My first reflection after reading Teaching Yoga by Donna Farhi, is that I have SO much more to learn. The more I learn, the more I realize that I’ve only scratched the surface – really this applies to everything in life. Teaching yoga gives much insight into some of the ethical and operational dilemnas yoga teachers face. I absolutely recommend reading it for anyone considering teaching yoga....and probably re-reading again after teaching yoga for a year or more as a reminder. Read on if you are interested in some of my personal reflections on different aspects of the book. (Warning: I wrote this review as a book report for advanced teacher training, which needed to be 5 pages....so sit in for a long read...or find the italicized quotes which will help you determine what I might be talking about in a certain section) :)
I have officially been a teacher since April 2011, so many of the examples and experiences Donna Farhi described in her book I have yet to encounter myself. Some of them I understood and others I was shocked that students or even teachers would behave the way she described. Even though I understand we all operate from a different moral/ethical place, I am still often shocked to learn what some people consider ethical…or even some people don’t consider the ethics at all. The ethical dilemmas discussed in this book reach beyond the mat into everyday life, impacting not only our teaching of yoga classes, but our interactions with our family and friends, our students and ourselves. The extent of the reach of ethics and morality is similar to the butterfly concept.
I am grateful to have read this book early in my teaching career, as it exposed me to situations I’m sure I will face in time. Now I have a reference and tool to pull from to help me understand the complications and consequences of certain actions or even non-actions.
“Yoga is for those who have discipline, tenacity and devotion. It is a pragmatic science where everything is tested and verified through direct experience” ~ pg 10
It’s funny, because my first inclination when someone asks me about yoga is to describe it as a unique experience, and for each person it is their own, that over time will likely change for them. As a teacher, I am similar to a tour guide for the ‘yoga experience’, I bring a student through the motions, introduce them to concepts, encourage them to take mental images of their state, become aware of their surroundings (their breath, mind body connection, etc), maybe even bring them to the edge; but in the end, I am only the guide to their unique experience. The student owns the experience they take with them and hold onto.
“In the study of Yoga, the teacher can lead the student only as far as she has gone herself” ~ pg 10
I had a teacher who would always say, “keep showing up, more will be revealed”, and she would also remind her students to just ‘be’, ‘practice’ and ‘do’. For me the quote about a teacher only being able to lead their students as far as the teacher has gone, reminds me of my teacher who would say keep showing up and more will be revealed. It’s all about the journey, and I ultimately can only share and teach what I have experienced and know as true for myself. The only way I can do this is by practicing, being and doing. I find myself getting caught up in reading all different types of articles from various social media sites, ‘yoga people’ I follow on twitter, yoga journal articles, books etc. It’s gotten to a point recently, where I think I am ‘following’ more than I am ‘being’ and ‘doing’. I want to learn as much as possible to be able to teach and share with my students, but recently I have realized the learning is going to come from the practice and experience and not necessarily all of the articles and posts I am reading. (Although it’s fun to read and learn from others similar to me, I need to carve out special time for that and special time for my own doing).
“Ultimately the mentor is the embodiment and mirror of the student’s own wisdom nature, pointing the student toward his inner teaching…” ~ pg 16
I love this idea that as teachers we are mentors and as mentors we are mirrors for the students…and I would even go so far as to say that the students are mirrors for us as teachers. It is often through the students I learn something about myself, my teaching, my own practice….or maybe even I learn what I don’t know…and what I need to learn to help them further. I think there are two different types of mentor’s as a yoga teacher, the first with a student who you have gained a relationship with over repeated interactions/classes and the second the mentor for one experience/interaction/class. As a new teacher, I have more of the 2nd type of mentoring experience. In the classes I teach at the gym there is a transient group of yoga-goers. Some come for a week, take a week off, then come back based on their schedule. In these short glimpses a student is exposed to me and yoga, I have may only have this one opportunity to mentor the class/student, I suppose another way of looking at this is have one opportunity to set a GREAT example of what yoga is and how it can benefit the students. Talk about pressure to always be on you’re a-game. Although, this is what being a teacher is about. When I sub for classes that I have not subbed for before, I enjoy being able to offer a new perspective of yoga to the students, often providing them with a different type of experience which gives them an opportunity to experiment with something new, maybe something they didn’t think they could do or even handle the idea of change (working with a different teacher can sometimes be a challenge for students). I try to build the student up to what they can do (even if they don’t think they can), often providing a glimpse of confidence and the light at the end of the tunnel and by relating the class to my own experiences, mistakes and learning. The 2nd type of mentoring experience, one that can only be built with a student/teacher relationship that has had many experiences together, likely in a classroom type environment or maybe one-on-one sessions. I’ve had this experience thus far with my first guinea pig student during teacher training. She had a lot of trust and faith in me (that reverse mirror effect) as a new teacher she was encouraging and patient with me as I initially stumbled through teaching cues. And as the months and classes passed, the teacher student relationship began to form which allowed her to surpass her own expectations of what she thought she was going to receive from being the guinea pig, gaining an appreciation for yoga, in addition to surprising herself with many of the physical postures she was able to perform. As the teacher I was so excited for her successes after each class. The key, is they were her successes, she was finding her own true self expression.
