“Teach the truth, whether it fills the room or clears it out.”
As a yoga teacher, I have a choice: to give my students what they want or to give them what they need.
Trends or truth?
As a yoga studio owner, I have to find a balance. The teacher in me will give them what they need. The owner in me will give them just enough of what they want to keep them coming back. Well, maybe it won’t keep everyone coming back.
You see, for me, teaching yoga isn’t about instructing poses from the perspective of physical fitness. It’s about using the poses as a tool toward personal growth. There is a difference between leading a student through movements and exercises with impeccable cuing – a technical skill – and guiding them to use these movements and exercises as a path toward self-study and transformation.
In a nutshell, I use the pose as a tool not to get better on the mat, but to become better off the mat.
And just in case no one ever told you, self-study and transformation are not always fun. Which means, inevitably, it will piss off some people.
Of course, the yoga industry as a whole has changed a lot over the years since I first started my own yoga practice.
With the influx of social media sites, the emphasis is more and more about elevating the physical component and less and less about ethics and philosophy. (See #yogisofinstagram on Instagram.) Classes are often just fitness with “yoga” thrown into the title.
And no, I’m #sorrynotsorry, but posting on social media a thoughtful quote about how yoga is not about the pose while demonstrating a ridiculous pose where you practically have your head up your ass does not count. (See #hypocrisy.)
The philosophy has become downgraded. The pose has become upgraded. It’s what I like to call the dumbing down of yoga.
I guess I should backtrack just a bit. To understand where I am coming from, you need to know, well, where I came from. At least when it comes to my yoga background.
After working in the fitness industry for years, which included teaching aerobics, step, and spin classes and running an average of six miles per day, I started to get burned out. Shocking, I know. I lost my desire to run and my passion for teaching fitness classes. All of those things seemed so very…unsubstantial. And that’s when I stumbled upon yoga. My life changed. Or, I guess you could say, I woke up.
There weren’t any yoga studios nearby at the time. At least none teaching ashtanga yoga, which is what I was practicing. Because of this, I had to do a lot of reading and studying on my own, which I now look back on with gratitude. It opened me up to a yoga practice that went beyond the asana (pose). My attitude about everything changed. The way I looked at life, but also how I looked at myself. You know, it helped me be less of an asshole.
For me, teaching was a natural evolution. I figured if yoga helped to make me less of an asshole, it would help others be less of an asshole, too. Fewer assholes in the world make it a better place. #winning.
I didn’t put much thought into it. I just started teaching. I wanted to teach the physical part of yoga while incorporating the life-changing elements of it, too.
So, that’s what I did.
I mean, what’s better than that? You can work on a healthy body at the same time as you gain a healthier mind.
It’s interesting to look back at how it all evolved. I didn’t have a grand master plan. I just taught. Opportunities arose. Doors opened. I never had visions of yogi rock stardom (the fact that this is even a “thing” is what’s partly wrong with the industry right now). And even though I never had a desire to own my own yoga studio, here I am, owning my own yoga studio. (That’s a whole other story. You can read it in my upcoming book called Fuck This Shit: A Guide to Surviving the Yoga Business.)
I made a conscious decision to mold the business plan of my yoga studio on the same foundation and principles from which I teach. Rather than envision my studio as a service-based business, I built it on the concepts of growth and learning…a space where I encourage students to stop looking out for themselves and begin looking into themselves. Which is hard work.
Hard work can be a hard sell. Let’s face it, it’s probably not the most revenue friendly business plan.
Which brings me to this whole positivity movement thing that has seeped into some yoga classes and has contributed to the dumbing-down process.
Listen, I’m all in support of trying to keep a positive attitude. But this idea that to live a fulfilling life, we need to be happy all the time, that we should suppress any negative emotions we might have, and nothing but good things will be in store if we do because our positivity will surely keep all the bad things away is, well, f’ing stupid.
