The Role of the Yoga Teacher - are we blindly asking students to follow our lead??
Should we be present to share rather than to teach? To share is a natural process, dissemination of ideas which are by nature of sharing are open to discussion, adaptation, mutation?
Just as we cannot take on the path of another- we cannot emulate the way that others have found their spiritual path-we must encourage others to find their own way. We can of course help them on their way, encouraging and offering guidance if we feel equipped to do so, but the years of lessons and introspection from our own personal journey cannot be passed on as a ready-made, off the hanger garment for others to wear. We are misguided if we think that way. At the same time however, the classes that we host are undeniably ours in the sense that we have to hold the space; our personality will guide the feel of our classes; we teach what we feel is necessary in each session.
We should try to lead classes with enough freedom that every student can find their own level and way of practising. We remind them that they should rest out whenever they need to, to take a variation of their own that feels good or even take a totally different pose if they feel that they need it. Encourage some spontaneity, be lifted and not downbeat when in class there is a student who decides to do something totally different. They are truly listening to themselves and hopefully you have been a part of bringing this about.
Eventually the sign of success is that the student shouldn't need to come to class at all. Our bank manager might not like that, but it is a good sign of a job well done.
Yoga in the Modern World
It would probably be fair to say that in the last 50 years, the practice of yoga has expanded to include more people than all of the combined yogis that practised in the possibly thousands of years prior to that. ‘Yoga’ as we practice it today is no doubt very different to how it was practised in the past. There is a heavy tendency towards physical asana practice, to the extent that it is now for most people synonymous with the very term 'yoga'. This isn't to say that we are doing anything wrong, it is wonderful how everything we practice evolves, and there is no specific reason that we should stay stuck in methods better suited to other ages and civilisations.
We are so fortunate in the modern era to have available to us not only countless lifetimes of 'spiritual' teachings that have been passed on through the ages, but an absolute explosion of scientific and technological knowledge that has come about very recently, in a infinitesimally short time span. We now know that many of the concepts understood by the ancient yogis from an intuitive and experienced point of view can be verified by current scientific understanding. I say current because we should remember that scientific knowledge is changing all the time, it isn't concerned with proving facts to be true, but instead with disproving theories, which are very different matters. Good research is unbiased and ready to yield to new evidence that might arise, just as good yoga should.
So for the first time in human history we have an opportunity to guide our yoga practice, not only through hearsay and the word of gurus but though actual (hopefully) impartial scientific evidence. That is not to say that ether is more valid than the other; we can certainly see that the yogis and rishis of the past intuitively understood the benefits of certain yogic practices, not just asana but pranayama and meditation as well, however now we can draw upon sound scientific knowledge from particle physics to brain scans to confirm many of their suspicions. Moreover we are now also able to understand more about the precautions and contraindications of particular asana and so protect ourselves and others from possible harm. Because this huge bank of knowledge and understanding are now available it should be our obligation as yoga ‘teachers’ to pass it on. To deny any aspect of it would be both pointless and irresponsible.
Whilst the popularity of yoga has grown exponentially and the way that we practice has probably altered beyond recognition, I would question whether the way that it is understood and taught have evolved at all. In fact I question whether we are potentially going backwards in both our understanding and methods of teaching yoga. I don't believe that this is a result of the western world practising more physical asana or being less concerned with other yogic techniques. In fact I'm certain that it doesn't matter in the slightest what you are practising or what you are teaching; what I do think is important is how we are practising and it and how we are teaching it...in fact whether we should be teaching it in the sense that we do at all.
The Teachers Role
In an average yoga class teachers are more than often ready to give and students are expecting to receive cues and instructions: to breathe in this way; place the foot in that orientation; extend the arm in this manner and so on. We are, both parties, consciously or more often subconsciously reinforcing separation, whether we are the teacher or student.
If I am leading a class I try to remember that I am simply present to hold that space; to facilitate the practice of others, so that they might understand themselves better just as when I am practising alone I try to remember that I am simply present so that I might understand myself better.
Whatever way you look at it, there is no doubt that as a yoga teacher you are going to become, wittingly or not, willingly or otherwise, role models for many of those that come to your classes. Bearing this in mind we should remember that we are on show when holding the space and what we do and say will be examined by many who perceive us to be their guiding light in the ‘science of yoga’.
In this light it is probably wise to have our own codes of conduct as with any professional organisation. There are certainly plenty of yoga organisations out there that you can join if you choose to and they will all have their own sets of guidelines, some of which are similar themes and some of which are more specific to their system of beliefs.