Knowledge is power. Our understanding of the world around us and our place in it directly affects our ability to function effectively and attain happiness or success (or both), or whatever it is that we seek. As a teacher you pass information and the ability to think to your students, making them more powerful. The better you are as a teacher and the more knowledge you provide, the more powerful your students will become.
This power dynamic can create tension between the teacher and student. Many teachers are afraid of the power that the student will gain if they offer all their knowledge. Won't the student then be equal to the teacher? Or perhaps even better? So the teacher limits the knowledge they offer, only providing part of the information to prevent the student from rising too high. Or they may belittle their students, criticizing and insulting them to remind the students how low they are. This keeps the student---in the teacher's mind, at least---below the teacher.
How do we avoid this? By embracing the possibility that our students will become greater than us. Hoping for it. The value of our students is not in the way they build us up, looking up to us admiringly as all-knowing gurus. The value of our students is the way they are individuals with unique experiences, minds and ability to think. Their value is the same as ours, the same as anyone's, to recognize the things that need to be done to make the world better. To have the knowledge and courage to pursue them.
One of our favorite quotations is credited to Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The greatest way to honor one's teacher is to obliterate him." This contains a great lesson for the student and the teacher. The goal of both parties is the transfer of knowledge and understanding, which is not to be confused with doing things the way they've always been done.
A successful student will be able to think independently of the teacher. A successful teacher will embrace and encourage that independence.
As the year turns over, we quickly shift from looking backward---"what happened this year?"---to looking forward. I have mixed feelings about New Year's resolutions because they encourage us to be dissatisfied. It would be better to focus on contentment, as Ida writes in a new blog.
The more I practice, teach and study I am shocked by the way my mind changes. I see things so differently now than I did when I started learning about yoga years ago. I suppose it shouldn't be surprising. How could we possibly have clear vision or intention when we are beginning on a new path? Each bit of practical experience and insight necessarily changes our perspective.
Lately, I have been studying the Bhagavad-gita, and it is so clear which passages are speaking to my present situation: Actions should not be undertaken for the benefit of myself or my ego. When I say this out loud, it seems obvious and silly. But which of our actions are not designed to benefit ourselves?
When I say things so people understand my intelligence, I am serving my ego. When I eat the food I "like," I am serving my sensory desire. Even when I study and learn, am I doing it just to develop my sense of accomplishment and my ability to excel in the world?
It is increasingly important to me to recognize and subvert these thoughts and actions. Instead, my actions should be directed toward the service of others. The difficult part for me to understand is do I do this for the benefit of myself or other people? Even that dilemma is addressed in the Gita. One who performs apparently selfless actions for his own benefit is ignorant, while one who takes no credit and accepts no personal benefit is wise.
This is my goal: to serve with no agenda. To recognize the emergence of my ego and discard it, so my actions build the good of the world at large instead of just myself.
It seems that history is littered with holy men and yogis who have been disgraced by acts immoral and illegal. In their youth they may have been full of skill, insight, light and promise, but as the years passed they somehow lost their purity and path, becoming attached to fame, riches, power and the adoration of their followers.
We are left to wonder how we missed the signs of evil. Were they there all along, even when they were so young and seemed so pure? Were they hiding their true intentions, duping us into trust and faith? Is their evil misunderstood? Are they the victims of circumstance?
In truth, a yogi can be pure, realized and glorious at one point and then become overrun by worldly desires and corruption at another point. The two are not mutually exclusive, and presence of one does not mean that the other never existed or never will exist.
The mind of a yogi---or an ordinary person, for that matter---is like a garden. It begins as a wild forest, overrun with natural growth until it is cultivated by disciplined practice and study. If we practice with dedication, we can turn the mind into a beautiful, lush and organized garden. But a garden takes constant attention, tending to the plants that are growing and removing the resurgent weeds that will never stop coming.
Even a few weeks of neglect allow the wild weeds of the mind to grow and gain traction. If we neglect our practice and discipline for years or decades, even the finest mind will be overrun just as a garden neglected for years or decades will turn back to wilderness.
