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Alleviating Misunderstandings Between Teachers and Students

I was recently in a counseling session with one of my nutrition clients and she told me this story that has happened to her more than once in a yoga class. I have heard enough similar stories from several of my students in the last few years that I thought it would be worth addressing in an article.

I have several clients in very high stress jobs. This particular client is no exception. Her job involves high risk and extremely volatile situations that include the lives of others. I suggested my client might take some yoga classes to support some of the lifestyle changes we are working with on in our nutrition and life balance sessions. Due to her unpredictable schedule she has to take classes randomly and has found just a few she can attend that work for her.

During one particular class as my client was in Savasana (when you lie on the floor at the end of a yoga class in stillness) the teacher was presenting suggestions to the class in order to help facilitate a relaxed state. During this talk the teacher continued repeating, “close your eyes.”

At the end of class as people were cleaning up their mats the teacher walked up to my client and this conversation ensued:

Teacher: “I noticed that you wouldn’t close your eyes at the end of class during savasana.”

Student: “I don’t feel comfortable closing my eyes.”

Teacher: “That’s really a shame because if you don’t close your eyes you won’t get the full benefit of the practice.”

Now I am going to go out on a limb and assume this teacher had no malicious intent toward this student and that she truly believes this is true and wants the student to “feel” what she had felt in her own practice which somehow only “works” if the eyes are closed.

However, I would like to address the error in this hopefully without calling the teacher wrong or bad.

This teacher does not know this student. She has no point of reference to this students background, history, and where they the student is coming from. The teacher is projecting her own subjective experience and desires for this student and the teachers reasoning could be as simple yet illogical as “my teacher told me the same thing.” Ie:

eyes closed = good savasana

eyes open = bad savasana

savasana

What this teacher does not know is my client suffers from PTSD. Having her eyes closed in a room full of strangers is the least relaxing and healing situation you can come up with for her. The mere idea of it produces anxiety.

She is one of a number of students I know who have had similar conversations with teachers.

Another friend of mine shared with me some months back that another teacher was displeased with her because she wouldn’t close her eyes during a meditation. It happens this friend of mine had suddenly gone blind due to an illness the year before and spent almost a month in darkness. Having her eyes closed even when trying to go to sleep induces stress and anxiety.

I am obviously not only talking about closing your eyes in a yoga class. I am talking about teachers projecting onto students when they have “no context” of the students health history. That just because something works for one student doesn’t mean it will work for another.

By stating to a student that they “will not get the benefit” of a practice because they are modifying or skipping something that they perceive might harm them is an act of violence toward that student. For that student it may have been a struggle just to get to the studio and get on a yoga mat that day, then we tell them that their efforts were not enough, that they failed because they changed the program, you could be robbing something very valuable from that person with your “good intentioned words.”

This comes back to the conversation of “things yoga teachers say.” Most of which is founded on myth and lots of snake oil being sold to keep students tied to certain practices and teachers. I have heard more than once that if you cannot get your legs into lotus pose you will never achieve a true meditation. So anyone with normal hips or someone with abnormal legs or even no legs at all is basically out of luck for this lifetime.

Another misunderstanding I want to address is I recently heard a diatribe from a teacher who was angry because his students often leave class early and another who was upset because her student doesn’t participate in the last 15 minutes of class and instead “does her own thing.”

Rather then me going on and on about these types of miscommunications I would like to share a few solutions that have helped me over the years to get out of my own way both as a teacher, a student and a business owner.

Recommendations to Teachers:

Know what your values are, follow them, and share those expectations clearly with your students.

Though I personally do not agree with kicking a student out of class or refusing entry due to punctuality I know several studios and teachers who have a huge pet peeve about people showing up late or leaving early from class.

If you have certain “rules” that you want your students to follow, even if it’s one as arbitrary as “you must close your eyes at this specific point in class” then you should clearly identify what those rules are and share them with your students before they participate in your class.

In my very first martial arts class when I was 12 years old my teacher had the “class etiquette” principles printed on a huge poster board hung on the wall for everyone to always be reminded of. It set a very specific tone of respect for that environment (many of my old school yoga teachers ran their schools similarly). If a billboard is not your style try printing your etiquette and expectations on a small card that new students should read before they participate in your class. Have your expectations in writing where everyone can see it.

Remember that ethics are not a fixed idea that everyone adheres to. Ethics are societal “agreements” that have been made amongst groups of people. Without stating your expectations and policies clearly and assuming everyone will just know how to behave will set you up for lots of frustration and miscommunication. You’re the teacher. You set the tone and the students who relate to your values will stay and participate. The students who don’t relate will find another class that fits them and that is ok.

