July 6, 2019

Why your Yoga Teacher really Doesn’t Matter.


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The yoga studio is my sacred space.

I go to dive inward.

When I unroll my mat, I create a sacred bubble within which my whole being can unwind. 

As a single mom and yoga instructor, I have little alone time to practice. At-home practice with a small child and cat is—well, adventurous, to say the least. If I want to find my Zen (meaning not having a child or cat crawling on me or rolling under me), I go to a studio class to practice. 

I live in Upstate New York, where winters are harsh and spring takes forever to arrive. Winter is grueling to my thin, vata self, so I seek out a heated yoga class whenever I can. Not too long ago, on a very chilly spring week, I was feeling rather bleak and needed a pick-me-up. It was one of those rare mornings when I had space for self-care, so I headed to a hot yoga class.

As I drove to class, a rush of excitement ran through me. It felt like it had been forever since I’d had alone time. I arrived at the studio early so I could melt into a restorative asana before class.

Unrolling my mat and setting up my blocks sent a surge of adrenaline through my system. As I eased my spine down onto the blocks, that rush turned into bliss. I placed a scarf over my eyes and took deep belly breaths. Laying there felt so divine. 

As the sound of yoga mats being unrolled increased, I began to stir. I could feel the vibes of other yogis craving what I was craving: delving into that sacred space—together. 

The instructor was engaging in some small talk with students and introducing herself to new students. She told students her contacts had sadly fallen down the drain that morning and that was why she was wearing glasses. My forehead crinkled. Why did it matter to us if she was wearing glasses? I thought. Why the self-consciousness?

Ego had entered the room.

My yoga practice began at that moment, not the moment I lay down on my props. I honed in on my breath as a vehicle into the neutral mind. My emotional triggers were the sensation riding through me. The instructor’s comment, the asana I was settling into. How could I just be with it without judgment or resistance?

When practice began, I stayed as connected as I could with my breath. I observed my judging mind fixating on that initial comment about the glasses. I got the sense that today’s practice was more about my mind than my body. It was roaring at me like a tigress ready to pounce her prey.

Something magical happens in a group practice. Bodies sweating and breathing and moving together in a unique symphony of release, bond.

I love the unspoken yoga bond. We hold each other up without saying a word. Suddenly, a sun salutation becomes group therapy. As my thighs burn in Warrior II, I look to my neighbor, who is breathing deeply and holding the pose with a fierce grace—and the grace of my neighbor offers my thighs a sense of relief.

I always push myself harder and challenge myself more in group classes. I thank the collective unconscious for that. Strangers become my soul tribe in that practice. 

Being just another student on the mat is something I savor when I attend a practice. Not to be noticed is a blessing that allows me to settle into that neutral student role with the hope that I will be treated the same as any other student in the room.

As a yoga instructor in a mid-sized city, I know many instructors. When I attend a class, I like to be a stranger in a familiar land. I like to stay in my bubble and keep the chatter to a minimum.

On this particular day, I knew the instructor—a lovely woman with whom I’d had a great rapport. It had been a while since we ran into each other and the class was pretty full, so I secretly prayed she wouldn’t recognize me. I was hoping that because I was in such an introverted space, I’d created a nice invisible cloak around me. Perhaps I was safe. 

Halfway into the practice, as we were holding Triangle pose, the instructor walked over toward me, offering more cues to deepen our hold. I thought I heard, “Hi, Sarah,” as I shifted my gaze upward, but my psoas and quads were talking so loudly, they seemed to dull her words to a whisper. I must have imagined it, I thought. I went back into my yoga bubble.

But something in me told me I didn’t imagine it. I felt singled out. I felt seen. Once again, my ego flared, and then, with breath calmed again, allowed me to dip back into that neutral, anonymous state.

I felt safe there—in that role as a stranger in a sea of other sweating, deep-breathing strangers. Being unknown brought me back into my higher self—that egoless state where inner peace thrives.

At the end of class, I sank into a deep Savasana. As I melted into the floor, limb by limb, I realized just how exhausted my body and mind had been. I felt like I could lay there all day. When the instructor cued us to roll over, I moved at a tortoise pace. My eyes wanted to stay closed. I hoped I could remain invisible and tiptoe out of the room without talking to a soul. 