Archetypes – How the teacher lives in the students mind
Wow! The concept of archetypes was relatively new to me when I read this book. I had briefly heard about the various archetypes in teacher training, but the examples in Teaching Yoga helped to solidify the concepts for me. It makes complete sense that there can be an asymmetrical balance of power between a student and a teacher. After all, one person comes to the room with the knowledge that will be shared, and is seeked. This knowledge should not be abused by either party. However, the idea that a yoga teacher may come across as not only a teacher, but also a doctor, physical therapist, priest, cheerleader, parent or beloved one could contribute to situations where this knowledge or the ownership of this knowledge could be abused. I myself can see situations where I’ve placed certain teachers in these archetypes or where I’ve seen other students or even teachers place themselves in the archetype. For example, when I first started practicing yoga, I put every yoga teacher I met on a pedestal, especially those who I practiced with and I felt they were ‘good’ teachers or teachers who had been practicing for many many years. I was intimidated by them, nervous to make a mistake in class. Even when I first started teacher training I was nervous for the fear that ‘they’ might think I was in teacher training for the wrong reasons, or that my answer to questions would be inaccurate…fear that the teacher of that session would not value my thought because they were more advanced. It’s so interesting how I myself put various teachers in different buckets. So far in my own teachings, I think I’ve been placed in that doctor role more often than any other archetype. I’ve frequently had people come to me after class telling me about an ailment (knees hurting, arthritis, old injury etc.) … it is good that I know these things so I do not adjust them incorrectly, however I sense that the students are wanting an answer from me on how yoga WILL make it better, and I do feel somewhat inadequate when I have to tell them yoga may help, but is not a cure, and most important that I am not a doctor and they should seek counsel of a doctor.
“..when self-disclosure is used to elucidate a teaching point, it can both clarify the point and increase empathy between student and teacher..” ~Pg 24
For me as a teacher, the discussion on putting a teacher on a pedestal was important to me, because as discussed above, I did do that myself. I agree with the idea to ‘humanize yourself’, showing students how I learned, teaching them the steps it took me, telling them my ‘ah ha’ moment about poses & yogic concepts, knowing my ‘ah ha’ moment may be different than theirs, but the fact that I was in their shoes (or rather their mats) not that long ago (and really am still in their shoes as I continue to learn and grow on this journey) helps to humanize myself. I do believe students appreciate this method of teaching, as well as keeps the practice and class light hearted and authentic.
Healthy Boundaries ~ “many students do not even consider that they have the right to request that a teacher not physically adjust them, or to ask a teacher to modify the way in which they are being adjusted” ~ pg 37
As someone who fully understands and appreciates…and many times longs for a wonderful yoga assist/adjustment either in a standing pose or especially in savasana, it is hard for me to imagine students not wanting to be physically assisted. HOWEVER, that being said, I do completely agree that a student has the right to not be touched. I take for granted when I teach at Tranquil Space (TS) that assisting and adjusting is a natural part of teaching and practicing. It is embedded in the culture of TS and repeat students are familiar with this environment. It does take some pressure off as a teacher, we typically do not need to remind students of this practice – although I am sure to mention the hands on assists to every new student that enters the room and remind them they do not need to be assisted if they choose not to be.
