When Your Students Become Your Teachers
My student, David (not his real name), has been coming to my class for several weeks. He's overweight, struggling with addiction, and has found his way to the yoga studio in an act of quiet desperation. When he finally gets up the nerve to ask me for an exercise that might help him, I know exactly what to say.
I realize that I'm talking to myself.
I've also been dealing with some discipline issues: My sadhana has crumbled in the last year. Outside the yoga studio, when I'm not teaching, my neuroses could definitely best my students' neuroses. I've lost touch with my center, and I've been avoiding the issue. Until my talk with David.
The next morning, I resume my own daily practice of Sat Kriya.
Looking in the Mirror
This kind of synchronicity happens all the time, and it's one of the more interesting facets of being a yoga teacher—you tend to get students with issues that mirror your own.
In yoga, the teacher-student relationship is complex. On one hand, teachers must be beacons of neutrality and authority. On the other, teachers are students themselves. And often our lessons come from students, and from the process of teaching them.
Natasha Rizopoulos, famed Yoga Works teacher, had been exhorting her students for months to give up being overly ambitious about perfect postures and to simply bring themselves into the present moment.
"In the last six months," Rizopoulous says, "I've been realizing how hard it is for me to practice what I preach. The act of having to articulate it to my students has made it clear what I have to do."
Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa, renowned author and yogi, recalls a valuable lesson she says she learned when she was teaching celebrities.
"They were so much about themselves," she says. "And I was getting caught up in my so-called 'yogi-to-the-stars' career. It took me a year or more to see how they were just total examples of me. You always attract that which you need to learn from."
Surrendering to Honesty
While that resonance can be potent for both students and their teachers, it also has some pitfalls. We teachers may not address certain students' issues because we're afraid to deal with those same things in ourselves. Or we may overreact to our students' challenges because they remind us of our own.
"If I have a student who's always whining and complaining, I have to check myself as to why I'm irritated or mad," Gurmukh says. "I know it's not her, it's me."
Caution in Practice
While beginning the practice of seeing yourself in your students, it is important to remember your role as teacher. Keep the recognition and reflection process internal, or you may risk your authority and/or professionalism as a teacher.
To help you navigate the oft-alternating roles of teacher and student, here are some tips to keep the lessons flowing in both directions, while maintaining appropriate boundaries:
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