An instructor mentioned in training recently that you learn more about teaching through your practice and you learn more about your practice through teaching. This weekend in particular reinforced that for me.
Yesterday, we started class the same way we have every Saturday for three months: breathing, chanting, meditation. Then we set up for our asana practice. We stood at the front of the mats, and our instructor led us through our first Dharma-style sun salutation. OK, we thought, guess we’re doing the Dharma 3 sequence. We went through five more sun salutes as normal. But, then we did a few more sun salutes. Hmm, we thought, this is a longer warm-up. Then more sun salutes, and more. We just kept doing sun salutes. I was not alone in thinking, it must have been some type of punishment, or that she was teaching us a lesson. Of course, in many ways she was.
We ended up doing 108 sun salutes that morning. 108. It took over an hour, but felt much longer. The same motions: reach up, fold forward, right foot back, left foot back, knees-chest-chin, upward dog, downward dog, right foot forward, left foot forward, reach up, look back, palms to heart’s center, reach up, fold forward, left foot, right foot, knees-chest-chin, upward dog, downward dog, left foot, right foot, reach up, look back, palms to heart’s center. Repeat, 107 more times.
At one point, dripping with sweat, I started to ask myself what I would do if this was my last asana practice. I let go of the what-if’s and the attachment to the poses I wished we were doing, because none of that was serving me. And I really needed things that were going to serve me. I celebrated and appreciated the poses in the moment rather than focusing on when they would stop. I learned what I could stop holding on to if I thought it was my last chance to try.
It wasn’t so much that it was the most challenging thing any of us have ever been through physically. But the nature of the class was particularly mentally exhausting: we had no idea when it would end, we had no idea what would come next or how many we’d do; even if we did figure out we were doing 108, a sacred number in yogic tradition, it would be hard to tell how many were left. At one point, one student left the room, visibly distraught, and told us later it was particularly challenging because the monotonous, seemingly endlessness of the motions mimicked a personal struggle she was dealing with off of the mat with her career.
Moments were had all around by all; it was obviously exactly what we needed.
That afternoon, we covered a lot of information on yoga outreach. This essentially includes teaching yoga to any groups that may require a teacher to take special considerations, and can include anything from PTSD sufferers, eating disorder patients, cancer survivors, foster children, obese populations, all sorts of communities. Often times, these groups can really benefit from yoga, but they’d benefit less from certain poses, or may need to be cued in a certain way, or they have a certain energy level a teacher needs to tailor their sequence and pace to align with.
We then created sequences in accordance with whatever outreach group we connected with most. I instructed students through a cancer/chronic illness class. I role-played as a bariatric patient, and then as a suicidal student. It was eye-opening, to say the very least.
We also practiced an exercise during which we paired up with someone and each of us spoke for two minutes to the other about what happened to us the previous day. The listener (the teacher) was not supposed to react, interject or even nod. Then the teacher told the story back to the person as accurately as possible, without editorializing. My partner told me about her day and then, with time to spare, opened up about something a bit more personal. I stayed composed and recited back the activities, and summarized her story at the end.
After the exercise, she said she’d opened up a bit more because she just felt comfortable doing so. I didn’t do anything in particular; just eye contact, really. But I couldn’t help but tell her how much I could relate to what she had shared about a situation she was in that wasn’t serving her at all. I’ve been in that place as well.
One of the biggest responsibilities of being a yoga teacher, especially for certain outreach groups, is providing an even-keeled, neutral presence. Supportive, but with boundaries. You may not be able to see it necessarily but students might be telling you their deepest secrets during a yoga class through their physical practice.
I learned from the 108 sun salutes about the power of humility; it was exhausting and unexpected and infuriating, and that might be how my students one day are feeling as I’m leading them through a normal class. I might be cuing them to extend their arm up in trikonasana, and all the while they are thinking, “Why am I so weak?” or “When am I going to get past this dead-end job/destructive relationship/sickness?”
I’ve learned a ton the past few months. This weekend as a teacher, I explored how to serve students with the kind of presence and instruction that they need. And as a student, I learned to appreciate what an honor it is to be able to do that.