Notes to a young teacher • 27 October 2015

High Tide

There’s this big idea now about how being a yoga teacher is brutal. How the only way to make it is to play the game the way you find it. Let your labor be exploited. Read the feeds and feed the feeds. Even though they don’t feed you back. Create constant content. Market aggressively and build a fandom. Do not challenge the status quo or address the more serious forms of human suffering. Focus on the asana and forget the outright revolutionary nature of this practice.

Does anyone feel like this story of the yoga profession steals your strength?

People ask how our shala got rooted, from nothing to something in five years, playing by different rules. It’s hard to know where to start. The story inside me doesn’t translate well into the yoga marketing language of love, light and likes. It’s a story about trust.

To open up the headspace I was in when we started, I went back to my journals from 2010-11. That person was at the beginning of her yoga teaching life. She had a lot of creative energy and a need to honor what she had been given. But she had never built anything. So she had a lot to learn.

I’m offering this out in case my past thought process might give strength in a time when there is some feeling of entrapment by the market. This is not advice. It’s just an effort to open up to friends and strangers who love the practice and who truly are ready to teach.

Now before printing the old fire-breathing journals I’m going to say a lot of words, to wear down those who will get bored and go watch Periscope instead.

………………………….

About the 2010-self who is addressed and expressed below.

I made first contact with this practice in Seattle in 2000. Made a decision to practice in a devotional manner after a near-fatal car accident in Los Angeles in 2002. Noticed in early 2003 that it had become a pretty much daily practice, and was fortunate to practice with senior teachers daily without a break for the next 7 years.

In 2006 or 7, I began learning to assist in Mysore rooms; this was the beginning of a devoted yet informal teaching mentorship that continues today with annual visits my teaching mentor makes to our shala in Michigan. On the winter solstice of 2009 I arrived here from LA, terrified that I would not be able to sustain the practice alone. How odd. With all that teacher support behind me, the reality of self-practice was no problem. Still I was heart-broken for Los Angeles; I have experienced some actually hard things in life, but for some reason nothing has hit me harder than merely leaving LA. I really chose to suffer over it.

The year 2010 was confusing. I spent its first three months in Mysore yet told myself, and told Sharath, that I was on track to be a professor. I would not be a yoga teacher. “I’m not ready for this.” Too much. Stay away. (I held a belief that helping professions were for suckers, forged through watching my parents work in mental health counseling and pastoral care.)

Yet that spring back in Michigan I started teaching free private lessons and some group classes, while also keeping a foot in academia. Money was both scarce and not a source of concern, as it always has been for me – I’ve been working since age 15 and financially independent since age 18. I taught yoga for free (1) because I was lonely for RL community, (2) because I wanted to feel useful, and (3) out of an unconscious wish that my town would become a place full of people who thought serious practice was normal. A crucial opening that spring was that I stopped believing my mom and dad were suckers for doing service work. This freed me to go to a new depth in my emotional body, through both contemplative practice and family therapy. I don’t know how else to say this: I came to a place of surrender into a psychic support structure of family, friends, and mentors. A lot of inner tension was released, clarifying my mind in some ways and enabling me to trust my guides.

Back in Mysore the next year on Valentine’s Day, Sharath blessed me to teach, this time leaving no chance to back out. Authorization felt like getting drafted into service. Somehow within two months, I had walked away from academia – away from the only adult identity and social safety net I’d ever known. In April, I turned in my office keys to the U of M Sociology Department, lost my library privs and journal access, and migrated from the world of .edu to the world of gmail. Ironically, by Summer I’d been invited back to the other side of campus, as adjunct faculty of Dance, a discipline I knew nothing about. (Turns out, from University of Chicago to Loyola Marymount, it is Dance departments that have the best places for traditional, embodied-yet-academic yoga studies to enter the University. And now, somewhere in Michigan, there is an adjunct professor who’s not afraid to give a D+ in yoga.)

In 2011, our Mysore program here was tiny, while I had crazy amounts of creative energy that had been freed up by (1) letting go of the academic role and (2) letting go of the commitment NOT to teach yoga. The first portion of that energy went to holding space for 4-8 people in the mornings – at first I didn’t even chant the vande gurunam until 7:00 because the students considered that early! (Four years later, these same people are now on their mats well before 6.) It was much more difficult for me to transmit the energetic feeling of this practice to a small number of very new practitioners than it is now, holding space for a bunch of people who understand vinyasa and tristhana. Now tristhana reproduces itself like a good culture.