The challenge we face today as teachers in “Yoga Culture” is a quarter of the people running classes are instructing “group fitness yoga” and the quarter on the other end of the spectrum are teaching yoga as a spiritual practice and the ones in the middle are doing everything you can think of in between. It is up to us as individual teachers to distinguish what makes us different from a zumba class, pilates class, or another local yoga hybrid class down the street. Know your values and policies and clearly communicate them to your students.

yogamat

Do your best to refrain from projecting onto your students.

This is a complicated subject. As teachers we teach from our own experience. Often in my yoga therapy practice I have run into issues that I find a solution to based on an experience I once had in my own body or mind. Though my experience informs my teaching I do not assume that the person who I am working with feels in their body the way I feel. This would be a huge error on my part as a teacher.

Over the years many students have come to me thanking me and giving me credit for healing some physical or emotional suffering they were experiencing. As teachers we are NOT healers. I want to be very clear about this. Yoga teachers do not heal their students. Yoga teachers are educators/facilitators. We are like farmers and our students are our crops. Farmers do not “make plants grow.” They create an environment by giving enough water, enough sunlight, enough air and a safe space for the plant to grow. It is up to the plant, nature, and god after that.

If you’re a teacher I encourage you to be a farmer. If the plant does not grow maybe it was the wrong environment for that particular species of plant to grow in. Maybe it would thrive in a different environment under different circumstances, and under different care.

If a student looks angry, or happy, or sad, in class do not assume it has anything to do with you and try to change it. Offer your students a safe space to feel and explore their emotions appropriately in the context of a public yoga class and review regularly with yourself and your peers what healthy boundaries are. If you question appropriate boundaries go take a weekend ethics class at one of the local massage schools to assist you in creating healthy boundaries in a teacher student relationship.

I will finish this section with a story.

When I was only a few years into my teaching career I was teaching a class at Golden Bridge yoga in Los Angeles. There were two women in the back who had never taken my class before. During the 90 minute class these two women kept periodically whispering to each other, rolling their eyes, and making really angry faces. I thought they hated me. I taught my class and hid my emotions but inside I was twisted up and thought “they hate my class, therefore they hate me” and I was taking it very personally. I completed my class like I always did at the time with some words of wisdom to the class and a short meditation. At the end of class, as all of the other students were filing out of the room expressing thanks, the two women stayed behind. After everyone was gone they both walked up to me still with quite unhappy looks on their faces. I seriously thought they were going to scream at me. Finally one of the women said in a very serious tone. “We both just wanted to thank you. We both have recently experienced a major loss and we both agree that this class has changed our lives. We are only here for the day but wanted you to know you helped us.

I realized at that moment that I have no idea what’s going on in people’s minds. I realized that as teacher I can only teach what I know and try to get out of my own way to let the information I have to share pass through without any expectations or preconceptions of how people are receiving it. I realized that I don’t have to try to be all things for all people. If you teach what you know you will find your students. Not everyone will be your student… and that is a good thing. Someone else is that person’s teacher and hopefully they find them. I don’t take credit for what those women told me. I created an environment. They were ripe to have an experience because of what had happened to them previously. I only created a container to support it.

Recommendations to Students:

Don’t assume your teacher knows more about your body than you do.

First, I want to remind you that the average yoga teacher has received a 200 hour certification held by an organization that has no quality control or governmental regulation. If you studied yoga 8 hours a day for 25 days you would have invested 200 hours into yoga study. It took me twice that long to get my first belt in Karate and I was still considered an absolute beginner.

There are a handful of teachers who have made yoga their full time job and have spent thousands of hours with yoga as their focus of study and still I will repeat “they do not know more about your body than you do.” This is because you live in your body. Take your teacher’s advice as suggestions if those suggestions feel true for you and discard it if it does not. Don’t take it as truth just because they said it.

It is very easy to revere your yoga teachers specifically because there is mystique about the yoga culture and environment that makes teachers of yoga seem infallible. We want to believe our teachers know everything and can do no wrong and then we become disappointed and disheartened when we find out our teachers are human beings. That they are flawed.

In the beginning of the first chapter of the yoga sutras Patanjali states that the sources of right knowledge are direct perception, inference, and authoritative testimony.

