I'm a yoga teacher, but I'm only human. A student said something to me that made me livid. And then made me sad.
Weeks ago, I was teaching a large class of about forty people. One of the difficulties of teaching a large class is making it appropriate for all levels. Some people are super advanced, and some are complete beginners.
I started the class in my usual way, inviting them to modify or take poses further - whatever they needed to do in order to have a good class. We began by doing the full yogic breath and some pranayama (breathing) exercises. And then we began the sequence.
What goes into planning a yoga class
For the most part, I generally walk into a class having an idea of what poses will be in each sequence. Sometimes I have a specific "peak pose" in mind that we work up to throughout the class. Sometimes my class is based on a theme, yogic philosophy, or an inspirational quote. I will often practice parts of the class ahead of time to make sure the transitions are smooth and to think about how I'll explain particular movements. As we move through the poses, I check in to see the level of the students and make modifications as I go, removing some of the ideas I had, adding others. I always put time and effort into class preparation because ultimately I simply want to deliver a great class to my students. That is always my goal.
Back to the class
Throughout this particular class I explained the benefits of various poses, called them by their Sanskrit and English names, and showed options for modifications and going deeper. I adjusted some students. I reminded them to stay connected to the breath. Overall, I thought it went really well.
And at the end, a woman came up to me and said simply, "It was too fast."
"Oh, I'm sorry you found it fast," I said. "You always have the option to come into child's pose if you need a rest."
"No, it's not that," she said. "I mean, I know we're at a fitness studio, so you're not a real yoga teacher and this isn't real yoga, but it was just too fast."
I almost did a double take. I immediately noticed my ego spring up, jumping to the defense as I replayed her sentence in my head. I'm not a "real" yoga teacher and this isn't "real yoga?" I quickly replayed the class in my head, and noted that it was not faster than any Ashtanga vinyasa class I've ever taken or taught.
"I'm sorry you feel that way," I said, trying to keep my voice even. "But despite the fact that we're at a gym, I assure you I am a well qualified and experienced yoga instructor. In fact, I'll be teaching at the Dubai International Yoga Festival in a few weeks with other teachers from all over the world."
"Well, it's just not the real yoga I am used to. It's not your fault," she said mildly, and walked away.
I was stunned. I was livid. And then I was hurt. Because here's the thing. When you teach a yoga class, you teach from the heart. You say things that have inspired or moved you. You put together sequences for the body that you've tried yourself and have profoundly impacted you. It's you craft, the thing you're passionate about, the thing you want to do in your spare time. I don't know any yoga teacher who does it for the money. They do it because they love what yoga's done for them and want to share its benefits with others.
Teaching yoga abroad in a country where you don't speak the language adds a whole new dimension of vulnerability to teaching. Not only have I put in the effort to plan a meaningful, quality class, but I've also stood in front of forty people and tried to explain the sequence in their native language. It would be one thing if I felt deep down that I really skimped on the class planning, or I didn't explain key poses enough, or I hadn't added a pranayama or spiritual aspect to the class. But I checked all of those boxes. I did everything I was taught to do. It was one of my best efforts.
Critiques on the Yoga Instructor
I can handle critiques on my class and my teaching. But she should've stopped after saying it was too fast. Then I would've told her that Ashtanga is a physical class and perhaps she would be better suited in a yin or restorative class. I would've maybe suggested that it's a good practice to try everything once and then decide what type of yoga works best. But telling me I wasn't a "real" yoga instructor felt like more of an attack than constructive criticism. It made me feel like my intense training, learning anatomy and physiology, learning yogic philosophies, getting up for meditation and breathing class at 5am was all for nothing. And I was pretty sure that I was teaching "real" yoga (whatever that means), because I learned from a direct student of Pattabhi Jois (the father of Ashtanga Yoga).
It really upset me, clearly. But at the end of the day, I had to let it go, realizing that you can't please all the people all the time.
PS- More confessions of a yoga teacher.