I have disappointed many yoga students over the years, and I’m OK with that—now.
For a long time, the mere thought of letting someone down would lead me to a panic. I thought it was my job to make everyone around me happy. As the child of alcoholics and addicts, I could never predict anyone’s changing moods and emotions, so I controlled what I could: myself. I would adapt my personality to match someone’s energy or be excessively eager to help people solve their problems.
My people-pleaser side was exacerbated when I started to teach yoga. I thought it was my responsibility to make everyone in the entire room happy, every single class. In other words, I attempted to be the “perfect yoga teacher.” I thought I had to have all the answers—to be a therapist and orthopedist rolled into one. “Your low back hurts? You are squeezing your bum too much in Upward-Facing Dog.” “You’re struggling in backbends? Have you experienced any heartache lately?”
I thought I had to be able to perform Cirque du Soleil-esque postures when demonstrating poses, forcing my body through a rigorous daily practice, even when it was screaming, “Please, stop.” I thought I had to never sub out a class and say “yes” to every opportunity to teach, often powering through months of nonstop teaching without a break. It was exhausting.
Thankfully, in time, I realized that in always trying to make everyone else happy, I myself wasn’t happy. My teaching suffered. I was less patient and more rigid with the students, because that is how I was treating myself.
Today, I firmly believe that it is not a yoga teacher’s job to make everyone happy or to have all the answers. I understand that disappointment is a natural part of any relationship, especially when you’re willing to admit your humanness. Our job as yoga teachers is to hold space for people to have their own experiences and discover their own answers. And we definitely do not have to be perfect.
What goes up must come down
It took deeply disappointing a student for me to finally grasp this truth.
For years, one student came to every class and event I taught. They would dutifully place their mat front and center and wait patiently afterward to ask questions. At first, it was flattering (read: ego-building) to be so needed and admired. This relationship helped fulfill my desire to be Little Miss Perfect.
As the years wore on, though, I stopped wanting to answer their litany of questions. Simultaneously, the years of perfectionism in every area of my life had begun catching up with me. My body was increasingly injured. This forced me to take time off from teaching, which helped me understand the necessity of taking breaks now and again. The shift from fixating on asana, or the physical practice of yoga, led me deeper into the philosophical side of the practice, which humbled me quite quickly. I realized how little I knew about yoga (or anything) and admitting that actually led to great relief.
As my expectations of myself shifted, I decided I no longer wanted to play the role of the perfect teacher. By this point, that student was sending me weekly emails addressed “Dear Friend,” and nearly following me into the restroom after class. I replied to one of their emails explaining that while I appreciated them deeply, I was not their friend nor some superhero yoga teacher. I explained that I am simply a human, and a flawed one at that.
They never talked to me or took my class again. I would sometimes see them at the studio latched onto other teachers with the same fervor they once had with me, and admittedly, I would feel jealous for an instant. But then I would quickly remember how exhausting it was to stay on the pedestal for so long, and how much sturdier it feels to have both feet on the ground.
Being up on a pedestal is a surefire way to disappoint someone. After all, what goes up must come down.
The power—and necessity—of saying “I don’t know.”
When I first stopped acting the role of the perfect yoga teacher, it seemed to disappoint a lot of students. The ones who used to come to class seeking answers from me were suddenly met with mirrors. The people who saw me as the cause of their practice’s benefits and would say things like, “Your class is amazing! It makes me feel so good!”, were now met with responses, like “It’s not my class nor me, love. It’s you doing the work.” I’m not sure if that empowered or disappointed them. Of course, I hoped the former. Many times, they stopped coming to class.
Where once I hid any mistakes I made from public view, like always feeling the need to “nail a pose” at the front of the class or only posting the perfectly photoshopped image on social media, I started to embrace the messy parts of life, realizing that they allow for many more teachable moments.
These days, I start every teacher training by offering the most powerful words I think any teacher can say: “I don’t know.” I share very openly about my injuries and how my body has changed over the years due to age and babies and life. I talk about the poses I still can’t do or once did but no longer can and how none of that matters.
I may not have as many avid followers among my regular students, but I’ve found much more peace in embracing my humanness, even if doing so means I will likely disappoint people.
Some things to consider as a yoga teacher
Here are some considerations teachers may want to keep in mind, in how to both prepare and handle students’ disappointment:
1. It’s going to happen.
Someone in the back row will want the windows open while someone in the front will want the heat cranked up. One person will need a less-intense vinyasa practice while others will need to challenge themselves through movement. You cannot make everyone happy, nor should you try. Get clear on what you need for the best teaching environment and be true to your teaching style even as you help students find some sort of middle ground.
2. They’re not “your students.”
While I firmly believe there is a power differential between a teacher and a student and boundaries that should be set, I do not believe yoga teachers are elevated or superior to their students. I no longer say that students are “my” students. There is no ownership here. We’re all just walking the path together.
3. Share your foibles.
Let students see you be human. If you fall out of a posture while demonstrating, laugh about it. If you mis-cue something or need to circle back because you forgot a pose on the second side, admit it with humor. If you are injured, talk about it. If you are taking a break from teaching, share why. Teachers lead by example. Your willingness to be authentic and own your humanness gives students permission to do the same in their lives. Besides, it’s a lot more fun to lead a room where everyone is laughing than stern silence.
4. Check in with how you view and treat your yoga teachers.
Looking back on your most memorable teachers, have you placed people on a pedestal? Have you been disappointed? Do the teachers you are drawn to embrace their human side or feign perfectionism?
5. Remember: It’s not your job to have all the answers.
You don’t need to know everything. In fact, most senior teachers will tell you that the longer they teach, the less they know. This is due to both the vast wisdom and teachings in yoga, but also the realization that it’s not actually up to us to know. Our job as teachers is to empower students to find their own answers.