Chrissy Premeaux unrolled her mat and sat down in preparation for class at a yoga studio in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her attention turned to the loud conversation her instructor was having at the front of the room. “She was telling several students about what a horrible day she’d had. She was very negative and, as she told her story, she relived the day with every emotion she could muster. That set the tone; she really wanted to work out her anger, and the whole class felt her pain in the end.”
Premeaux added, “At that point, I just wanted to leave.”
Teaching is a tricky combination of impartial instruction and personal engagement. A teacher has to provide students with specific details and examples of the lesson to be learned, but also make them feel welcome and safe.
In a setting where you’re expected to impart life wisdom as well as asana technique, it’s easy to occasionally let your ego override the theme for your classes. How do you incorporate the best parts of your personality into your teaching, without letting your class become a personal soapbox or therapy session?
Ahamkra and Vairgya: Ego and Nonattachment
A good place to start is by recognizing the role your sense of self plays in your everyday life. The Sanskrit term for this sense of self, or “I am-ness,” is ahamkra: the part of your consciousness (chitta) that is self-aware and deals with wants and desires. It is also referred to as the ego.
One way to understand and manage the ahamkra is to practice vairgya. Vairgya is often defined as detachment, which implies a breaking away from or renouncing of needs and desires. However, a better way to think of it might be nonattachment—the idea of not clinging to things or emotions. Instead of rejecting or turning away from the outside world, you are not letting yourself get distracted or upset by it.
“I don’t think detaching is what the great yoga gurus are telling us to do,” says Michael Russell, a Chicago psychotherapist and yoga teacher. “I think they are trying to move us to acceptance. This is gained by openness to one’s feelings and one’s thoughts—being more fully aware of them and more in touch with them—rather than denying or disavowing them.”
Senior Iyengar teacher John Schumacher agrees, “Whenever you are uncomfortable teaching, you are clinging to something. When you have time, go back and examine your reaction. That’s why practicing vairgya is useful; you can look at how you cling to things and what keeps coming up.”
Make Teaching Its Own Practice
So how do you become more aware of what you cling to—and try to keep it out of your teaching?
Russell suggests you make your teaching self-study practice. Pay attention to what happens during class and, afterward, journal your experience. Make note of how you felt, not necessarily the concrete details. Did you feel distracted? Did you feel like you were really focused?
As you begin the process of observing yourself as a teacher, try not to be judgmental. If you find yourself getting upset with the way a class is progressing, ask yourself what’s really going on rather than taking the incident personally or getting annoyed at students. Maybe the sequence of poses is too advanced and people are confused; maybe you’re nervous about a special-needs student; maybe you had trouble parking and now feel rushed. Try to discover the underlying issues and then think about how you are responding to them.
Another useful resource when examining your teaching is other yoga teachers. Invite mentors or colleagues to participate in a class and get feedback afterward. They might have insights into problems you’re having, and they may give you some unbiased advice about how to respond.
Just getting more teaching experience can help you feel focused. “New teachers should teach, teach, teach by pulling together classes with family and friends, and not try to meet some visionary standard,” Senior Kripalu teacher Martha Link says. If a teacher is insecure, she says, “it is the ahamkra that is not feeling good enough or worthy enough. The teacher needs to build confidence and have the authority to take the teacher’s seat.”
What to Leave In, What to Leave Out
While you are trying to clear distracting emotions from your teaching, you shouldn’t remove all elements of your personal experience. Russell says, “When teachers take a piece of their personal evolution or a nugget of wisdom that they’ve gained from life and they drop it into class, that can be very inspiring.”
Schumacher draws an analogy: “The teachings are the main course of the meal, but the teacher’s personality is the seasoning that makes the main course palatable to the student. As you become experienced, you develop your own voice and the class becomes more lively and more authentic.”
The responsibility of a teacher can be overwhelming at times, and it’s hard to keep your personal issues out of the mix. By paying attention to what arises in class, addressing it, and allowing yourself to learn from it, you will find that your teaching becomes richer, and you will become an inspiring presence at the front of the room.