After our “Namaste,” the students and instructor clapped, as is traditional practice at this studio. Many students said to the instructor, “Good class,” and she smiled and thanked them for that compliment. My insides contracted as my ears absorbed the sounds in the room—and all the “good class” chatter.

But it wasn’t about the instructor at all. She didn’t do the work.

It wasn’t about her, my mind quickly retorted to all of the students kowtowing to the teacher. It was about them. It was about taking that focus inward and not projecting it outward. They did the work. They got out of their own way. It was their class—our class—not the instructor’s.

The instructor’s ideal role is to be a space holder and a guide—and a neutral one, at that.

Being an instructor can actually be a thankless role. It is a humble, egoless role. And when ego steps out, soul steps in.

As a teacher for over 15 years, I’ve met my ego again and again, both on the mat and as an instructor. I know when my ego is present, because a continuum of deep insecurity and boasting confidence are present.

I know ego is present when I feel elated, even elevated, when I get kind words from students after the practice. And then, of course, my mind wanders to insecure thoughts like, But the same students didn’t compliment my last three practices. Why this one? Didn’t they like my other ones? The continuum of ego is as fierce as it is unstable.

I know my ego has taken a backseat when I feel a sense of neutrality. I’m comfortable with the fact that I channeled an asana practice that allowed students to experience yoga to the level they were open to. I don’t take any responsibility for students’ labels of the class as good or bad or anything in between, because I know that when students practice yoga, anything that arises is the yoga.

The students are exactly where they need to be experiencing exactly what they need to experience at the moment. It’s not about me. And if it is about me, then that is their projection, and I don’t have to own that or try to shift that for them.

As an instructor, I’m reminded again and again and again: it’s not about me, it’s about them.

As I began to roll up my mat, still feeling hypnotized by the practice, I saw feet approaching through the corner of my eye.

“Sarah! Is that you? Do you remember me?” she said with excitement.

I felt annoyed, and my yoga bubble felt invaded.

“Yes, I do,” I said briskly. “Hi. Sorry, I’m kind of in that yoga daze right now.”

I was attempting to create a boundary in the best way I knew how to at the moment. I proceeded to pick up my props and walk out, gritting a “Nice to see you” toward the instructor sans eye contact. I could feel her expectations to chat looming around me like an uncomfortable fog.

Suddenly, I remember that mantra I learned in teacher training years ago and I reversed it: 

At this moment, it’s about me, not about the instructor.

Perhaps we all need to be bugged by the ego of a yoga instructor to be reminded that it’s not about the instructor; it’s about us. It’s about being present with all that arises within us, both on and off the mat. It’s about acknowledging it and owning it and letting it move through us with the grace of our breath and the beatings of our heart. 

You see, the real yoga doesn’t happen in the studio. It happens every waking moment of our life.

Being bugged by the yoga instructor was an asana for me. The instructor’s “hello” was the shape, and my reaction to it was the sensation of strain and pain arising within me to be acknowledged and then released.

I was moving slowly when I left the studio. After I changed, I felt a sense of relief. My bubble had burst, and I was ready to face the world with new gusto.

The teacher walked out with me but didn’t attempt to look my way. She was honoring my boundary now, and I observed guilt arising within me about not giving her what she wanted when I wasn’t ready to. I felt ready now, but she had moved on.

I took a breath and smiled. It was all okay; sometimes our needs and wants don’t match up. Sometimes our bodies can’t go as deeply into an asana as our minds and hearts want us to. The practice is meeting ourselves in the moment with compassion.

As I walked to my car alone, I said thank you to her—and to myself. I was grateful that I honored my need for space and kept the “hello” short. My old, people-pleasing, I-want-everyone-to-like-me self would have held my breath and engaged in small talk, resenting it all the way home.

It was okay that I needed space. That was where I was at that moment. It was okay that she needed acknowledgment and connection—because that is where she was at that moment. She was the asana offering me an edge. And I was able to honor my limits and breathe into them. 

I sent her love and gratitude as I drove home. And the inner peace that I tapped into during my practice on the mat arose within me, deepening my connection to the here and now—the yoga we call “life.”


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