17 November 2012

Reflections on Teaching

As I've started teaching yoga more, I'm realizing what a true gift teachers are. In the definition of "teacher" I include people both in an official teaching capacity, as well as others who, for whatever reason (and whether we like it or not!), come into and leave our lives to teach us something we wouldn't have otherwise discovered about ourselves.

Teachers: in the official capacity
I got my first taste of teaching several years ago when I substituted as a dance instructor for a friend who was recovering from surgery. Trying to verbally communicate how I moved my body (even with demonstrations) was a difficult task. I'd been dancing for so long at that point that it was hard to articulate the minute details of what I was doing so those who didn't have that experience could understand. I also quickly learned that students interpret what they see and hear from teachers in different ways, and through their own filters on the world--which may not always be what the teacher intended. And even more interesting was how students picked up on things I did even when I didn't speak to them. (I vividly remember seeing one student bending her knee in a certain way that I always did, which I never spoke of because it was simply a bad habit. And oops, now there is someone copying my bad habit!) It took one class into the six week session for me to appreciate my teachers for their dedication to spreading the dance, and to gain a first-hand understanding of why they'd sometimes seem frustrated.

Teaching yoga is similar, and potentially even more challenging than teaching dance. It's similar in that the teacher has to verbalize what they're doing with their body, but in dance, it's completely left up to the student to find the flow of the dance, to feel the freedom and joy in the experience. I don't think any class or instructor can teach that--it has to be found by the student on their own, in their own time. But in teaching yoga (and maybe this is just my perspective as a new one) the teacher's role is not just about articulating the body positions so no one gets hurt (though that's important). It's also to use verbal and body language to create a safe emotional / mental space that assists students in finding the spaces and openings within themselves, setting the stage for self-inquiry and the spiritual side of yoga that isn't immediately obvious when performing the postures. I also know this cannot be taught. The best a yoga teacher can do is create the conditions for it to be learned, when the student is ready.

Which segues nicely into my second category of teachers: the people who come into and out of our lives to help us learn a lesson.

Teachers: as mirrors into our souls
These teachers can be (and often are) even more powerful transformers than those in an official role. Maybe that's because they almost sneak up on us, challenging us by making us think or feel things we've chosen to avoid. These teachers might help us grow by constantly pushing our buttons, by loving us in ways we never thought we could be loved, by supporting (or not supporting) us when we really need it, by being close to us and then moving on. Quite often, these life teachers are really mirrors into our souls. They show us reflections of ourselves, often without any softening or distortion. And this can be hard to take.

Have you ever had the experience of not liking someone, for no apparent reason? I have. A few months ago I met someone I had a visceral reaction to, without knowing anything about them. Sure, I could point to a few surface-level things the person did that could justify some negative feeling (maybe), but none that could explain what I felt, which bordered on hatred. (How un-yogic of me, right?) Fortunately, I kept running into this person and we got to talking here and there--me feigning interest in what they had to say--at first. It took only a few deeper conversations for me to realize how similar our pasts were, and then something clicked in me: I hated this person without knowing them because I instinctually picked up on the things I saw in them that I hated in myself. Talk about enlightening! And now because of this experience, I know that whenever I have strong feelings about someone (whether that's hatred or love), that person has come into my life to teach me something significant, and may be mirroring me as well.

The teacher appears when the student is ready?
Maybe. It's taken me 15 years to recognize the spiritual aspects of yoga. (Even though throughout my life, I've had teachers who offered the space for me to discover it. I denied it when anyone told me I was "spiritual" because heck, after 12 years of Catholic school I was anything but religious!). When I look back on notes from dance privates 5+ years ago, I see the same advice I'd get if I took one today. And it's only in the past few months that I've finally figured out what "dancing down into the floor" means--which I've gotten through the "grounding" concepts of yoga and Ayurveda. It's taken me 13 years to recognize that I can always trust my intuition, because it is always right (even when the ultimate outcome isn't what I expected), and even longer than that for me to recognize what's important in life and love.

So yes, I think teachers always appear, but regardless of whether the student is actually ready. They'll keep appearing too--as both official teachers and soul mirrors--over and over until we students are in a place where we can really entertain the lesson they're here to teach us. And once we learn a lesson, they'll be new lessons to learn. Life is learning, and learning is life.

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