But at first, teaching was mentally exhausting. Even so my days were free and I wrote reams of reflections that year on community, on organization building, and on the teaching practice. There’s a lot of random, random stuff in those journals.

What’s below is edited down from that period. I disagree with some of this stuff now – forgive me if you feel the same – but I want to preserve that perspective as it was. Because it was enough for the foundation we needed to begin in a natural and healthy way. And because it’s a document of happy, healthy disregard for the so-called yoga market.

…………………….

Build trust person-to-person. Do not expect anyone to care about the words before your name, or the letters after it. Be transparent. Good students care about evaluating your ability to support them, not your social capital. Show them who you are: a product of long term practice and of unbroken teacher relationships. Someone who is not needy – for students, for money, for attention, for flattery. Someone who gets what you need from the practice, and from a lively human support system. Someone whose well is full.

Connect to students who have strong minds. People who will help you grow, and who will have the integrity to hold you accountable in all things. People who know the still, small, usually pain-in-the-ass voice of the true inner teacher. If those people are rare, fine. Building this house may take a while. You don’t want fans or a culty vibe around here; you want spiritual warriors.

What a baby shala needs: two people who practice every day. Maybe three. Not a lot of fair weather practitioners. Not an internet presence. If you see devotion, feed it. Make this place invisible to distracted people. The foundation isn’t really strong enough yet to withstand their vrittis. Someone with three years of daily practice is able to contribute to the foundation, so settle in and hold space until the devotional energy matures.

Value what you have. Sharath says be careful who you teach. You need determine who is teachable. Set up filters so people have to do a little work to find this hidden jewel: give them the resources of a few obstacles with which to construct their journey. Again, do not be needy. If you have one student, you’ve already got your hands full anyway. If that one student in the room gets the feeling you would rather be anywhere else, or senses you watching the door hoping for more bodies, you are not worthy to teach that one student.

– Distracted people are extremely easy to separate from their money, and extremely resistant to deep connection (with themselves, with community, with practice, with a teacher, with the present moment). Do NOT TEACH DISTRACTED PEOPLE.

– Know that privilege and power are major threats to your spiritual growth. The more power you have, the less empathy. The person at the top of an organization is one with the least feedback and the greatest ease in gaslighting others. So burn the damn pedestal. Be silly; highlight your flaws; and never miss a chance to turn that halo into a boomerang. Saints are saints because they’re dead; what’s more interesting is being good while also being human. If you insist on acting from goodness, make it a gritty sweaty human goodness. It is a disservice to wholeness to repress your personality into a test-marketed stereotype of love and light. Real people don’t speak in yoga voice.

Show your mistakes. Speak your mind plainly. Hide your charity. Clean the bathroom. Because if your spiritual growth slows, at all, you are failing on your first obligation in this life, which is to help consciousness evolve within yourself. You’re not here in this shala to be comfortable, saintly or iconic; you are here to serve and get out of the way.

Don’t make it about you – your practice, your skills, your charisma. It’s about the students. Get your asana chops off the table. If they want to verify the bonafides, they can get to the shala two hours early any day. Your practice is theirs now; you have to do it to keep the instrument sharp and you have to share it with them if they ask. But that’s it. Don’t be needy for attention. Performance adrenaline is low quality fuel.

– Motivation check: use your asanas to attract students, and what you will get is people who are motivated by asanas. Why not let them be drawn to how you treat your neighbors, the crazy items in your grocery cart, or the conversation you have with them while they’re ringing you up at the hardware store? Grow organically, from your grass roots.

– Does this place need your name on it? Would that limit its potential?

– If you are frustrated, the cause is probably entitlement. Do you think you deserve respect? Deserve to feel good? Deserve to have a shala that breaks even the first year? Deserve for people to see your work as sacred? Deserve recognition for your expertise in backflips? Deserve students who love yoga? Ha! This is incorrect. You are entitled to nothing. The belief that teachers deserve nice things causes misery because no matter how much you love him, your perfect teacher will never have the worldly enjoyment you imagine he deserves… and you won’t have that either. This is not a luxury path. If you do happen on a lot of worldly perks, the very having may become an obstacle anyway. The way to move through entitlement to actual happiness and actual service is thought by thought, grain by grain, pain by pain. Grist for the mill. Until all you have left is love, awe and gratitude.

Trust first, and you will be trusted.

– For example: don’t doubt students if they try out other teachers. If what you have to offer is not sufficient – if they don’t feel that this environment is abundant with all the learning resources they need – maybe you can do better. Or maybe it’s just some vritti they have. You work for the students; you don’t control them. Trust them to find their paths in their own personal ways. On the other hand, you can act out your own devotion by not playing the field. Be present at home, so students know that they are your priority. You don’t need to chase around teaching workshops every month. Stepping in to the teacher role makes you transparent, so if there’s somewhere else you’d rather be, everyone will know.

It’s simple. All you have to do is know who are your students, and support those people to the degree they show up for support. Don’t try to teach someone else’s students. Trying to support someone whose commitments are scattered dissipates your energy and worsens their confusion. The student with multiple teachers will not become grounded just by getting your take on things. (But you may be compromised as a result of trying to help where you should not.). Honor the student-teacher relationship by encouraging students to stay clear with their own teachers. Never insult a person’s teacher to her, unless there is an extreme circumstance of ethical violation.

– Live like a grad student. Because that is what you are. The investment you are making is in your endless learning, and in the expression of your life force. That makes teaching a kind of art.

– A mantra: you don’t know. You think you know exactly what is going on with some student on a particular day? Or that you know the causes of some situation in their body? No. No you do not know. You cannot know exactly what they are going through in their life, what is at the back of their mind, what is waiting for them at home. Yes, you see them every day and you share this tender space. And yes, you get intuitive hits from beyond your mind. But never forget that their experience is their own and only a part of it is available to you in this moment. Arrogance is thinking you know. Train humility by checking every intuitive hit against the empty space of the unknown. All you have to do here transmit what you can, and let each student work out how they will use it according to their own karma. You don’t need to know.

– Want to at least pay the rent? Do the work that cannot be commodified, that cannot be digitized. Bodies, presence, relationship, awareness, neutrality, integrity. Be too present for social media. Foster an evanescent experience that can’t be outsourced or uploaded. Give everything you’ve got to the fullness of this direct experience, along with everyone who enters here. Internet asana teachers pose a real threat to this profession because they have the following advantages: they can be paused, and muted, and edited, and they’re cheap. Everything you really have to offer over a yoga robot is in your radical, receptive, full-bodied presence.

– Also, you have the slapstick humor that comes with having a body. Real-time asana awkwardness is an added value no camera can capture. Because of the energy of this practice, your students will accidentally become the coolest and most magnetic people in town. It’s a danger, and is only amplified by meta-messaging that this practice is hyper-athletic and gives you a beautiful body. Stop showing off your barely shredded vegetarian serratus (guilty). Hold a space where they can become vulnerable, feel like a nobody, and not need to perform. Otherwise with a practice this powerful we’ll all just be jacking up our egoes.

– Capitalism says “if you build it they will come.” This connotes a line of credit, a lease, lots of spiritual materials, retail, a front desk. Don’t think like that. The way of service is this: if they come, you build it. Create only as much institutional structure as is absolutely necessary to support daily practice. Does this operation really need much more than a sage stogie and a sign-in sheet?

– Leaning on referent power is a road to cult mentality. Honor the teachers and the tradition, and cultivate your own trust-worthiness above all else. Again, trust first and you will be trusted. If you have accepted someone as a student, believe that she has integrity. See the truthfulness in her. Know that she has the ability to do what she says she will do. Confirm she accepts the rules, then leave the cash bag on the counter and walk away.

– Respect everyone. People might be cheezed out by the language of love, so you can show love in the form of respect. If you get the pointed learning opportunity of a disrespectful person, see behind her attitude to the wiley street smarts, or intelligent fear, or disappointment that you actually can respect in her.

– Never fake emotions to influence others, and never say anything you don’t believe. Inauthenticity breeds more of the same. Over the long term, you can earn students’ trust as they come to understand that you recognize your own inner states as quiet passing experiences, and that you are not afraid of them.

– Students who love you will want to police for you, and to argue that you’re right about stuff. Just like you want to do for your teacher. Don’t let them waste energy on you; they have better things to do.

– No drop ins. No yoga tourism. Feed the focus.

Give your energy to those who give energy to their practice. Attendance is required, just as it is in Mysore. Dismissing a student who does not do what he says he’s going to do shows him respect, and builds the trust-foundation of the shala. Be good on your word even when it pains you. Your students love it when you have the courage to hold the boundaries you have set. Correct dismissals build esprit de corps.

– Economics taught you to think like an alpha male: spread your seed widely and see where it takes. Now balance this with feminine logic of healthy boundaries and a good filter. Once you decide to invest in someone, stay neutral when shit gets real. If their stuff comes up, it means they’re doing it right.

– When you value the transmission you have, others will value it also. It insults this priceless practice to be needy. If you teach for money/sex/power/attention, students will sense your grasping. They will know that your practice and your teacher are not enough for you. Let the practice and its truth and beauty be sufficient.

– “The empty pot makes the most noise.” Guruji said that.

You are not responsible for keeping up with social media. On the contrary. You’re responsible for cultivating stability of mind. Let the people in your life understand you rarely see the feeds, so you won’t feel obligated to “keep up on the news.”

– Ignore internet asana teaching for the same reason the most original writers don’t read contemporary books. Other teachers are probably saying good things. But consuming a bunch of random instruction will inhibit the development of your own voice. You have practiced a long time to understand the technique. To contribute to growth of this method, draw from that experience instead of mimicking others. Teach from what you have been taught directly, and from your direct experience.

– Love and respect your colleagues. Cultivate love of your peers so you can savor it like you do your love for teachers and family and friends. If you disagree with the way they are teaching, why were you even paying attention to that? Pay attention to what you have in common with brothers and sisters in the practice. There are not many people out there who understand what it is to do this practice daily, alone, at 4am before a few hours of teaching and touching others. Anyone who shares that intensity of dedication, and that rarity of experience, is a comrade as long as they aren’t massively unethical. Thank god for them and for the field of expertise and devotion they are creating around the world. We are in this together.

Study your teacher. Construct a living thought form out of what you see, and place it on your shoulder. Let that avatar whisper in your ear. Now that you’re a mature practitioner, don’t expect to be hand-fed as a student. Be glad if you are not treated as special.

Filter out immature and misinformed interpretations of practice. It’ll all be fine. If there is some nonsense your students should ignore, the way to facilitate that is to have the sort of consciousness that ignores the nonsense. More important is to filter in good examples. Empathetic senior teachers with strong transmission and flexibility of mind for many decades. I’m thinking Dominic Corigliano, Peter Sanson, Joanne Darby, Hamish Hendry, Nancy Gilgoff. Because look at that. Great people precede us. When I think of these people, my mind comes to attention and wants to contribute to our generation of this practice as well as I am able.

The energetics of a space matter in a way aesthetics do not. Invest your time in clearing and cultivating the shala’s energy, not so much in buying statues.

You have so much freedom to offer this practice with reverence, integrity and actual joy. If you are really ready for this role, you don’t have to buy in to any of the social structures or beliefs-about-teaching that others find limiting. Just do the work that’s useful to the students, and that you truly are called to do.

– Read from the wisdom traditions every night before you sleep. Let it filter into your consciousness on all levels. Daily spiritual nourishment is required to do this work.

Place your attention correctly. Watch your thoughts closely. Be truthful. Cultivate a sattvic inner atmosphere. See yourself in everyone, and everyone in yourself.

15 Comments

  • Maria Long
    Posted 27 October 2015 at 1:55 pm | #

    “the empty pot makes the most noise” That finally sank in when I heard not just Sharath but every Archaya, and Swami that came to speak to our yatra group say that sharing your practice publicly was detrimental to it’s path/progress. My biggest take away from what you wrote here is that you teach your students to be unafraid of the energy they discover within themselves and to stay put as it rushes towards them. There is no sane way to write about that. As always, Thank you.

    • (OvO)
      Posted 27 October 2015 at 2:03 pm | #

      That’s awesome, Maria. I’m so glad you had this experience. I agree, there is an aspect of the full-on practice is that is not conventionally safe or sane. 😉

  • karen
    Posted 27 October 2015 at 3:57 pm | #

    I love all of this.

    And right on to: “If that one student in the room gets the feeling you would rather be anywhere else, or senses you watching the door hoping for more bodies, you are not worthy to teach that one student.”

    • (OvO)
      Posted 27 October 2015 at 4:05 pm | #

      I learned that in the first few lonely self-practices in Michigan… 😉

  • Anna
    Posted 28 October 2015 at 5:19 pm | #

    I’m sad for no drop-ins or internet presence. When I travel it can be so hard to get up at a different time or find a space that is even warm enough for practice. Please hold space for everyone

    • (OvO)
      Posted 28 October 2015 at 7:22 pm | #

      Dear Anna, Apologies for the lack of clarity on this one. Again, these are my notes from five years back. Hosting drop-ins from daily practitioners traveling through town is something I greatly enjoy. We had a visitor this morning. It’s true that if someone lives in town, I ask them to commit to at least three days of attendance (or more) per week, and to commit for periods of one month or more. P.S. here’s some internet presence for ya: http://www.facebook.com/a2ashtanga

      Warm regards.

  • Kelly
    Posted 28 October 2015 at 8:49 pm | #

    Dearest Angela,
    As with most of your posts, I read through tears of gratitude. Thank you, for all of these years, for holding space. Thank you for your steadfast (if lonely) attention to practice and integrity. Thank you for bravely sharing your notes along the way.
    All of the love,
    Kelly

    • (OvO)
      Posted 28 October 2015 at 8:54 pm | #

      Awww! Love to year, Dear Lady. Thank you for reading and for your support.

  • Sarita
    Posted 29 October 2015 at 9:50 am | #

    Awesome article! So well written and it really spoke to me. I will be thinking about all of these points x

  • Posted 29 October 2015 at 7:24 pm | #

    Hi ((OvO)),
    This is the most crystalline advice condensed into one internet article about teaching yoga that I have read to date. The advice points are clear and it is apparent they come from a combination of keen intuition, direct experience, and retrospective analysis. I am already appreciating the influence they have had on my perspectives as an aspiring teacher and have added this article to bookmarks for reference! Thanks for the practical, personable, and equally profound advice!

  • Nina
    Posted 31 October 2015 at 11:05 pm | #

    “When I think of these people, my mind comes to attention and wants to contribute to our generation of this practice as well as I am able.”

    These artifacts are so historic and alive. It’s very special to read this living document of notated portions if your teaching journey. Thank you. I’m so grateful to be here.

    These entries are always a stabilizing reminder.

    • (OvO)
      Posted 1 November 2015 at 6:18 pm | #

      So glad to have you here for it.

      BTW I guess this goes back to our conversation 18 months ago about “the guru…” 😉

  • Jen
    Posted 12 November 2015 at 11:43 am | #

    Thank you for this. I’m a teacher, though not of Ashtanga, and this advice rings so true for me. I’ve found that nothing is more effective in teaching students to be serious than taking them seriously — being present and really listening. I think of teaching in general as holding space, since concepts, like asanas, must be worked through and made real at the individual level. You’ve helped me articulate explicitly for myself something I’ve believed for a while: that the most important thing I can provide for my students is a culture of inquisitiveness, rigor, and patience, a sense of what unalienated labor is. I’m going to print out your notes and keep a copy by my desk.

    • (OvO)
      Posted 12 November 2015 at 3:03 pm | #

      Jen, Thank you for this comment. I have been thinking a lot (a lot) about unalienated labor regarding this subject. Maybe it’s actually worth posting about. The intention you describe is beautiful. Thank you for this insight.

      • Jen
        Posted 13 November 2015 at 12:14 pm | #

        I’ve been thinking about it a lot, too! How exciting to find a like-minded soul. It actually clicked for me during practice — that special feeling of relaxation within effort, sthira sukham asanam, and also sutra 1.12, a favorite — is the feeling of overcoming an alienated relationship to labor. I hope you do write a post about this, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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