Just what does a teacher know?

In the last few months, I’ve had the neat fortune to meet a variety of new students. Cool students. Nice students. Funny students, highly intelligent students, friendly students who daily teach me that I know almost nothing. These students are also generous enough to trust me to work with them. It’s a privilege and I appreciate them. They teach me about my blindspots—about what I don’t know, which is too much—and keep me more than a little nervous that I won’t be able to help. And I want to help. That’s in my nature as much as causing trouble and talking too much.

The truth is: I worry. I worry about these people—body, mind and soul. They come to yoga because they want something. They want for something. It might be a physical yearning for flexibility that gets them in the studio. A hope for strength or balance. Or it might be a suspicion that the life they’re leading could be different. Somehow.

Regardless of how acceptable yoga has become—in gyms, churches, schools—it carries the legacy of mysticism. I don’t write that lightly. Exploring the mystic is at the very heart of yoga. Acknowledging the students’ curiosity into this union between intellect and the divine is probably the greatest, and most delicate, responsibility of the yoga teacher.

And that’s why I worry.

I don’t want to sound precious, but yoga ain’t just moving around. When someone wants a guide to usher them toward something interesting and deep, the guide better have at least a small torch. With extra batteries. And maybe a compass that isn’t broken.

Which increases the responsibility of the teacher, doesn’t it? Because the yoga teacher is helping bodies breathe then move and align as appropriate. From there, she invites minds to notice the breath and movement and alignment so the experience becomes internal. And if she has the will, she invites the spirit to observe the interaction between the body and mind.

To teach, then, means to be willing to look into these areas personally. And that’s not always easy. I don’t think I’m kicking a sacred cow when I acknowledge that yoga teachers are, with a few rockstar exceptions, poorly paid for their work. Most of them are just a teacher training ahead of their students, and that training may not have included much more than a sequence, a script and a little exposure to anatomy. The first teacher training I attended, in the way back, spent five hours on lining up trikonasana, another hour on music choices but only a short morning session on the Yoga Sutra limited to the yamas and niyamas. (I’ll always be grateful for my disappointment with that course; the utter banality of it got me to India—a trip that taught me to always study the self as carefully as the guru.)

As a teacher, I want folks to find a way in yoga that will endure as long as they do. As long as they have an interest in yoga, I want to provide some insight and knowledge for their consideration. And I find this challenging, to be candid. Because I don’t know everything I’d like to know. And I don’t have all the insight I want. Not for myself, and certainly not for others. But I try to admit what I don’t know. I wish I could chant without blushing and recite the Sutra and meditate really peacefully. I wish I could offer prayer without first questioning its value. I wish I could breathe without losing count, that my body didn’t occasionally hurt and my mood didn’t occasionally sour.

But this is me. And the best thing I can offer, I think, is my absolute conviction that a little bit of yoga, carefully done (no playlist required, folks!), with connection to the breath and a generous and enthusiastic heart, is going to calm the mind. First, a little. Over time, more and more. And then even more.

And I remind myself that it’s a matter of happiness and will and faith and finding stability in what I know. Also, that my own teachers are flawed and funny. And unabashedly aware of it.

We are all a mess with an instinct to become art. As I interpret Patanjali (visoka va jyotismati, 1-36), finding joy despite or because of this may just give us a peaceful place to rest.


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