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Who is the Teacher?

by JivanaThe other day I was teaching an Accessible Yoga class, and at one point there was a lot of talking going on, and I had to ask the students to stop talking so we could move on to the next practice. This is a common occurrence in my classes. But I realize that in most yoga classes students don’t speak and instead are expected to practice in a reverential silence. It made me think about what I’m trying to achieve in my classes, which is to empower the students by encouraging their personal growth rather than their reliance on me.I realized that at the heart of accessibility in yoga is a healthy relationship between the student and the teacher. In fact, when I’m training yoga teachers to make their classes more accessible, I like to ask them to reflect on the relationship they foster with their students because it is this relationship that forms the foundation for learning. The way that yoga teachers perceive their role is key. Do they see themselves as performing on a stage or creating a safe container for their students’ growth and transformation? We also need to keep in mind that the teacher-student relationship in yoga has a sordid past since so much abuse has happened at the hands of yoga teachers. (Nina addressed this issue in many previous posts, including Yoga Teachers Who Abuse Their Students, When to Fire Your Yoga Teacher, #MeToo and Yoga, and Abuse of Power in the Yoga World.)I’m currently serving on Yoga Alliance’s Code of Conduct Task Force, which is putting together recommendations for a new Code of Conduct for yoga teachers. I’ve been deeply moved by this process and heartened by the new administration at Yoga Alliance and their openness to my input. They’ll be publishing a draft Code of Conduct by the end of the year, which YA members can vote on. Based on this experience, and YA’s entire Standards Review Project, I feel like we’re on the cusp of a positive shift in the yoga world.Beyond a stronger code of conduct, I think there needs to be a change in the way that yoga teachers and students perceive their roles. Hopefully we can move to more of an equal relationship rather than the student being subservient to the teacher. Perhaps yoga students need a “Bill of Rights” so they understand what is and what is not appropriate behavior to expect from their teacher? Here are a few suggestions for yoga teachers and students so we can begin making this shift:Empowerment For Teachers: Yoga is so much more than simply moving our bodies into animal shapes. We want our students to be empowered, strong, and free. We are guiding students to discover that special combination of self-discipline mixed with compassion that brings them back home to their bodies. We do this by encouraging increased sensory awareness and mental concentration so that the students can turn inward to inhabit the fullness of who they are. For Students: As a student it’s important to cultivate sensitivity to the body’s wisdom. For example, if you’re experiencing pain during practice that is a sign that you may be injuring yourself, regardless of what the teacher is saying about it. Also, most of the benefits of yoga come from building a regular home practice. If your teacher is not encouraging you to practice at home, you may want to ask them to help you with it. A good teacher will be trying to wean you off of them as soon as possible.EquityFor Teachers: See the student as our equals. This sounds kind of obvious because, of course, we see students as equal human beings with equal rights. But do we act that way? Do we allow the student to have full control of their bodies and their actions? For example, if you offer an adjustment or correction are you asking the student how it feels before, during, and after? The role of the yoga teacher is not to put bodies into some perfect alignment that creates magic. Rather, the magic of yoga comes from students finding an interior experience of a pose or a breath.As teachers, we have a difficult role because students can mistake the power of the teachings for the power of the teacher. We have to constantly check on our egos, which is particularly difficult in a commercial environment that demands self-promotion. Can you constantly post selfies on Instagram and be truly humble?For Students: Remember, it is the power of yoga that is working for you, not the teacher’s power, no matter how wonderful they may be. Sometimes I can tell that a student is putting me on a pedestal and thinking I have some kind of superpower. It’s my job to correct their misunderstanding for my sake and for theirs. A good teacher is like a tour guide. They can point things out to you, but you are the one going on the journey.CollaborationFor Teachers: Consider your students as equal players in the give and take of teaching. Can you trust in their inner knowledge and encourage them to do the same? Often I find myself offering some pose or technique to a student and they change it slightly to create something that is more effective for them. I’ve learned to be open to learning from my students because they are often my best teachers. In my classes, I’ll often say, “Listen to me, but don’t listen to me.” I realize that some lineages don’t think this way, and I challenge those teachers to find a way to lift up their students.For Students: An experienced student knows how to advocate for themselves because they’ve learned how to listen to their body and their intuition. For example, if a breathing practice is supposed to be relaxing and instead it makes you anxious, what do you do? Can you talk to your teacher about it or do you assume there’s something wrong with you? I’m so happy when a student has gained enough self-awareness to know which practices aren’t working for them. Similarly, I love when a student has enough self-awareness to get a prop for themselves because they know it helps them practice more safely. I hope these suggestions offer a useful starting point for yoga teachers and students to reflect on their roles in the beautiful dance of yoga teaching and practice. If we can find common ground we can rebuild a yoga culture based on mutual respect, safety, and a common passion for sharing the practices of yoga.Subscribe to Yoga for Healthy Aging by Email ° Follow Yoga for Healthy Aging on Facebook and Twitter ° To order Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being, go to AmazonShambhalaIndie Bound or your local bookstore.Follow Jivana Heyman on Facebook and Instagram  and see Jivana’s Workshops and Trainings for upcoming workshops and trainings. For information on Accessible Yoga, see and follow Accessible Yoga on Facebook and Instagram.

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