Yoga fosters connection, including a connection between teachers and students. But sharing too much personal information with your students can damage the classroom dynamic. How can you maintain appropriate professionalism as a teacher without seeming distant or robotic? How can you be personable without being too personal? The key could be to have a clear intention to serve your students, and to use details in the service of that intention.
The Benefit of Personal Stories
Spiritual traditions commonly use parables and illustrations to highlight a point. "Teaching stories go back thousands of years," explains Sarah Powers, a yoga and mindfulness teacher and author of Insight Yoga. "To illustrate a concept, we can use our own lives, a story we've read, or a story other teachers have told about their own lives." Yoga teacher and author Rolf Gates learned the power of personal illustration through listening to participants at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. "I listened to people's stories forever, and I found how powerful it is when one person tells their story to another," he says.
As director of teacher training for OM Yoga Center in New York City, Sarah Trelease helps aspiring teachers find ways to appropriately share details of their own experiences. "We stress in this program that, as the teacher, it's not beneficial to put yourself in some other category," she says. "If your students perceive that you've struggled in ways they might be struggling or have experiences they can relate to that put you eye-to-eye with them, that's helpful."
But be sure you have perspective and are clear on the story's relevance. "When we share a story of our own life, it should definitely highlight the teaching," Powers says. "It's not something you're trying to understand yourself or are grappling with. It's not a forum to just talk about yourself, which can happen." Instead, be sure that you have reflected on the story you plan to tell, and that it supports your theme. Gates says that sharing something you've processed can model the power of yoga. "Once something is processed, you're no longer identified with it. Yoga says that we've become identified with citta vritti with the movements of the mind. When something's processed, we no longer identify with it . . . we're no longer subject to that level of reactivity."
Crossing the Line
While details can illustrate a teaching point, they can also be too personal. David Romanelli, author of Yeah Dave's Guide to Livin' the Moment, says that when he first started teaching yoga, a student complained that he was talking about his ex-girlfriend too much. "It was way too much information," he reflects. "There's a fine line between making it personal and sharing yourself as a teacher so that students feel they're getting to know you, on a journey with you—and taking it over the line, where it feels like a drain."
Often, you will realize only later when you have crossed that line. "I've had times that I said too much; I knew that more in retrospect," Trelease says. "Teaching circumstances are not a verbal give-and-take, by and large—it's you talking to them and them doing things. You don't know what's going on in [students ' minds]. Sometimes people look like they're giving you stink-eye or scowling, and they might be deep in their own process."
Since your students have come for yoga, not a coffee-klatsch, consider their needs in class as you decide how to present yourself. Is a detailed rundown of your personal woes appropriate? Probably not. Powers explains, "We need to be able, almost like a good parent, to hold the dissonances within us and in a neutral way be there with what's going on with the student. It's not The Sarah Show; I want to be a space for inspiration and clarity."
On a more subtle level, there can be a gap between your intention and your students' perception. Given the dynamic of the teacher-student relationship, what feels to you like a throwaway comment might make a big impression on your students. For example, staying away from blanket political comments is wise. Be sure the stories and personal information you share support your theme and intention, not your ego. "You don't go in with the intention of speaking about your life; you go in with the intention of being helpful," Gates says. With this intention in place, you will best serve your students.
If you think you have crossed a line and been too personal, come back to your intention again. Is it helpful to your students for you to recognize it and apologize, or would bringing it up again only highlight the problem without offering a solution? Depending on the individual situation, you must decide what's best for your students.
Find Your Intelligent Edge
Finding your voice as a teacher is a process analogous to finding your balance in a pose. Trelease points out that yoga teaches "the balance between having boundaries and being spacious. If you're really practicing, you're finding that healthy equilibrium."
Romanelli agrees that there is some trial and error involved in striking the right tone. He suggests talking to students about their experience: "Especially when you first start teaching, it's a good habit to ask for feedback from people you trust—not people who are going to stroke you [but] hard-core people who will not filter." Consider their advice, especially if it hits a nerve; give yourself time to process and integrate, and then make adjustments as seems best.
Once you learn to discern the balance of professionalism and personality for yourself through your practice and by listening to your students, you will have found how to be both professional and personable. Here are some steps to take along the way:
- Remember your intention: being helpful for your students.
- If you are going to share personal information, be sure it's something you have already digested, and that it holds direct relevance to your teaching.
- Don't be afraid to use personal information in the service of making your point; just be sure it reflects your intention.
- Ask your students for feedback on your teaching, and encourage them to be honest.
Sage Rountree, an endurance sports coach and E-RYT, is author of The Athlete's Guide to Yoga and The Athlete's Pocket Guide to Yoga. She teaches workshops on yoga for athletes nationwide; find her schedule at sagerountree.com.