher know it with a bad recommendation or by voting with their feet.

So Eastern yoga sparked a culture clash in the West. You have millions of students who think of themselves as consumers, with all of the control that implies, meeting a discipline that impels them to surrender control. Most students enjoy this exotic experience. But some don’t. As much as some Eastern students could never imagine questioning their master, for many Western students, it’s as natural as sending the soup back at a diner. And that’s where student feedback becomes an issue bearing the full weight of this civilization-level conflict.

You’ve Gotta Serve Somebody

Cyndi Lee, the founder of Om Yoga in New York City, used to play a lot of music in her class. She was especially fond of a piece performed by the Bulgarian National Opera. One day after class, Lee was approached by a student.

“You know that opera piece?” he began. “I can’t stand that music. And I’ve taken a survey, and a lot of other people can’t stand it either.”

Lee recalls, “It really bummed me out, because I loved playing it. And it really pushed a button when he said that he ‘asked everybody else.’ I was in a real conundrum with myself and my ego.” Lee continued to play the tune for a little while, and then phased it out. “I wasn’t completely coming from an open heart,” she admits.

“From the teacher’s point of view,” Lee continues, “the question to ask oneself is, ‘Why am I teaching yoga?’ If the answer is to share my information and experience in a way that is helpful and meaningful, then feedback telling you that you’re not communicating is great.”

In other words, if you choose a piece of music or a delivery style because you think it will deliver the teachings in a way that resonates with your students, then negative feedback might tell you you’re not being effective. But teachers can also choose to create experiences that are deliberately provocative. In that case, negative feedback can tell you your teaching is right on target. The key is to monitor whether you’re provoking to teach, or provoking simply to display your power.

Style Wars

Your methods should resonate with your students, but they should also resonate with you. Otherwise, why are you teaching?

“If a student objects to your style, then that student should find another teacher,” says Kundalini Yoga teacher Shakti Parwha Kaur Khalsa. “You are who you are. And so long as you are teaching the techniques as [you've been] taught, the way in which you present them has to be honest and the real you.”

As a teacher, you have the right—and some might say the obligation—to bring all of your talents to the table and express the teachings through yourself. And students always have the right to listen or walk away.

Acting and Reacting

But what do you do with the students who don’t walk away? What do you do with those who instead confront you with the conviction that, as a paying customer, they have the right to request specific changes?

“It’s important as a teacher to be in an open space to receive students’ feedback, because it really tells more about where they’re at than [where I'm at],” says Pasadena, California teacher Wahe Guru Kaur.

As long as you are honest with yourself about your own motivations and choices, you will be on solid ground with most students. In fact, you must find some ground to stand on in order to be a rock for the people you teach.

“A yoga class is a divine appointment that students have made with themselves,” says Wahe Guru Kaur. “It’s your job to deliver the teachings, not engage with the ego of your students.”

Being Flexibly Inflexible

Ultimately, teachers have to balance listening to their students without ego and resisting when a student’s ego wants to take control. Finding that dynamic takes years of practice. It may be the reason why great masters, even among their Western students, are almost never challenged. Their mere presence imparts confidence. It’s usually the newer teachers who have the most trouble handling feedback. Here are some guidelines to help teachers understand and navigate student critique and complaint.

Know Thyself, Open Thyself. Your teaching is a combination of age-old wisdom that cannot and should not be changed, and the unique translation of that knowledge through you. Says Shakti Parwha Kaur Khalsa, “You’re just the mailman, not the mail. You are delivering, and your style of delivery is unavoidably the manifestation of your own being. Certainly, it never hurts to listen to criticism, to see if possibly it has some merit; but you can’t stifle yourself after you’ve tuned in. What flows through you, the way it flows through you, is the grace of the Golden Chain.” Being able to simultaneously hold both a sense of humility and a knowledge of your own importance will make the road easier to travel.

Strength in Numbers. It’s harder to reject feedback that comes from more than one student, and over a longer period of time. Lee uses feedback as a way to help manage teachers at the studio: “If one person says, ‘I don’t like Mary’s class because it’s too slow,’ I’ll listen. But if I get 20 people saying it, then I’ll talk to Mary.”

Shopping Around. On one hand, students are free to leave if they can’t take the heat. But on the other hand, it may be your responsibility to suggest they stay through their own discomfort. Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa once spoke of the “spiritual materialism” that causes Western students to shop around for teachers and leave when the going gets tough. “[Students] want it to be the way that their ego wants it to be, to feed them in the way they want to be fed,” says Wahe Guru Kaur. “And that’s not always the best thing for spiritual development.”

One Final Lesson

I used to teach a poorly attended Friday morning class at a yoga studio in Los Angeles. I was frustrated at having to drag myself out so early to teach two, maybe three students—if I was lucky. Then there came the morning that only one student showed up. And this student was a bona fide spoiled brat. I decided to teach the yoga class I would have taught to a full house. She decided it should be a private lesson geared to her preferences. When I read aphorisms and stories from the manuals, she snapped at me, “That’s very distracting.” Later, I wasn’t paying attention to her as she did body rolls, and she rolled her head right into a wall.

After the class, she confronted me: “Why are you teaching yoga?” I could have reacted out of ego. But this time, I was honest with myself. I realized I was phoning in. And I realized I didn’t want to teach at that studio anymore. Looking back, this one student’s feedback changed everything for me, and today, I am a better teacher for it.