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When Your Students Become Your Teachers

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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.

But something happens as I extol the virtues of Sat Kriya, the classic Kundalini Yoga exercise that has an almost magical power to transform a disparate life into a disciplined one.

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:

Recognize that the other person is you: Any issue or problem that students bring into your classroom can be a mirror of your own. By simply remembering this truth, you can bring a tremendous amount of compassion to bear for your students … and for yourself, too. Sudden emotions—such as anger or embarrassment—are good clues that you’re dealing with a mirror issue.

Call for guidance: Once you recognize your own lesson in your student’s, do two things. First, call for guidance from your own teacher, in the energetic sense, with a quick prayer or silent chant. Then make a conscious decision to address the issue. But don’t be hard on your student just because you’re hard on yourself. “I try not to confront students directly,” Rizopoulous says. Ask of yourself, in that moment, what your student needs.

Take an oath: Your own reflection on personal lessons is best done before or after you teach. During the class, stay present with the practice and get your ego out of the way. Before you begin a class, reaffirm your responsibilities and privileges as a teacher. This can be done with a meditation, chant, or ritual. In the Kundalini Yoga tradition, Yogi Bhajan would ask his teachers to affirm this aphorism: “I am not a man. I am not a woman. I am not a person. I am not myself. I am a Teacher.” Neutrality is paramount for yoga teachers, but it doesn’t just arrive on its own. It must be cultivated.

Don’t pull an “Oprah”: “If a student comes up to you with a problem,” Gurmukh says, “never say, ‘Yeah, I know how it feels,’ and then tell them your situation.”

“The moment you drag in your own personal issues, you are no longer a teacher,” adds Gurushabd Singh Khalsa, Gurmukh’s husband and partner in her Los Angeles studio, Golden Bridge.

Still, Gurmukh agrees that under certain circumstances—such as the lecture at the beginning of class—telling a bit of your own story can be a great gift to students. Rizopoulous agrees that this can be tremendously effective. “I think it’s self-indulgent to talk about yourself too much,” she says. “But I also think it’s useful, so that students don’t have you on a pedestal, so that they understand that you also have struggles.”

But here’s the shift you need to make: It is almost as if you are telling a story about someone else, the person you were before you took your seat on the teacher’s bench. You are telling it not for yourself, but for the benefit of your students.

Ultimately, every bit of learning that happens in our yoga class—even our own—is for them.

Dan Charnas has been teaching Kundalini Yoga for more than a decade and studied under Gurmukh and the late Yogi Bhajan, Ph.D. He lives, writes, and teaches in New York City.