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Forgive Your Flaws

Trying to live up to unrealistic expectations won't serve you or your students. Balance being a role model with real life.

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Kerry Jordan, a licensed massage therapist and teacher in Boston, experienced an awkward moment several years ago when she was still a new teacher and was manning a table at a local fair for the studio at which she taught. Her colleague, who was also a novice, had a large cup of coffee emblazoned with the logo from a big-chain coffee shop on the table in front of her.

A woman who was browsing the exhibits noticed the cup and was horrified, remembers Jordan. “She said, ‘I mean, I just practice yoga and I only ever drink caffeine-free green tea! You people are yoga teachers! And you’re drinking coffee?'”

At the time, the remark made Jordan angry. But now, she says, the issue really comes down to the perception that a teacher is somehow separate and above the realities of life because she seems somehow more enlightened in the studio.

As teachers, we often live and work in small circles. You might run into a student at the dog park, the coffee shop, or the library. Maybe you own your studio and participate on a small business council, or you’ve got a second job around town that brings you into contact with students outside the studio.

Usually these interactions are benign, even pleasant. But what about those situations that put you in an awkward position? Teachers might run into their students while on a date, enjoying a glass (or more) of wine, or doing something else that their students might think isn’t “yogic.” Can we teachers maintain our integrity in the eyes of students, even as we face the same day-to-day challenges that they do?

The Pedestal Syndrome

“One way of looking at it,” says Tias Little, who with his wife Surya directs Pranja Yoga in Santa Fe, New Mexico, “is that in a practical sense, if one really has both feet on the yogic path, that would express itself in right actions.”

Right actions, Little explains, might include obvious outward behavior, like wearing clothing made from sustainably harvested cotton or driving a hybrid car. “With that said, it’s important to remember that yoga teachers are ordinary people—which is why I subscribe to the Zen idea that there is no separation between the sacred and the ordinary. If one is really living their yogic path, there’s no separation. So if a teacher is drinking a pint at the local microbrew, that’s just ordinary, and they are in the flow of life.”

But can drinking a beer really be considered a “right action” in the minds of students? Yogis sometimes abstain from alcohol, meat, processed sugar, caffeine, and other substances. For some, it’s a matter of practicing ahimsa, or non-harming, one of the yamas of yogic practice. Believing these substances to be toxic or harmful to the body and the mind, some teachers avoid them altogether. For others, it’s about just trying to eat healthy or, in some cases, avoid substances that are addictive.

“A teacher of any kind has a responsibility to be authentic in the classroom,” says Jordan. She adds that students might find it shocking to see their yoga teacher dancing drunkenly in a bar or even drinking a cup of coffee outside the studio because teachers make the mistake of holding ourselves to unreal standards inside the studio. In other words, putting yourself on a pedestal in the studio makes it harder to climb down once class ends.

“When we present ourselves as holier than thou—or, as I think many yoga teachers do, as digestively purer than thou—it is no wonder that our students assume that we are,” Jordan says.

Part of the challenge, says Lynne Begier, a teacher and director of Back Bay Yoga Studio in Boston, is that many of us, teachers and students alike, have a stereotypical but not accurate image of what a yogi should adhere to: a vegan diet, 8:00 p.m. bedtime, and so on.

Begier started to ask herself: What does it mean to be a yoga teacher? “Does that mean you don’t cut people off while driving?,” she asked. “You always pick up trash you see on the street? Or are we just real people trying to keep it all in balance?”

The “pedestal syndrome,” as Begier calls it, can be isolating and self-defeating because you’re trying to live up to something that isn’t real. “If we’re striving for perfection, it only creates more suffering. So my philosophy is, everything in moderation—including moderation,” she says.

Lynda Meeder, a yoga teacher and member of the cooperative Prakriti Yoga Studio in Brattleboro, Vermont, sees another dimension: “The hardest thing is how students think we’re always handling stress with ease and grace. In the past year, I’ve gone through a hard time with a divorce and selling my house. And some students say things like, ‘But you can’t be stressed out—you teach yoga!'”

Householder Versus Renunciate

At the heart of the question about how teachers should behave or are perceived outside the studio is whether we see ourselves—and are seen—as householders or renunciates. A renunciate, in the ancient traditions of yoga, would leave behind all worldly possessions and connections to live in an ashram, where their lives would be dedicated to service and to the study of yoga asana, meditation, and other practices.

However, most teachers—even those who have spent time in ashrams—live as householders. We have the same responsibilities and daily headaches that our students have. But despite living in the same world as our students, says Little, both students and teachers often project harmful expectations of what a teacher should be like.

“I think it’s important for teachers to really participate in the culture and not quarantine yoga into this isolated event,” says Little.

The Professional and the Personal

Lynne Begier has encountered tricky situations when her personal life and professional life have intersected unexpectedly.

She specifically remembers awkward moments when she started to date women. “I sometimes would feel a little fearful of seeing students and what they would think. A few years ago, I was at a club, and a student came up to me and said, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe you’re here!’ I thought, ‘Gulp!'”

Begier adds that the awkward moment “served as a turning point for breaking down my little igloo—I realized I’m going to be more visible in whatever I do. We’re all afraid of being judged, and yoga teachers are just as susceptible to that. You want to be judged for your teaching and not for everything else.”

In Meeder’s experience, it was a date that came to the classroom, rather than the other way around. “As a single woman, I have learned that you do not date anyone who comes to your class,” Meeder says. “That’s a boundary you do not cross. I did not start out dating a student, but someone I’d gone out on a few dates with came to a class. It was a learning experience!” Meeder eventually had to ask the person to stop attending her classes.

Making It Real

When it comes to managing students’ expectations about what teachers should be and do outside the studio, Kerry Jordan puts it bluntly: “We are people. All people have flaws and weaknesses.”

“I think a big responsibility as teachers is to try our best not to be hypocrites. In the same way that demonstrating a pose that’s beyond your abilities sets you (and your students) up for failure, so too does espousing a lifestyle that you don’t really lead,” she says. “Sure, there are yoga teachers out there who only eat raw food, who never imbibe alcohol or caffeine, and who never do or say something stupid in public that they will later regret. I also believe that there are people who are able to do Lotus while standing on one hand and chanting in perfectly inflected Sanskrit. I, however, am not one of them.”

No one can avoid awkward situations entirely, but these teachers had a few tips for how to manage when you encounter an uncomfortable situation:

Let it go. It may sound simple, but deciding not to take awkward comments or encounters personally is important. As Lynda Meeder puts it, “Not everyone’s going to love you.”

Accept what is. Some students will always see you as they wish to—as somehow purer or more enlightened than the average person. It’s only when you get caught up in pure-versus-impure thinking, says Tias Little, that you let yourself get hurt by others’ need to judge you.

Laugh. Lynne Beiger finds that helping her students not take things so seriously sometimes helps them feel at ease in the studio and outside it, as well. A Diet Coke, she reminds us, isn’t the end of the world.

Meghan Searles Gardner teaches and writes in the Boston area.