There is an arrogance in the act of teaching. When teaching involves touching a body, telling a body how to move, where to move, and offers suggestions on attitudes and worldviews usually left to close friends and lovers and priests, the ground one treads as a teacher is a landmine. As a student one is often blind to the effects of Practice until minutes, hours, years later.
It is a teacher’s moral and physical responsibility to see to it that the mines are pointed out and yet do not explode, and that a vulnerable student is awakened to the profundity of Practice in a compassionate, loving yet neutral environment.
For many years of teaching I have been aware of this arrogance, this risk. I first encountered my own unwanted power during my first year of teaching, when a much loved student with whom I had made friends came in tears to me one morning, and told me I was hurting her feelings by pointing out her practice in class. I almost stopped teaching on the spot: what I thought was affectionate communal humor was a knife straight in her heart. Bless her for telling me. And for forgiving me. And, most of all, for teaching me.
A true teacher, I suspect, reads students like a secret book. The crook in this finger indicates an old injury, which might indicate a tightness in the left shoulder. The tightness, however, may be due to guarding, from grief or a car accident or the stress of using the wrong desk – this the teacher does not yet know. A student is a secret book written in a language that reveals her plot slowly, with sudden revelations, stops and starts. A mystery. Occasionally, a comedy. More often, a tragedy. The more the teacher reads, the more quickly a plot might unfold.
But only sometimes, only with some bodies, some lives.
I have had one teacher who understood all of me all at once. Nothing about me surprised him. It was only his insight that surprised me. He is the most gifted, and the most troubled, teacher I have ever known.
We call these people outliers for a reason. One does not imitate them, but only learns what one can.
All of these thoughts and many more crude images were rushing through my head two days ago, when I made the mistake of going to an old studio where I used to teach to attend the class of a man I do not know. I understood by reading his biography that he probably possessed much arrogance and no lineage, and was in a great hurry, as for some reason so many Yoga instructors are, to show to the community that he possesses more insight and wisdom than most. I have lost count of the number of teacher biographies I have read that celebrate personal hobbies and an elevated state of status without mentioning training, gurus, or even credit from where the requisite “approved 200 hour training” was acquired. I like to walk my dogs and play in the ocean too, but the point of explaining one’s background to a potential student is not, or should not be at any rate, a whimsical exercise in “light and spirit,” but a list of one’s training, one’s background in Yoga and the teachers from whom one has learned this art. This is lineage. This is humility. This is the opposite of Western Yoga today.
The class in its “vinyasa” format was, to be perfectly frank, a usual iteration of repetitive standing poses, far too many lunges for any sort of body (the tight suffer with strain, the overly open risk tearing the labrum), followed by an odd combination of a deep back bend with no preparation, a deeper forward bend, and then, inexplicably, a call to go into urdhva dhanurasana (upward bow, a very deep back bend that can be harsh on the shoulders and wrists and hips, not to mention low back) with no instruction whatsoever.
As a teacher this made me discouraged, and I will frankly say rattled my own ego. All those years, I thought, of careful awareness, of loving alignment, of treating other people’s bodies like the sacred vehicles they are. Tender, tender, tender. And what most people want is some tunes and a groovy flow… bitterness flooded me for a moment like foul air. As an observer with some small understanding, however, I felt genuine sadness and fear for the students around me. No wonder doctors are suspicious of Yoga. As people who care for backs and hips and necks and knees, they should be suspicious. Because doing lunges with huge extension in the back leg for 60 minutes straight is… stupid.
And now, as I near the end of my rant, one I think about far more than I should, I will touch lightly on what was most egregious, most painful, about this class. And, if I could, I would share this with every teacher and student and victim of trauma I know.
The end of the class was an extended guided savasana. It was not, as advertised, Yoga Nidra, but was supposed to be a deep relaxation.
Instead of relaxation, for this brain and body, there was a clearly memorized or at the least oft-repeated and bossy script. Every word was directed toward the teacher himself, toward, quite literally, giving our full attention to him, to him as guide, as master, as the leader of the spirit body. We were told to separate the spirit from the body (where he got this notion as Yoga I know not. Perhaps he was a Catholic priest in another life), and that the spirit was to “hang over” the body, giving relief to the mind that, yes indeed, we are separate after all.
Not only was this instruction an act of destruction, to me, it was the very epitome of arrogance, of the attempt to embrace and steal a knowledge of a student one has not earned, has no right to, and of which this teacher, in particular, had no understanding.
I felt violation and memories of my rape wash over me. I felt my body recoil from his voice, as if I could sink further into the floor. I listened to the need for control in his voice, and thought for a moment I would never escape. I did not get up and leave out of respect for the students around me.
I did not get up and leave because I was scared.
Now a day later I see what a powerful lesson that wretched class was for my own teaching, my own insight about somatic vulnerability, respect, and the necessity to cultivate a light touch with all beings, particularly those who arrive at our doorstep as mysterious strangers willing to lend their trusting hearts to the unknown and the unseen. These strangers, these students, are the real teachers.
How I miss it. Teaching. How I grieve the ubiquity of arrogance, apparently everywhere victorious in our broken world.
~~ for Donita & Jane, two of the best students and teachers I know