The first of those, which could be argued as most important, is direct perception. Experience is not only the best teacher it is the only true teacher. Listen to what your teachers say but don’t take it at face value. Go find out for yourself. Walk the path. Just because a teacher says something doesn’t make it true for you. There are a lot of things teachers say that may or may not be true for you as the unique individual snowflake that you are. The only way you will know is through your own experimentation and self study (Svadhyaya). This is the foundation of your yoga practice. We go find out for ourselves through practice. Be curious and ask questions

Be respectful of the environment you are in and when in doubt ask

This door swings both ways. Students should adhere to the principles and guidelines their teachers have communicated to them.

When in doubt ask permission.

If your teacher specifically states that you cannot leave class 10 minutes early, or wear your shoes in class, or take your shirt off in class, etc, then rather than making a fuss about it, wishing things were different, or vilifying the teacher, either uphold this policy that has been communicated to you respectfully or choose another class with a teacher who does not have an issue with that thing. Less suffering for everyone.

Don’t attend a class from a teacher you don’t resonate with just because it’s a convenient time slot

Not every teacher will be the right one for your particular body type, constitution, and personality. To go to a class just out of convenience but then resent the teacher because they don’t teach the kind of class you like is unreasonable and disrespectful. Most teachers have put a lot of thought into the way they teach their classes and teach the way they do for a very specfic reason. Which leads me to a similar subject…

Walk the respectful line of modification VS doing your own practice

This comes up a lot in yoga classes. Having been born with a short leg I often have to skip postures or do them slightly different than the rest of the group. Because of this I often place myself in the back of the class when practicing where my modifications will not distract from the flow of the rest of class.

However there is a difference between modifying something to keep yourself safe and just doing your own thing which can be considered by some teachers and students as disrespectful and distracting.

Yoga classes are the only places I have ever seen this happen. People will come into a group class setting and just do a completely different routine of postures than the teacher is leading. I’ve seen this go on for sometimes 20 minutes during a class.

I have never seen someone go to a ballet class and just do a completely different routine, or a martial arts class, or go to an algebra class and decide to do calculus instead.

class

This is a true story that happened to me 4 or 5 years ago:

I had been teaching a class at a fitness center for a few years and had a pretty large regular group who came to class every week. One day a man started coming to class who would put himself right in the front row and about 20 minutes into class he would just start doing his own practice. We would be in a standing forward fold and he would be doing a handstand. We would be doing a balance posture and he would be doing crow pose. The other students were very distracted by this behavior and I could see it was becoming an issue for the rest of the group.

After putting up with this for several classes I finally approached him one day after class and told him that as much as I appreciated him coming to class if he was not going to participate with the rest of the group that I would have to ask him not to come.

He then stated to me something like. “This is the best time for me to come to yoga, but you don’t teach the things I like to do. You should check out this other class here at the noon hour on Wednesday. The girl who teaches that class makes it really hard and has a really good fast pace. She has really good stretches at the end too. I think your class would be a better and more successful yoga class if you taught more like her.”

I told him that we were having a very different conversation about yoga and stuck to my statement that he would have to either participate with the rest of the group or not participate. He claimed that I had no desire to self improve and receive feedback from my students.

He was not my student nor was I his teacher in the context of yoga class. Though I did certainly learn something about myself from the conversation.

This might be like a man going to a vegan restaurant because it’s located right across the street from his house and ordering his favorite icecream. He keeps asking the restaurant to serve icecream because he’s in there all the time and the restaurant tries to explain that isn’t what they do but no one can understand the others values. Now that man can either eat icecream at another restaurant or order what ever coconut or cashew alternative the vegan restaurant has but they certainly aren’t going to change their values or their business model. And it would be inappropriate for a number of reasons for him to just start bringing his own icecream into their establishment.

I feel as teachers and students in a culture of people who are trying to be “enlightened” and or at least perceived as such, things often get unsaid for long periods of time. I encourage you from both ends to realize that whether you are dealing with a teacher or a student you are dealing with a person who, like you, has flaws and insecurities and most of all does not want to suffer. Whether we like it or not there is a power differential between teachers and students and we need to respect that differential by communicating clearly and learning healthy boundaries.

Many of us have been in an intimate relationship with someone who gets irritated with you because you did not “do what they wanted you to do” and in confrontation were told “you should just know.”

Help each other out in all of your relationships. Communicate your needs clearly, make agreements, and stick with them. If your values are different then the person you are with you may either have to agree to disagree or simply go your separate ways.

Just because you have a different set of values and ethics to another doesn’t make either of you wrong. It just means you’re different. Give each other space, celebrate your differences, because hey… if we all liked the same thing, if we all ate the same dessert, the world would be a pretty boring place.

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