It is scary to hear about stories where teachers have abused this aspect of teaching, as it instills a sense of skepticism among students and even teachers, creates a nervous reaction by some students when you approach them and of course is unethical! When I teach at a gym, I feel at a minimum I should mention my practice of walking around, providing verbal and maybe hands on assists/adjustments and remind the students that if they have injuries or would prefer I do not touch them, they let me know. I’ve received several comments after class thanking me for providing the physical assists and for me letting them know that I would do so. I think because of the fear of being sued for sexual harassment, fear of students reactions, etc., many teachers do not provide physical assists, especially in gym environments. I have to admit I do give more verbal and less physical assists when teaching at a gym vs. Tranquil Space. It’s not out of fear, sometimes it’s out of ease, but more often the students at a gym have not practiced as often or frequently as the students at a yoga studio, so giving verbal cues can sometimes be more powerful for the student allowing them to find their own way, especially as a new student this can be a huge success. So, for now in my teaching career I enjoy providing both verbal and physical assists, maybe over time I will change my approach, as Donna Farhi mentioned she did in her book as she grew into her own practice and teaching style.
This goes hand in hand with the concept of ‘transformation’ that Donna discusses. It’s not about the student being obedient, but rather the student learning, delving through their thoughtful process into their inner wisdom. This is an important concept for me to remember and remind myself of, as I am the type of person to give or have or at least try to find all of the answers for someone if they have a problem. So, I need to remind myself of Donna’s example, frequently a student seeking an answer to a question they probably already know deep inside by responding, “That is an excellent question, and I believe you are in the process of answering it yourself. Please let me know what you discover.” ~ pg 39. I love how this makes it the student’s journey and independent discovery. It is not spoon fed.
“We as teachers can more effectively meet the needs of our students is to make sure that our own needs are being met.” ~ pg 47
This just makes sense, doesn’t it? Not only when teaching yoga, but throughout all of our endeavors in life, day job, being married, being a family member to someone, daughter, granddaughter, or even friend. But somehow, I allow myself to be pulled in many different directions (my husband thinks it’s because I’m a shark and I can’t sit still), but I think it’s because I don’t allow for myself to have down time, I don’t take care of my own needs. I’ve been the type of person that has to-do lists, post it notes, everywhere…they are in different wallets, purses, my email, literally on the screen of my computer -there is a way to have post it notes stay on as your background (I thought that was a nifty invention) – So, I wake up every day thinking about which items I can cross off my to do list, and before I go to bed I think about what can I do very quickly to scratch something else off a to do list….I recently came to the conclusion that my goal is to not have a to do list! Somehow I think that I will actually be able to do everything and not have anything to do…really, in what world do I think I live in? As adults we will always have something going on, our to do list will evolve and change, and if we want to continue to grow and have a fulfilling life, then our goals and to do lists should be chalk full of great aspirations….including scheduling some downtime, time to take with family and friends, time for my own yoga class, time for a massage, time to cuddle on the couch with my favorite kitty, etc. Since I started teaching yoga, I’ve come to appreciate those moments of downtime, because I have found myself more ‘used-up’ at the end of the day. Being a full-time manager in corporate world and layering on teaching yoga, even though it seems it would not be that much more demanding on one’s body/mind, is actually more than I ever expected. I still don’t have the right recipe for tending to my own personal needs to ensure that I am recuperating to be fully charged….but I am working on it…#1, forget the to do list sometimes.
I really enjoyed reading the list on page 67 related to Medical Concerns and Making Unfair Claims. The list is a tool for us as teachers to follow to help make the right decisions regarding the welfare of students. Asking students if they have an injury is a given (well, it should be at least), but I was happy read as I have not yet experienced myself, some of the to do’s such as; referring students to a more advanced yoga teacher (again, I do not need to have all of the answers right now or maybe ever!), refer the student to a doctor (after all, I’m an accountant-yogi, not a doctor), and my favorite is ‘let the proof be in the practice, students will draw their own conclusion they experience improvement or resolution of a health condition’. Along the same lines, it was nice to read and hear that it’s ok to say you don’t know the answer to a question or issue a student might be having. ~pg 73. I don’t need to pretend like a know, I don’t need to give excuses or talk the student in circles explaining various theories or guesses, etc. I am the type of person that typically does not like to speak unless I know the answer; I have done my research and have all of the facts (probably the accountant in me). So, I much prefer to err on the side of caution – especially when it comes to something serious as someone’s health. It’s funny, because I did once have a manager (corporate world) tell me that I needed to ‘fake-it’ more, to just go with my gut answer and move on, that most people would be fine with that. Well…faking it just doesn’t jive with who I am, it’s not my authentic self. I’d much rather be honest.
