Assumptions, observation and being a good yoga teacher
by Annie Carlin
Yoga teacher training is so intense, so brain-filling, that it takes a while to process everything. It’s a bit like selective amnesia with little tidbits of information and wisdom coming back to you in dregs over the weeks after you get back and have time to process.
However, there are events that are stick out in your mind, for good or bad. The conversation I’m about to relay to you is one of the bad ones. I will preface this by saying that the majority of people who were at training with me were wonderful and super supportive, but there’s always one or two that ruin the love fest. Let me also preface this by saying that it is easy for people to look at me, see my larger than “usual” yoga body and make certain assumptions. And remember – when you assume, you make an “ass” out of “u” and “me”.
So this lady who had arrived for Session III (the last one of my trip) had been making some comments in discussions that I wasn’t really comfortable with. They were, in my humble opinion, fairly ego-filled and in some cases totally misguided, so I wasn’t really inclined to get to know her better. During one of our breaks however, she decided to approach me and came up behind me and hugged me. Now, there are few boundaries at something like teacher training and I’m generally ok with that. But here, I definitely had an, “Oi! Personal Space!!” (my boyfriend’s an anglophile so I’m learning the lingo) moment. Having extricated myself from her grasp, here is what followed (we’ll call her SL for “Stupid Lady” – not very yogic, but I think it’s appropriate here.)
Annie: uh, hi…can I help you?
SL: I just want you to know that I think you are so brave for coming here!
Annie: uh thanks…wait, why?
SL: Well, uh, it’s just that it’s hard out there for a young woman like you…what are you 20, 21?
Annie: 29. Why?
SL: Oh. Uh – well still, I mean you are very strong and amazing for even trying this! Have you studied with Prajna before?
Annie: (starting to get irritated) Yes, several times.
SL: Oh. But this must be so hard for you! I don’t think I could…I mean, you’re so strong considering…
Annie: (now definitely irritated on my way to angry) Considering what?…
SL (at a loss): Well you know…this can be so challenging…
Annie: (now joined by another fellow trainee who must have overheard) I guess it is, and I have had some physical…
SL: (interrupting) Yes! That’s what I mean!! This must be so difficult for you with your physical…
Annie: (interrupting) Well I did have an asthma attack because of the smoke…
SL looks confused…
Fellow trainee (trying to help derail the trainwreck): Annie – don’t you teach already?
Annie: Yes. I find students relate to me because over the last 10 years I’ve had a very strong astanga-type practice and have also had to work therapeutically. It really helps when teaching people with different backgrounds and needs.
SL: Huh? You teach?
Thank goodness for my fellow trainee who kept me from decking SL, but I do regret not telling her why her assumptions about me (that I was young, inexperienced and should not be up to the rigors of teacher training because of my physical appearance i.e. fat) were not only insulting, but is the reason that I am wary of practicing with teachers I don’t know, and why many people, especially those with larger bodies, are terrified of going to yoga class.
So let me do it here.
As a yoga teacher, you simply do. not. know. what students bring to the mat. You also don’t know if they will share it with you. To do so requires trust on the students’ part and empathy on yours. What you can do is create a space where students feel safe in their practice and you can observe. Observation is not making a judgement when a student walks in the door, it is watching her practice, seeing strengths and challenges and then supporting her. If you can’t gauge by observing, you can (and should do so anyway) ask, “How long have you been practicing? Any injuries or other issues I should aware of?” To assume that someone is a beginner because she carries more weight (or for some other superficial reason) damages the student/teacher dynamic before it has a chance to grow. And if your student is a beginner, remember that the journey isn’t any less profound for her than it was for you because her experience is not yours.
NEWBIE chronicles the journey of a new yoga teacher. From teacher training to building a business, follow Annie Carlin as she details the highs and lows of finding her place amidst one of the worlds oldest practices.