Only When They're Ready
About four years ago, my grandfather began to have trouble walking. He'd always been very athletic, but he had given up tennis years before. Now stiffness and back pain were making even a stroll down the street exhausting.
He went to regular physical therapy sessions, but I could see that the exercises he'd been given as homework weren't right: some were inadequate to heal him and others were inappropriately difficult for his abilities. He rarely did them.
As a teacher, I was sure that yoga could be a much more effective intervention—if not reversing the effects of age and a newly sedentary lifestyle, then at least forestalling them so he could enjoy his life a bit more.
I was ready to hire a more experienced (and more neutral) teacher to guide him once every week. But when I asked my grandfather for his blessing, he replied, "Wait."
And so I waited. I waited because my grandmother thought that he wanted to stay under the care of his doctor and physical therapist. I waited because I knew that the yoga would only be effective if he welcomed it. I had too much experience already with relatives and friends whom I'd cajoled intro trying yoga—buying them private lessons and class passes and books—only to see them unmoved and underwhelmed.
And as I waited, my grandfather got worse.
Now my grandfather is in a wheelchair. I can't say for sure that he would be walking today if I had been more forceful. But I know one thing: I will always wonder.
It's one of the most heartbreaking aspects of being a yoga teacher: no matter how many students you've helped in your career, no matter the strength of your own personal testimony about how yoga has transformed your life, you're bound to have relatives and friends who are in desperate need of yoga's benefits but who refuse to try it. One might hope that those closest to you wouldn't need convincing. But students come only when they're ready, whether they're related to you or not. And facing this truth can teach us a great deal about the nature of teaching itself.
The Neophyte's Zeal
Years ago, before Bill Donnelly became the cohost of the TV series Guru2Go on FitTV and the producer of "Yoga Quickies" for his site PracticalYoga.tv, he was a new teacher filled with enthusiasm for yoga as a practical cure-all. Which was fine when students came to his classes of their own free will, but not so great when Donnelly returned to his family with the zeal of a missionary.
"When I first went home, we'd have arguments about whether you create your own cold," Donnelly says. "It always came off as arrogant, like I knew something and they better do it because [otherwise] they're just being stupid."
Scott Blossom is a yoga teacher and practitioner of ayurveda">Ayurvedic and Chinese medicines in the San Francisco Bay Area. When Blossom's mother injured her shoulder in a fall, he and a friend created a simple, powerful yoga regimen that he was sure would help rehabilitate her if she practiced for 10 to15 minutes a day.
"She was able to do it as part of a therapeutic session," Blossom says. "We took the time to really show her that it works. But she was unable to carry it [through] on her own."
For both their sakes, Blossom realized he had to step back—even though now her condition has become chronic, as has her sense of powerlessness.
"She still gets sad when she mentions her shoulder," Blossom explains. "I said, 'You had everything laid on your plate. Now I realize I shouldn't do you any favors. We can hang out, but we can't talk about your issues.'"
Even some famous yoga teachers—revered in the world outside their homes—have found that they must tiptoe around their own families.
"My wonderful husband of 45 years, he's come to some of my classes," says Lilias Folan, who is considered one of the founders of the American yoga movement. "I wish he would come to more. I sometimes have to keep my mouth shut."
Folan has always respected that her husband and two adult sons have chosen a common American path to meditation: golf. When they complain of stiffness and tightness on the course, Folan works in a little stretching using the tools of the trade, but she doesn't call it yoga. She talks about working with the golf club to open the shoulders, or doing a version of Downward-Facing Dog against the golf cart, or doing twists behind the wheel. "There's a lot of openness to that," she says.
After four decades of dealing with both reluctant students and family members who, she says, "really don't care what you do," Folan has learned a great lesson: You don't have to say everything you know, overwhelming people with information. The best you can do is to be an example.
Scott Blossom was on vacation with a relative whom he calls a "functional alcoholic" when they started to talk about yoga and healing. "Later, the discussion turned to his drinking," Blossom recalls. "Here was a chance for him to see the light. And he says, 'I'm fine with the way I'm working on my challenge.'"
In that moment, Blossom had an epiphany: "Maybe I need the yoga more than he does. If I try to help, I could just be projecting my own needs."
Bill Donnelly puts it another way: "I'm not a savior, and nobody needs to be saved."
Tough Love and Its Limits
But often there are people in your life who need urgent care. Can a tough-love approach to yoga work? Imagine the spiritual equivalent of, say, a mother yanking the covers off of a daughter bedridden by depression. There have been some teachers with a brusque style, like Bikram Choudhury or the late Yogi Bhajan, whose words have sometimes shocked students into action. But even for expert teachers, it's a risky proposition.
"I'm not great with confrontation," says Folan, who says she wouldn't force an issue unless she felt moved deeply to do so. "You can lead a horse to water," she says, "but you can't make him drink."
Holding the Space
A common refrain is that self-preparation and conditioning are the most important kinds of work that teachers can do when faced with reluctance or disinterest. That includes the following:
Get some perspective. "Read the Bhagavad Gita," says Blossom, who says the Gita teaches that "you have authority over your actions, but the outcomes are totally out of your hands." Make yourself luminous, he says, and students will come toward the light like moths to a flame.
Cool it. When her zeal gets the best of her, Folan puts a personal premium on compassion toward her students. "I ask myself, 'Was I over the top? Was I impolite?' I review myself all the time as my 'inner professor,' and that mature teacher becomes my watchdog." Your friends and relatives shouldn't be obligated to understand or participate in your chosen spiritual practice by virtue of their proximity to you. Aren't they entitled to at least the compassion you'd extend to a stranger?
Refer. Sometimes you can be too emotionally close to someone to be neutral and effective as a teacher. When approaching a potential student, Blossom asks two important questions: "Am I the right person, and is this the right therapy?" Often the answer is "no," and Blossom says that he frequently refers these students to other practitioners.
Relate. One taping of Donnelly's series Guru2Go involved helping a group of jockeys with the physical problems they encountered before, during, and after races. Donnelly sensed that the jockeys hated the idea of doing yoga. So Donnelly ditched the airy-fairy aspects of his spiel and instead mounted a completely intellectual approach that resonated with these students. "They were intrigued," says Donnelly. "At the end of the taping, they asked for our number."
Never Give Up
Above all, never give up, neither on your students nor on your family and friends. You never know when things can change.
Lilias Folan learned this lesson in the mid-1970s when her teacher, Swami Chidananda, invited himself to her house in suburban Cincinnati. Besides dealing with the shock of hosting a spiritual dignitary, Folan fretted over the reaction of her husband, a local businessman with zero ties to the world of yoga. "I really don't want anything to do with this," he told her. But Folan did extract one concession from her husband: He would be a gracious host and accompany her to the airport to meet Swamiji.
Folan and her husband watched as Swami Chidananda, with his shaved head, orange robe, and sandals, made his way down the steps and onto the tarmac. "He hardly looks at me," Folan remembers. "He goes straight for my husband and puts both hands around his hands."
"Hello, Bob," Swami Chidananda said.
Bob Folan's eyes suddenly filled with tears.
"Since that moment," says Lilias Folan, "our family has never been the same."
Dan Charnas has been teaching Kundalini Yoga for more than a decade and studied under Gurmukh and the late Yogi Bhajan. He lives, writes, and teaches in New York City.