My lovely long-time friend and a yoga teacher, Hannah, confided in me last year that she really wanted to start teaching again, but was afraid and uncertain. Three years after giving birth to twins she was chomping at the bit to be teaching again, but she had a dilemma. She didn’t have a personal yoga practice—at least not a practice that revolved around yoga poses. Her passion is marathons and with two toddlers she had time for only one means of getting out of her head and reconnecting with her body. Choosing running was a no-brainer. So, here she stood in limbo, asking what I thought about her teaching without a practice. And so I told her a story.
Once upon a time there was a woman who built a beautiful flourishing yoga community and who had wondrous students and teachers. And then “the nothing” came … engulfing her in apathy. Her dreams, once vivid and fierce, now drifted aimlessly, like supernovae remnants. Time stood still and space was occupied by insomnia until the early hours and then sleeping up until the time she had to teach. The darkness seemed to provide a kind of solace that the daytime couldn’t. And she began drinking—perhaps to numb the numbness or maybe to try to feel something, anything … but it only made it worse. She continued to teach—but her fire and passion had fled and her confidence that she could take care of her students was waning. She had lost her will and her way and after six months she had absolutely nothing to give … to herself or to her students. And so she gave away all of her classes. Weeks turned into months turned into a year and by the end, she had cut herself off from her entire yoga community.
And then one day in August, she started to feel again—energy and love flooded her and excited, she was ready to step back into the classroom and embrace her students. Coming back turned out to be harder than leaving, and more humbling. She had lost many of her students to other teachers—permanently. These were teachers and students she had loved and still loved. And it hurt.
She realized that in the eyes of her students and teachers, she had just deserted them. And she had. She hadn’t told them that she could no longer take care of herself and so how could she hope to take care of them. Feeling shame, she kept secret that she was bipolar and that this debilitating depression was the price she sometimes paid. Telling them might have lessened her pain and their pain. It might have allowed her to stay connected to her students, teachers, friends, and perhaps herself—myself. It would not, however, have changed the fact that walking away from teaching at that time was the right and ethical thing for me to do—for all of us.
Smiling, I kindly and firmly told Hannah, “You still know how to precisely teach the poses and how to teach them safely. But more significantly, I know you Hannah. I know where your mind is and I know where your heart is. I quit teaching at that time because I no longer had any kind of mindful practice—I had a survival practice. And raising twins the last three years, I know most days you were just hanging on. But now that’s shifted. And though you may not have a traditional yoga practice—your running is a mindful and compassionate affirmation of your connection to yourself and your needs. It is this presence that will guide you to meet your students in their space and to help them meet their needs. So, yes, Hannah, get your butt out there and start teaching!”
Hannah’s question isn’t rare. Variations include, “Should I teach when I’m injured? Should I teach when I’m sick? Can my practice be different from my teaching? Can I teach poses that I don’t or can’t practice?” And they’re often asked because we consistently hear that yoga teachers without a practice have no business teaching.” These are questions I have pondered and continue to think about. And they are worthy of reflection – but only you can answer the question for yourself.
These days my practice is much more rehabilitative. I do exactly what my body asks for—no more and no less. It’s about questioning and exploring and learning about my body. And so the practice I offer my students tends to vary greatly from my own. The only known in this equation is that everybody’s body is different and has different needs and at the end of the day our practice belongs to us and our teaching belongs to our students … and so our practice really only gets us so far in relation to our teaching.
In many ways because my practice is so different from my teaching, it’s much easier to connect to my students’ bodies. My stuff doesn’t get in the way. I’m not trying to get my students somewhere because I’m not trying to get myself anywhere. I’m just trying to be in the moment with my body.
Looking back, when my practice did mirror my teaching it often cut me off from my students. Cues I gave were often the cues I gave to myself at home and had nothing to do with what was really happening in my classroom. My expectations about where the students “should” be evolving to in the poses was really about what I expected from myself in my own practice. I tried to fit them into my box instead of climbing into theirs. It was emotionally safer … for me. Unfortunately that safety also made it harder to question, explore and learn about their bodies … and made my teaching less safe.
My own experience does not take away from the many fantastic teachers out there who do safely and intentionally mirror their practices to inspire and transform their teaching. But it works because their practice doesn’t overshadow and diminish their ability to meet their students where they’re at.
Ultimately meeting the needs of our students has nothing to do with our practice in terms of poses. It has to do with our ability to be connected to our aliveness—to create an expanse that allows our wings to spread and contract as the needs of our bodies and hearts shift from day to day and from year to year. Done right—at any given point in time this looks and feels different for all of us. This is the practice and this is the teaching.
Photo by Robert Bejil, used with Creative Commons license
Monica Angelucci is a warm, upbeat and offbeat American yoga teacher trainer – living in Europe and Asia since 2004. Her 1:1 sessions and group classes are student-centered, deeply focusing on breath, anatomy and alignment. Monica also offers 1:1 instructor development and facilitates lively and inspiring international teacher trainings (since 2006), workshops and retreats. For more information about her upcoming teacher trainings in Berlin and her collaborative teacher training in tantalizing Italy with Toronto’s Courtney Sunday, please visit: yogaeuropa.com/italy-autumn-2016.html