People come to yoga class for many reasons. As yoga teachers we can play the role of personal trainer, life coach, priest, therapist, doctor and even financial advisor to our students. Our role is a serious one; and for that reason it is vital that we be conscious and mindful of our own personal process so that it doesn’t get in the way of our teaching. I use the word process because this is an ongoing inquiry that has no end point or goal. It is about being curious and honest with ourselves about our own humanity; not about an unrealistic ideal of perfection, enlightenment or omniscience.
Self inquiry, self-reflection and compassionate self-examination are vital parts of being a genuine yoga teacher.
What Motivates Us to Teach?
Part of the requirement of my training in clinical psychology was an internship at a local mental health clinic. I saw about ten clients a week and, in addition, had to get three hours of supervision weekly. Supervision opened my eyes to all of the insidious ways in which the unconscious material from our past enters the therapy room. This is fine if you’re the client, but the therapist must try as best as possible to hold a neutral space where his or her own psychic material doesn’t impede the client’s process. (We go to our own therapists to work on that.)
My supervisor was a very intuitive and smart woman who had been a therapist for over 20 years. When I would talk to her about how I was working with my clients she was much more interested in what was going on with me during the sessions than what was going on with my clients. At first I didn’t understand; this wasn’t about me, it was about them. Gradually I got her point.
You see, as a therapist, healer or yoga teacher, we are creating and holding a space for others. How we do this is very much influenced and motivated by our own personal process. If we are looking for validation, love, positive mirroring or acceptance through our students and clients, then our own agenda drives our teaching. If our teaching is motivated unconsciously by these unmet needs, the yoga room becomes a space where we are working out our personal issues rather than holding a safe space for our students to work out theirs.
In junior high I became friends with the wrong crowd; because of that I was not part of the “popular” group, and I struggled with feeling lonely and isolated. When I first started teaching, sixteen years ago, it fed the part of me that really wanted to feel accepted. I got really good at getting my students to like me. When I taught a class I got to be “popular” and no one could reject me, I made sure of it. As I started to realize that this need to be liked motivated aspects of my teaching, I could see how it also limited me. It kept me from taking risks or challenging my students in certain ways (for fear that they wouldn’t like me anymore). As I let go of this need to be liked, my teaching has become more real; more honest and authentic; ultimately more effective. I am still liked too!
Countertransference is when we transfer feelings from our past experiences or relationships onto a present situation. In therapy speak countertransference refers to when the therapist (or yoga teacher) does this to a client (student). In the above example, my countertransference was that I experienced my students as the kids in my high school who had the power to reject or accept me.
Countertransference is happening all of the time. We are all human and our past influences our present perceptions. Yoga is a practice that helps initiate us into present centered awareness, where we peel away illusions and can stand in the moment, unencumbered by our past. As yoga teachers, it is our responsibility to be as present with ourselves and our students as possible. Knowing our personal triggers is the key to teaching with clarity and integrity.
Getting Support is Vital
Anything we do while in the role of teacher must be in service to our students. We get our personal needs met outside of the classroom.
There is nothing wrong with wanting validation, love and acceptance, these are basic human needs; the place to get these needs met, however, is in our personal relationships and in our relationship with ourselves. I believe that if we are not in a consistent practice of self- reflection we can slip into unconscious teaching. This practice can be in the form of meditation, journaling, therapy or group work.
Last January I started a yoga teacher support group. My intention was to create a space (sort of like my supervision sessions) for yoga teachers to talk about their process. We all agreed to keep what we heard confidential so that everyone could feel safe sharing vulnerable material. I invited teachers to share some of the fears that they have when they teach. Our dialogues have been rich and sometimes challenging. Participants have shared with me how refreshing it is to see that other teachers grapple with similar issues; and how supportive it has been to have a space be open about some of the more shadowy parts of being a teacher.
In these meetings we have found that we all wonder if we’re good enough to teach; how we’ve possibly fooled people to coming to our classes and workshops; and what to do if we find ourselves attracted to a student, or if a student is attracted to us. Many of us feel the vulnerability of getting up in front of a group and holding space- the symphony of voices in our head (the critic, the perfectionist, the parent) and how exposed we can feel. As we get more comfortable addressing our own shadow- our fears, old wounds and false beliefs, they become less potent. If we deny them because we are invested appearing a certain way to the outside world, we limit the potential richness of all that we have to offer. The more that we are in a place of self-acceptance of all of us, the more we will inspire our students to be self-loving too.
If there is a space in our lives where we can process these feelings, then we are less likely to let them steer our teaching. They may always be present, but in the back seat rather than the driver’s seat. Sometimes when people come up to me after class to say they enjoyed my teaching, I can feel the 15 year old girl inside sighing with relief; I honor that part of me; I just don’t let that girl run the class.