There have been many times that I’ve heard that teachers should not teach material that they themselves have not experienced as true for themselves. Donna Farhi also mentions this on pg 85, ‘teachers should not teach material they have not yet integrated within their own practice and embodiment’. Makes sense ideally. I think this goes in line a bit with the previous reflection, can’t fake it. I can’t teach something, give cues on something I have not tried myself, provide insight into something I have not actually felt or embodied in my own being. I think this is why I also struggle with incorporating the philosophical sides of yoga into my classes. Although, I’ve taken many classes and read many books about the Yamas & Niyamas and other yogic philosophy; in the grand scheme of a yoga teaching career, I am just a baby in the understanding and implementation of these concepts into my daily practice. It’s also difficult for me to share my thoughts and reflections on things, I’m typically a quiet, reserved, speak when spoken to type person. So, sharing deep thoughts and reflections during class to help students stay in touch with their own body, mind, spiritual connection is extremely difficult for me. I find solace in the idea that I should only teach what I know, but I also do not want to use this as an excuse or crutch. When I first stated subbing at Tranquil Space, I was so excited I decided to sign up for as many opportunities to sub as I could. An opportunity arose to sub yoga 3 for an entire month…and I jumped. I thought what a great opportunity. As the time got closer to the date, I started taking more Yoga 3 classes to ensure that I could do the class, so that I could teach the class. Even though I could practice the class, I knew after taking a few Yoga 3 classes that I was not ready to teach them. I had to excuse myself from subbing those classes as I was not quite at that point in my teaching career, and I know that’s ok and I did the right thing for me and the students– but I must admit I felt horrible having to take back my offer to help.
I loved the section on ‘Codes of Etiquette’ on page 94. I was sooo happy ~ I thought thank god I’m not the only anal yogi/yoga teacher. Why is it that some students are in their own world practicing to their own tune, disregarding the teacher and fellow students? (Rhetorical question). I wonder sometimes, if I am doing something that is absolutely driving someone else crazy. I do wish that if I was, someone would tell me…and because of that I have to remember that as the teacher it is my job to provide feedback to individuals regarding code of conduct/etiquette. I recently was subbing at a gym for another teacher for a month. There was one student in the class who similar to the example on pg 95, would consistently talk during class reflecting on her own practice out loud as well as critiquing and providing commentary for the students around her. The first time I taught this class, I literally did not know how to respond to this, it was a gym environment; I was a sub, etc. I thought had this conduct been tolerated, or was she trying to get away with something because I was new. So, the next week when I taught I brought in several readings and quotes about staying present in your own mind/body, staying focused on your own matt, being in tune with your own breath, etc. It worked! Without specifically calling her out in class or rushing to grab her after class, she remained quiet as she practiced for the remainder of the weeks that I subbed that class. “Maintain silence as a way of holding their focus” ~pg 98
A more complicated question that I have yet to figure out is when a fellow teacher takes a class and blatantly ‘breaks’ some of the etiquette rules. For example, I recently subbed a class where another teacher came in late, proceeded to take a spot at the front of the room and then chose to pick and choose when they would listen to my cues, therefore for an overwhelming large portion of the class they were practicing their own sequence. I thought this was not only disruptive to my teaching, but also served as a distraction to fellow students especially because this teacher was in the front of the room. The teacher left class early, so I had no opportunity to discuss…but even if I did have the opportunity, I’m not sure exactly what I would’ve said.
Yoga is a lifelong apprenticeship in which our own life is the laboratory of inquiry, the desire to be ethical requires an ongoing practice of reflection. ~ pg 53
What I find interesting about this book, is that I read it shortly after finishing TT200 in April of 2011. I am now re-reading it about 3 months later for my first reflection paper for teacher training 500 hour, and I can see how different my interpretation and reflection is today vs 3 months ago; with only a short period of teaching under my ‘mat’ (aka belt). I can only imagine what my reflection paper will look like in 1 year, 5 years or 10 years. I look forward to the transformation.