Regardless of how pure or holy we may be, we are never beyond the need for discipline, practice and study. We must constantly tend our gardens, because the weeds will always grow. Even a great yogi can be overwhelmed by the desires and attachments of the mind.
Anyone who has attended one of our classes knows we place great importance on knowing why we are doing what we're doing, whether it is stretching, strengthening, breathing, meditating or eating french fries. This also applies to being a teacher. Why do we/you teach yoga? What do we set out to accomplish, what do we actually accomplish, and is there any discrepancy between those two that can be improved?
We encourage you to respond or comment with your thoughts.
As I search my own motivations for teaching, I settle on a relatively simple answer: peace and happiness. These are the things I hope to bring to any students. My goal is at least to point them in the right direction.
It will come as no surprise that human existence is interwoven with suffering. Some suffering comes in the shape of desire: wanting things that we do not have and feeling that lack acutely. Some comes in the shape of fear: seeing the possibility for suffering and dreading it. Some comes as depression or stress, and some comes as outright physical pain in the body.
More than anything else I've experienced, the teachings and practices of yoga have reduced my suffering. Many physical pains have diminished, but mostly my mental state has improved, bringing contentment where there was dissatisfaction and peace where there was stress. I have become happier. These are the reasons I study and practice yoga; it has made my life better.
All around I interact with people who suffer because they are swept up in the chaos of the senses and mind. I talk with people who have goals and desires that bring them pain instead of happiness. And I see people who have injuries or physical pain in their bodies. Through it all, I see how the teachings of yoga could really help to ease the suffering of so many people.
The overwhelming activity and power of the mind is common in all humans. It is full of desire and fear, stress and imbalance. Learning about the mind and recognizing its tendencies is one of the fundamental principles of yoga. Over time we can see the activities of the mind as what they are instead of mistaking them for the deepest nature of ourselves.
All this is why I teach yoga. I see suffering that has a remedy. I would remiss if I did nothing. So I am compelled to teach.
The Ghosh Yoga Mentorship program officially begins today.
At the beginning of practice, when we know very little, it is enough to learn in a group setting like grade school or yoga class. In these situations information can be dispersed efficiently to a lot of people, so we can learn the basics and decide if we want to pursue a subject in depth.
As we progress in our lives and yoga practice, it is increasingly important to get unique, individual instruction and feedback. It is said that the paths are many even when the goal is one. The more specialized we get, the less appropriate a classroom experience is since the lesson that is perfect for our neighbor might miss the point for us, and vice versa.
The Ghosh Yoga Mentorship addresses the needs of yoga students and teachers who are ready for individual attention. You will have direct one-on-one communication with Scott and Ida via email and telephone, and they will help guide you on your path.
- Ask the questions that come up, whether in your practice, teaching or study.
- Get homework assignments, readings and tasks customized for your goals and needs.
- Feedback and instruction on your postures or breathing.
- Specific, individual meditation or mantra guidance.
- Instruction and feedback on your teaching.
- Advice about students, class structure, sequencing, etc.
- Much, much more...
It is impossible to predict your path and questions. What is important is having access to someone who can offer insight and support. Click here for more info about the Ghosh Yoga Mentorship program.
The inherent relationship between teacher and student is a flow of knowledge--in the form of information or facilitated experience--from teacher to student. The teacher (hopefully) has more experience and knowledge of the subject at hand, and her job is to determine what lessons are appropriate for the student and then to impart those lessons.
You may hear some say that they get a lot from teaching.
Without a doubt, there are things to be learned from the process of teaching. If we are attentive and observant, we can increase our awareness of different people, points of view, mental and physical conditions, and the effects of our teachings upon them. Not to mention that a student may bring something to our attention that we were oblivious to before. A teacher can always learn. But that is not the inherent role of the teacher, and teaching should not be approached as such.
Teaching is inherently a form of service; of giving. Not taking.
Whenever we find that we are unfulfilled by our teaching, we must check our motivation. What are we hoping to gain from teaching? I would suggest that we should not hope to gain anything by teaching, rather to give.
