The best yoga teachers are the ones who remember what it feels like to be a beginner or injured, or in an athletic body that’s starting to age. The best teachers are the ones who are not just great at what they do, but who somehow magically get you to go beyond your limits so you can be great at what you do.
I studied for a while with a teacher who was very gifted at doing yoga poses. The teacher could perform the most amazing acrobatic feats. The teacher seemed like such a nice friendly person, except for the off-putting comments about what people couldn’t do after a certain age.
We were all in awe of the teacher’s ability to do the things we couldn’t imagine ourselves doing. Indeed, we couldn’t do them. The teacher would demonstrate a pose, give us a few instructions, then cheerfully say “now you go do it”. We would return to our mats and… not be able to do it, not even come close. The teacher would keep repeating “Just try harder”, or “You can do it”. Except that we couldn’t do it. Not one of us. Not yet. We were shown a well-trained body doing a beautiful version the pose, not how our own bodies get there.
Because I respect skill and talent so much it took a while for me to realize that my classmates and I couldn’t do the poses because we were being set up to fail. We weren’t being shown the logical steps that would (someday) help us achieve the pose. We tried, struggled, couldn’t do it, and felt bad about ourselves. After each failure, the teacher would move on to the next thing we also couldn’t do to do. In time I learned to feel bad about how I was being taught and left that class, but not yoga.
It was such an unsettling experience I couldn’t stop thinking about it. For a while, I felt like a failure at something I loved and took seriously. I spent a long time analyzing what went wrong for me in that class and gradually came to realize I wanted to teach.
In my teacher training we are being we constantly told to remember what it’s like to be a beginner, or injured or in an athletic body that’s aging; to become the people in front of us, to feel what it’s like so we can understand and actually teach those people. Not just someone who can already perform at an elite level. Not just the poses.
We learn all we can about the logic of each pose so we know it inside and out. We learn how to teach each pose many different ways so we can adapt in response to the situations and learning styles we are presented with. We study how we ourselves learn, so so we can convey our experience to others. We learn to use our own words, so our teaching is truthful. We teach from our own experience, not just the mastery, but the struggle to achieve it. We teach from our own limitations, remembering how we overcame them.
BKS Iyengar said, “yoga is for everybody”. In class after class, I study the teachers I admire, figuring out how they practice at such a high level of skill without forgetting what it’s like to be a beginner. I watch how they calibrate their instruction to people in front of them. I watch how they observe and change what they’re doing so their students can experience that liberating feeling of finally getting it, doing something they didn’t know they could. It’s riveting to watch a class when you can see the teacher help someone succeed. It’s thrilling to help someone get something you both love and share the joy of accomplishment with another human being.