Each week I’ve looked with some trepidation at the schedule to see what I’m down to teach in the “timetable lottery” next. My first yoga class here was called “Lunar Flow.” “What the hell is that?” was my first reaction. It sounded like some new age euphemism for menstruation. After some frantic googling, I discovered that this is a class which involves moon salutations, a flowing sequence, more gentle than the vigorous sun salutations. With the words “Only teach what you practise,” ringing in my head, I spent the next few days practising moon salutations at every opportunity (in the shower, while waiting for my tuk tuk, in my sleep…) When it eventually came to teaching the class, I loved it. One student afterwards said to me that they didn’t know how I remembered the more complex sequence. I smiled and said, “Just practice,” choosing not to mention the incident that morning where I had fallen over practising while washing my hair.
I had similar experiences teaching new meditation practices – sound meditation, surya vipassana, chidakasha dharana – even the names scared me at first. But I realised quickly that I could learn, and practise, and if something didn’t work for me I could adapt it so that I was teaching what I felt comfortable with.
This learning to adapt applied to being flexible with my class plans too. Learning not to worry when instead of the beginners I was expecting for the vinyasa class I had planned, two students arrived wanting “advanced yoga.” Although it was important that I had planned my classes (I’m not confident enough to wing it yet!), it was more important that I let go of those plans when they weren’t right for the class.
My teacher told me that the students you need will find you. This came back to me during my first experience of teaching yoga nidra (a guided relaxation yoga practice – like yogic sleep). I was setting up the room, trying to ignore my nerves, when a student walked in. “What, no incense?” she complained. How rude, I thought, but I tried to maintain my equanimity and inner calm as I hastened to light a jasmine stick.
“Breathe,” I told my class, and myself as I guided them into relaxation, successfully, or so I thought. Until 10 minutes in, when said student sat bolt upright, scaring me so much I bit my own tongue. It was like something out of a zombie movie. “I don’t understand you,” she barked. “Use shorter words.”
“Of course,” I smiled, trying to do my best Dalai Lama impression and not panic. The longest word I had used was “sensation”. I spent the rest of the class trying to find simpler ways of saying everything. My mental dialogue went along the lines of, “Fuck, is ‘intention’ too long a word? Probably. Argh, think of something else. ‘Goal?’ But that doesn’t sound very yogic, does it? Shit, better say something, quick.” Although I kept my language simple, and my swearing internal, I fully expected my student to walk out at any point. As it was, she stayed, but complained afterwards that she hadn’t felt any connection to me. The feeling was mutual.
And yet, I recognise that just like when I was a secondary school English teacher, the most challenging students are often the ones who teach you the most. As a friend of mine said, everyone comes to yoga with their own agenda and their own shit to deal with. That doesn’t mean I always have to accept people being difficult, but I can learn to manage my emotional reactions, and respond with kindness not judgment. I may not like the feedback, but it does teach me something. Even if I did still have to fight the urge to tell her where she could shove the incense sticks.