As humans, we have a wide range of emotions. We should be allowed to freely embrace them all and be encouraged to work through them. We shouldn’t be made to feel bad because we feel, well, bad. When we don’t work through them, that’s when the problems start. I mean, when I’ve been sad it was because I cared, when I’ve been angry it was often because I had self-respect and values, when I’ve been heartbroken it was because I had the ability to love. I think we can all agree that those are good things. Things that are never easy. But we eventually do move forward, if we allow ourselves to fully feel them.
To me, it is more about redirecting negative emotions into positive energy. We can’t control how others behave or events that happen around us. We do have the power to control how we respond. So perhaps anger does not become hate, sadness does not become depression, with the understanding that we might not be able to just snap our fingers and “let it go.” Moving through the process of feeling these emotions is important, or they will never be resolved and keep coming back. We might have to do some hard work. Some soul searching. Some self-study.
The only way out is through, right?
So, while offering a 60-minute yoga class (and do not get me started on this new trend of shorter yoga classes!) that includes a rocking playlist for you to tune out to with a guaranteed sweat and good time might be better for my business, well, then I would have to ask myself what business am I actually in. A gym or a yoga studio? Performing exercises or transforming the mind? Am I cheerleader or an educator?
I think there is always a time and a place to put life aside and tune out completely. As a matter of fact, I think it’s necessary that we all make time for that. It’s healthy to take a pause in life, and it serves a purpose. But at some point, you have to hit that play button again. Because reality always has a way of catching up to you.
That’s where a yoga practice comes in. And that’s why I teach. Because yoga is not about tuning out. Yoga, by definition, is about tuning in.
When I look back at all the teachers in my life, the ones that stand out are the ones that made me do the work. They were tough but kind. They didn’t coddle me, but I knew I was in a safe and supportive environment. They often said things I didn’t want to hear…hard truths about myself I was trying to avoid.
My father was a teacher. So maybe that’s why I have such a strong opinion about what teaching means and entails, whether it is physics or yoga. He passed away when I was just 21, long before I had discovered that there was a teacher inside of me, too. I came across a tribute to him in the newspaper at the high school where he taught. One of his students said:
“There are two sides to Mr. Gerfin. There was Mr. Gerfin the teacher, and Mr. Gerfin, the friend. Sometimes one side would show more than the other, but for the most part, the two sides would balance one another. Mr. Gerfin the teacher would push you to do your best, make you understand the material and often test your patience. Mr. Gerfin the friend would reassure you with his wit and mild manner. In a chat outside the class, he would put you at ease by throwing aside the teacher and joke around with you. You always got the impression that he was on your side.”
I know for a fact that I often test my students’ patience and probably on occasion piss them off. I don’t sugarcoat, and I don’t believe in a lot of fluff. Shit, life is hard, and the universe very rarely sugarcoats. But I am also always on their side. Sometimes being supportive means being tough. It also means knowing that sometimes humor is needed to help make it through and lighten the load.
Tuning in is hard work, and I realize there will be those who walk into my class looking for a feel good 60-minute getaway and then walk right back out and never come back. And, that’s ok.
As a yoga teacher, it is my responsibility to create a safe and welcoming environment for my yoga students. But it is also my role to mentally push and challenge them to be their best self. Sometimes it will make them laugh. And sometimes it will make them uncomfortable.
When I step onto my mat to practice, it’s like going home. Going home to a house that’s usually a bit messy. If I don’t clean it up, the mess keeps getting worse. The clutter keeps piling up. And before I know it, I don’t recognize my home. I’m not always in the mood, but I know if I don’t clean it up, no one else will do it for me. The longer I wait to clean it up, the more likely I am to get lost in the mess.
And I know when my students step onto their mats, I do the best I can to help them clean up their own houses. I won’t be able to find what they are looking for or recommend what to throw out. Or even tell them which mess to clean up first, that’s for them to do. But I’ll be satisfied that if nothing else they find me a worthy guide. I might not always do it perfectly, but hopefully I can help them learn to deal with all of life’s ups and downs with a bit more grace and grit. And not lose themselves in the process.
Like that song says, you might not always get what you want. But if you are open to this practice we call yoga, you just might get what you need. And that, my friends, is substantial.
And from me, well, you will always get truth over trends. Purpose over popularity. Transforming over performing.
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