POWER & EGO
Whenever we stand in front of a room of people with their attention focused on us, it is almost inevitable that our ego grows. We find pleasure in the admiration and power. We must be careful of this.
Teaching is an act of giving, which is why "burnout" is so common. We give and give to our students until there is nothing left. We feel empty and soon resent the act of teaching and perhaps the students themselves. Why don't they do what we say? Why don't they give us more?
But it's not their job to give to us. It is our job to give to them.
To avoid burning out, here are three things you can do.
1) The first is the simplest but most profound. It is a change of mentality: realizing that the students are not there for you, you are there for them. Just this little mental shift can flip our relationship with teaching and our students. Don't seek to get anything from your students or teaching. Find ways to give.
2) Teach less. It is common for teachers to spend too much time teaching. Inevitably they give too much of themselves, feel empty and then lose their passion. Perhaps they even quit. Instead, teach less. As one of our teachers said, "It is an ultra-marathon, not a sprint." Ideally you will still be teaching in 30 years and offering your students the gems of wisdom that can only come from such long experience.
3) Find ways to "fill up." What recharges you? What makes you feel alive? What inspires you? Do these things, as they will make you calm and happy and eager to embrace the service of teaching. And they will prevent you from looking to your students for inspiration. Some people recharge with a personal yoga practice (but this has to be separate from your teaching!). Others travel or read or paint or play music. Find what makes you happy and do that. It will improve your teaching.
It is Practice Week this week, and we are in Pennsylvania. The days are intense and draining: 5 hours of practice and another 3 hours of discussion. It is an all-out extravaganza for the body and mind. Needless to say, the end of the day finds us exhausted, and it only compounds over the course of the week.
But I have always been a morning person, and no matter how tired I am, I usually wake up early. I say this with no sense of pride; I would often choose to sleep later if I could. But once my internal clock decides it’s time to wake up, there is no way of returning to rest. So I get up.
My favorite thing to do in the morning, aside from doing breathing practices, is organize information. It is so quiet and peaceful, and my mind is full of new connections that were generated while I slept. I love to write down little bits of information that I’ve learned and questions I have. I read and research to find answers to my questions. Sometimes I gain a new sense of understanding.
This morning, I sat in the yoga room here in Pennsylvania before anyone else was up. I gathered pictures and bits of info and placed them into a slide presentation. I rearranged their order until a coherent story appeared. I looked up, saw myself in the mirror and realized that this is a pattern with me: rise early and organize information.
When we step in front of a class of students to teach, it is natural for the ego to grow. After all, the teacher is one person while the class is many people. The teacher knows about the practices, history and purpose while the class is learning. The teacher controls the practice while the students follow her lead. All attention is directed toward the teacher. It is normal for this to create an inflated sense of importance.
But the teacher and student are two parts of a larger system of learning, and they need to work together to be successful. As much as the student must serve the teacher to learn and progress, the teacher must also serve the student. The two are an inextricable team.
In the Sivananda tradition, there is a little invocation that precedes every class, describing this union between the teacher and student, and how they must work together in harmony.
May we (the teacher and the student) be protected together,
May we be nourished together,
May we both work together with great energy,
May our study be enlightening and not give rise to hostility.
...AND NOT GIVE RISE TO HOSTILITY
I especially like the last line: "May our study be enlightening and not give rise to hostility."
It is pretty easy for the teacher to resent students who do not listen to instruction. These students make the teacher feel powerless and worthless, so the teacher dislikes them. Hostility is born.
It is also easy for the student to resent the teacher. The student may be struggling to understand or progress. Or he may have conflicting experience or knowledge that makes him resist the new teachings. Or he may just be having a bad day. As the teacher pushes the student to conform, the student grows frustrated with the teacher. More hostility is born.
It is important not only to avoid this hostility, but to actively promote collaboration and communication between teacher and student. We are all in it together. It is a symbiotic relationship, as the student can not exist without the teacher and the teacher can not exist without the student.
A student must always be able to ask questions. Surprisingly, the questions will help the teacher as much as the student. They reveal the student's understanding--where he gets it and where he struggles. This is the single greatest tool that a teacher can use to serve her students.
