Supporting the yoga teacher
Yoga seems to be very clear and safe from the outside. This is correct pranayama technique and this is incorrect technique. The teacher has the answers and the students seek them. Students often see the teacher as something big. There is trust and they entrust him or her as a guide. It’s a serious role and the teacher must make a clear choice as to how much responsibility to take on. It’s easy for teachers to underestimate the student’s needs for care, love, safety and affirmation from them. It’s also easy for teachers to either act blindly to, or overindulge in, the ways in which students view them – as a caregiver, priest, friend, body specialist, critic, life coach or therapist. Failing to accept or observe their student-teacher relationships stops teachers from furthering their understanding of the student. I feel many yoga teachers are naively seduced by the power and status offered by the role. They may become trapped in playing out a role that fulfils their own needs. Most yoga teachers aspire to create and hold a space where others can work on themselves to become all that they can be. When the yoga teacher is not aware of their own needs – for status, respect, love, validation, praise – they cannot mindfully hold the needs of others.
I can now note the many times in my teaching where I was under the immense power of my own self-criticism, judgement and fear. My own issues were driving the class. When the focus shifted from being about my needs, to being about holding space for students, everyone progressed and teaching was an awakening rather than an exhausting experience. When the teacher can take a supportive passenger seat position, the student relaxes and begins to look inside for the answers to a pose, to a life issue, or to their discomfort. This develops a stable core through feeling, inner listening, reflection, self-inquiry and personal responsibility. This ideal student-teacher constellation is rare. I feel it’s because yoga teachers lack a few key tools:
- A clear understanding of self and the ability to identify their own challenges and needs.
- Education in transference and countertransference from psychotherapeutic schools of thought to give them the tools to make sense of the powerful projections, feelings and thoughts that they feel when teaching.
- Ongoing support from an external, non-biased supervisor.
- A structured method of reflection, self-inquiry and self-examination.
For the yoga class to reach its target, teachers need to be offered external support to talk about their issues and share how feelings, problems, worries, self-sabotage, paranoia, attraction and doubt crop up in classes. Then, when teaching, they can separate their own story of, for example, “I’m not good enough” from the student’s potential story of “no one is totally trustworthy”. And so they continue to develop personally.
Often, people come to a yoga class with expectation, a very fixed idea of what yoga is and what they expect to receive. Along with a deeper soul calling for something that, at this moment, they can only sniff out on the odd breeze. You, as a teacher, feel their expectation, as well as many other parts of that person’s life, struggles and beliefs. This expectation-story-transference from the student is so forceful that at times in my teaching, I have felt entirely consumed by it. And ended up playing chase the goose all class, bending myself utterly out of shape to fit to what I perceive the other wants. Partly because I was not skilled in seeing the power of the transference at play and also because I wanted to get it right to fulfil my need for being accepted and liked. Interestingly enough, over time, I realised that the expectation that the student brings belongs to their superego and is a far cry from their soul’s authentic longing. The superego is clinging onto old habits and patterns; these are outdated and no longer beneficial for them to use. In fact, their true self (purusha) is hungry, starving even, for the opportunity to bypass these old patterns. A really good yoga teacher would be able to see all those things at play and hold a light to the new way of being that is available for them.
When I stepped back and took support to look at my experience (how I feel) in the yoga room when teaching, I got clarity about where I was and where my students were. This helped me to see what was them (the expectation and force of the student) and what was me (my issues and my core principles on yoga and teaching). This allowed me to keep my personal needs and default positions – to please, to be liked, to be gentle, to avoid conflict – separate from my professional work. This cleaned and sharpened both my ability to hold space and focused the lens through which I see my students. I would not have been able to attain this clarity alone. I took help. I set up confidential peer support meetings where possible. I spoke to a psychotherapist to offer supervision on particularly tough student-teacher relations and to assist me to work out my own issues (we all have them). I also listened in on my teacher’s classes and courses, whose years of experience were invaluable.
Recognising I needed support and finding that support would have been a darned site easier if the yoga teaching world had already had in place a system for teacher supervision. A standard debrief where one could go with teaching questions, worries and concerns. We could learn a lot from other professions where supervision and reflection is given an imperative place, so as to ensure continuing development and high standards. Often, without an external, non-biased person to talk things through with, it is really hard to get a clear grasp on a situation and to improve it.
For now, if you are a yoga teacher, set up a peer support group with other teachers, find a coach or therapist open to offering supervision and I promise that you and your work will develop exponentially when you take the support you need and deserve.
Copyright © Alex Hanly 2007-2015.