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Finding the Grey Area

I see some things as black or white. This or that. It is or it isn’t. Even when it comes to my job of teaching yoga. You are either in correct alignment or you are not. You are either with your breath or you are not. But as I’ve continued to teach, I have learned that practice makes progress and if progress is not allowed how can a student grow? Although there are many aspects that make a good teacher, the necessities are understanding anatomy, knowing asana alignment, and being able to safely sequence a class. But so often what's overlooked in training programs are more subtle qualities that can make one teacher stand out from the rest.

I once work beside a teacher who lacked humility, liked to show off her sense of humor constantly in class, and would cross ethical lines by becoming friends with most of her students. My black and white perspective lumped her into the category of “bad teacher.” But as time passed, as I continued to grow as a teacher, and as I had similar experiences of my own, I was able to see what stood out the most about her teaching, what stood out the most to her students. She had the ability to observe what students needed on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level. She met her students’ needs. She met them where they were on the mat that day and each day they came to class, and they continued to come day after day.

Her students kept returning to her classes not because they thought she was their new best friend, or because they enjoyed the gossip or the jokes that she would tell in class. They continued to follow her from class to class and from studio to studio, despite what I viewed as her “disruptive” or “inappropriate” behavior, because she had a gift for seeing what her students needed.

Recently I spoke with a yoga teacher who graduated from one of my past training courses. She was agitated that the senior students in her class who, disgusted by the droning sitar chords she would typically play, asked for some golden oldies instead. I thought of my poor mother when I was 16 and decided that three sticks of Nag Champa incense must be burning at all times while I locked myself in my room. Frankly, most baby boomers are over Hare Krishna’s chants and incense. They lived it! So if you’re a yoga teacher who just created a playlist filled with kirtan, play it for your 20 somethings, not your 65+ crowd. ​

This new yoga teacher pleaded her case, stating that Indian music didn’t contain words we understood and therefore was less distracting than western music. This is a very valid point. In some yoga classes, English lyrics are disruptive and can cause confusion when trying to concentrate on instruction. Imagine listening to loud pop music while straining to hear the fast paced instructions from a Vinyasa teacher. (Yes, I’ve been to that class before, and was thankful I already had a solid practice!)

Music is designed to support the practice. When I first started teaching I thought there was a black and white rule that if there were lyrics, it should not be on a yoga playlist. Now, I’m seeing the shades of grey. If your students are just beginning their journey towards mindfulness, take it easy on them. If they hate Indian music, play the music they like. This in turn will support their practice, and maybe in the future they will be open to another musical selection.

The Guru knows that the new pupil cannot read all the scriptures and learn all the philosophies in one day. It takes time. And as a yoga teacher, we are aiming to live up to the role of the Guru. We are aiming to gradually take our students from darkness into light.

So if your seniors’ yoga class wants to hear some tunes from their day, consider it. If you teach children’s yoga, the itsy bitsy spider might not be a bad idea, too. And for your college aged Vinyasa class, maybe play a remixed version of a pop song while you explore the peak pose. Then gradually slip in the other aspects of this great practice of yoga and make Patanjali proud! Try a new pranayama here, teach a mudra there, add an instrumental song to your playlist when you have a lot to instruct verbally, and before you know it they will be asking you about chakras!

Remember that everything isn’t so black and white. Find the grey areas. Try putting yourself in their shoes. Think about the first time you started your spiritual path. Ground yourself to remove any of your personal emotions. Open your heart to find your compassion. Connect with your third eye to tap into infinite wisdom and guidance. Pretty soon, you will be a master teacher, helping your students grow along their path, and caring for their needs, physically, mentally, and spiritually, each time they come to your class. And they will keep coming, class after class!

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