The first time I ever taught a class, I was given one piece of advice before I went into the studio. This advice came from a fellow Bikram teacher. She was a little bit crazy, and also English was not her first language, so it was kind of funny. She said "Use your wise, and stay on your box."
I had completely forgotten about this until yesterday, when I pulled out some of my old yoga journals. But this was a truly great piece of advice.
I got out my journals again this week because I had to do some thinking, and then some writing, which always helps me think. I was thinking about a question from my studio owner, Molly. Molly does a great job of giving us teachers some thought-provoking assignments for our teacher meetings. This month, she gave us a really simple question: "What kind of Bikram teacher do you want to be? Please write a sentence or two."
What kind of Bikram teacher do I want to be? In a sentence or two?!
I want to be a good teacher!
Is that not an acceptable answer?
Uhm... how about, I want to be a really good teacher!?
Whoa. Off the top of my head, I don't have a good answer to that question. I haven't stopped to think about that in a while. Who am I, and what am I doing?! (Where are we going and why am I in this handbasket?) Existential crisis!
I told Molly that she had given me an identity crisis with her question, and she said "Good, it wasn't supposed to be an easy question!" That made me feel less ridiculous. Then I took a nice walk on the beach on my day off and I started to get a little clarity.
The funny thing is, when I think of what kind of Bikram teacher I want to be, I think of a lot of "negatives" first. As in, I know exactly what I don't want to be. I don't want to be a jerk, I don't want to be over-aggressive, I don't want to be a robot, and I don't want to be a drill sergeant. I don't want to be the person who turns a student off from Bikram yoga! (It's fine if a student doesn't like the practice - the postures, the heat, the dialogue - but I'd never want someone to be turned off by my conduct.)
I don't want to be the "hard" teacher or the "easy" teacher, either. And this is where I got stuck for a couple of days. I don't want to be a "mean" teacher, but I don't necessarily want to be the "nice one". Because it depends, it always depends. It depends on who the student is. For a new student who is a little bit scared, I want to be the nicest and most encouraging person in the world. But for a student who has been practicing for a while and needs something more, I want to give a little extra push, a little more challenge. Some people need to come in and have some space, and some people need to be told firmly what to do.
So what kind of teacher does that make me? In a sentence or two?
I had to think about which teachers have really made an impact on me. Not just in yoga, but in anything - in dance, in college, in trapeze, in life. And I remembered what all those teachers had in common. First, they always care. Obvious, but important. And second, they always seemed to just know what I needed to hear. I remember a college physics teacher who wrote on a pop quiz, "I expected better from you." Rough, but it was exactly what I needed to hear. I remember my first little trapeze show when the instructor on the board was just like, "You've got this!" - totally the encouragement that I needed. I remember being in a deep backbend in a class with Diane**, and thinking "I cannot stay here any longer," and at that exact moment she said, "Okay Juliana, breathe and stay there just a few more seconds." Bikram and Emmy are pretty notorious for this mind-reading trick. (I suspect that Bikram is actually psychic, which is cheating.) I took a Vinyasa class last week with a really experienced teacher, and right at the moment when I thought, "Why the heck are there so many downward dogs in this class?" he said, "By the way, the reason why we do all these downward dogs is...."
So I want to be a mind reader. Um, well. That's a bit wacky, and not really a skill that can go on a resume anyways. And it's not like it's something you can get through a course, or through a training. It's not like they can FedEx it to you or something.
I am never going to be a psychic. But what I want is to be connected. And there's my answer. What kind of Bikram yoga teacher do you want to be? I want to be that teacher who is connected to the room, and who is able to offer the right tools - encouragement, instruction, energy, or even silent support - to each student in the class. If I only get one sentence today, I'd have to go with that one. I want that special sauce. I want the students to feel that I am on their side, from the moment they enter the lobby until the moment they leave the building.
Molly also asked us, "What would you want your students or other teachers to say about your class?" Oof. Again, that's hard with the students, because they are all so different. Sometimes my students tell me that I've said something that really resonated with them, and I love that. But as long as they keep coming back to the studio, and they keep seeing the benefits from the yoga, I'm happy.
When it comes to the other teachers, it depends. For the newer teachers (and we have had quite a few newbies coming through), I want to be a good example. I want to keep up a standard for precise dialogue, right energy, and good timing. For the more experienced teachers, well, I just want them to be able to focus on their own practice. I don't want to distract anybody from their yoga. I love when teachers take my class and say that they were just able to meditate on their practice. "My mind, your body."
I don't want to get stuck or burned out. I've been teaching 10 a week for just over 2 years now, and I still love it, and I want to keep it that way. I want my class to grow and evolve, so that maybe if someone asks me this question in another year, I'm going to have a totally different answer. I want to keep growing in the practice and discovering new aspects to explain and talk about - in the physical practice, and in the spiritual understanding as well. Nothing too crazy - don't get scared of that word, "spiritual." I just want to keep understanding what it is that this yoga does for people, so that I can become a better guide for my students.
At the end of the day, I just want to be a good guide, a good interpreter of the yoga. The forest ranger doesn't take credit for the forest - he just follows the trail, helps everybody find their way, and points out the wonders that are already there.*** That's my job. Bikram yoga is awesome all on its own. I just want to help people navigate it, understand it, and love it. If that works, then they barely even need me anymore. They can appreciate the forest all on their own. I'll just be there to keep them company, and say, "Isn't it beautiful here?"
Out of time now, gotta go take the laundry out of the bathtub and teach class. Thanks for reading this blog again after a particularly long hiatus. I have been out and about, enjoying the summer. Next week, off to Maine for a camping trip. Will probably write more when I return!
** When I first started teaching, my private answer for the question, "What kind of teacher do you want to be?" was, "I want to be Diane Ducharme!" This is because I love her and have imprinted on her like a baby duck. But now that I've been at this for a couple of years, that is not an acceptable answer. There's only one Diane Ducharme and the position has already been filled. She is her, and I am me. As it should be.
*** Very much inspired by this lovely throw-away line in a book: "'Interpreter' is what the Forest Service calls a ranger who is also a tour guide, and I love what the title implies: that a place is like a language." The book, in case you wanted to know, is Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn.