All light. Teaching yoga on rough days
“What worries me is how I’m going to face my students if I’m having a really rough day.”
During a discussion of the practicalities of being a yoga teacher in our teacher training group a couple of weeks ago a student shared her concern. One that I’m quite sure every yoga teacher has had at some point.
It made me think about the change in the role of the teacher since I first started practicing in the late 90’s. Back then, in my early days of ashtanga love, it was hard to imagine that our teachers ever had rough days. There was a huge fascination with enlightenment at the time, and few teachers did anything to deflate it. They usually interacted with us students in a manner so mysterious that it was hard to imagine that they were in any way concerned with mundane matters such as what to cook for dinner (did they even eat?) or how to pay the rent of their shalas.
These days, the quest for enlightenment has more or less ended, and most teachers of my generation don’t seem to be too worried about appearing mysterious and sage-like. We’re just regular people sharing our love and knowledge of yoga. Sometimes we’re wise, and sometimes we’re not.
As I was about to address my student’s concern, it hit me that even if this is the case, I still carry one thing with me from my early days of yoga. While I’m probably the least mysterious person that I can think of, I’m definitely extremely private when it comes to sharing anything about the ups and downs of my personal life with my students. I try to remain steady in my interactions with them, so that whatever is going on with me stays with me. And this would normally be my advice to someone wondering about how to teach on challenging days: Leave your problems at the door. When you teach, it’s not about you. It’s about them.
But at that very moment, if I was to teach with any kind of authenticity, I had to be a little more personal than that. I had to tell how what I was doing right then and there was teaching on a rough day. Because the truth was that the day before this particular teacher training weekend started, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to go through with it at all. For the first time in a very long time what was going on in my personal life was so big that it was hard to leave at the door.
In late fall, my husband and I decided to start a new chapter of our lives and began a separation process. We remain close friends and business partners, and I’m proud of the kindness and complete lack of drama that we’ve brought into these proceedings.
But the separation made it possible for me to invest myself in something new, something that I believed in with all of my heart. When this fell apart spectacularly, I was thoroughly shaken. I might have thought of myself as a yogi of great equanimity, but as it turned out, when it came to love I was still just a girl with a heart that could be broken. If Leonard Cohen is right when he says that it’s through the cracks in everything that light gets in, then I was all light, cracked into a thousand pieces as I was. How on earth was I supposed to share anything of value for a whole weekend with a group of wonderful people who deserved a focussed and present teacher?
But I did it anyway. With the help of good friends I picked myself up and went to share my greatest passion – how we teach yoga to a world that really needs it. And while I was still shaken and in pain, the miraculous thing that always happens - to teachers as well as to students - in a room full of yoga began to happen to me: I started the slow and still on-going process of healing.
So at that moment I could truly say that having a rough day or a rough week or a rough month shouldn’t stop us from teaching yoga. Because when we enter the stillness and the magic of yoga, we are allowed to let go of our stories just enough so that we can start to breathe again. It doesn’t mean that the pain goes away, but it means that we can let it sit in our hearts without letting it control us and without letting it block those sparks of happiness that surround us at any given moment, such as someone’s first headstand, the release at the end of a long utkatasana or the sweetness of shavasana.
To me, this is the power of yoga. I used to wish for enlightenment that would let me be untouched by the world, prevented from falling in love and then falling hard when this love turned out to be a mirage.
But now I prefer to be right in the middle of life, in the pain as well as the sweetness, with a heart that is soft and open and allows me to connect with others. A heart that doesn’t heal into something hard and untouchable after it has been broken.
So these days, yoga for me is the opposite of mysterious. It’s the embrace of life. From birdsong in spring to letting love enter your life, but also letting go of what you so deeply hoped for without resentment or anger. Yoga is the courage to allow other people to be precious to you, because their support makes you both stronger and greatly enriched. Yoga is to fear nothing, especially not love.
I see so many teachers who right in the middle of the worst storms of their lives are still able to create and hold space for the happiness of others. And I bow to them. Because if any siddhas, any super powers can be obtained through the practice of yoga, this is perhaps the most beautiful one: To be all light when you’re all broken.