We begin at the beginning. That much is obvious.
As we practice, we gain proficiency; we get good at whatever we are drilling. Soon enough, it becomes time to move on and up to the next level. Almost all disciplines take this process for granted. If you study music, you start with the Level 1 book and move through Level 2 up as high as you can, through maybe 6 to 10 levels. And that is all before you even arrive at the University level that plays the standard "repertoire" that makes up most concerts.
Even school subjects progress through levels, building on one another to create complex and deep understanding. Arithmetic is layered with geometry, algebra and calculus to give the student a high level of competency in maths.
Sadly, this structure rarely exists in yoga, especially in the West. The studio culture that has built up---where we attend a group yoga class in the morning or after work---contains almost exclusively "all-levels" classes, which means that they aren't particularly suited for beginners or experienced practitioners.
Since we all begin at the beginning, we should do the simplest introductory practices. We are in Yoga First Grade, learning the yogic equivalent of counting and the alphabet. This includes things like touching our toes, awareness of the breath and perhaps even linking our breath with movement. Before too long we graduate to Yoga Second Grade, where we build upon the skills we have learned. This continues indefinitely as the practices become more and more complex.
This may seem obvious, but it is quite common in the yoga world for beginners and experienced practitioners to do the same practices, the equivalent of having everyone in the room practice algebra even though some don't know how to add while others are astrophysicists. Who is being served?
Practice must begin simply and it must evolve. It must grow and increase in complexity. As teachers, we must embrace and enable these qualities and capabilities in our students.
Whenever we teach yoga, it is mostly done with words. We describe the actions, body movements, breathing, areas of concentration and purpose to our students. Sometimes there are moments of demonstration, discussion, contemplation and quiet practice, but for the most part yoga teaching is done by speaking. This makes our words important. What are we saying? And for what purpose?
There is value in repeating the words of our teachers. It can root us in tradition, since our teachers often learned the same words from their teachers. It can also bring us closer to our own past experiences of practice, since we heard our teachers use the words while we were discovering. Now those same words can tether us to our own practice even as we guide others. Sometimes the words of our teachers are simply great, and try as we might, we can not invent a more effective way to describe a concept or action. In these cases, repeating our teachers is a wise choice.
But there is also danger in repeating someone else's words, even when they come from a knowledgable, respectable source. The greatest risk is that we will instruct what we do not understand ourselves. When we already have instructions ready to disperse, there is little motivation to plumb the depths of practice and then teach from our own knowledge. We may end up teaching things far beyond our own ability and understanding, and this is bad for everyone--us, the students and the knowledge that we are claiming to perpetuate.
Another danger is that speaking someone else's words can disconnect us from our own knowledge and experience. It is easy to switch to autopilot when we have the words ready beforehand. We can disconnect from our own practice as well as the needs of the students in front of us, simply repeating prepared statements that may or may not apply to the current moment.
Sometimes we invent our own instructions to guide our students. This has the advantage of being absolutely real and true; we aren't instructing what we've heard or read but what we've practiced and experienced. Almost always these words are clear, evocative and precise. When we speak with our own words, we are forced to connect our brains (and mouths) to our own knowledge, and this brings unity to both our teaching and practice. Disparate parts become unified. Also, this forces us to teach what we know. When we use our own words, there is no possible way to instruct something beyond our own understanding.
The greatest danger to teaching in the moment with our own words is that we can lose humility and become caught up in our own story. We get intoxicated with the sound of our own voice, convinced that our experience is worth trumpeting, that our instructions are worth following. This perspective is ruinous to the yogi, as the ego can grow and drown out all yogic knowledge and humility.
There are pros and cons to repeating traditional words, old phrases and the words of our teachers. The same is true for inventing our own instructions directly from personal experience. Above all, we must be aware of what we say and why, and also what impact the words have on our students and us.
Scott & Ida are Yoga Acharyas (Masters of Yoga). They are the head teachers of Ghosh Yoga. This blog is about their experience with yoga practice, study and teaching.
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