Part of my job as a yoga teacher is to keep reminding my students I’m no different from them. I might have practiced yoga for a bit longer than them, though that’s certainly not always the case. I may have a certificate on my wall declaring me ‘certified to teach yoga’. But I still sometimes make choices that don’t align with my values. I say yes, when I want to say no. I do things though I know they will cause me physical, emotional or spiritual suffering. I make mistakes and I get stressed out.
Fortunately, it is in my very humanness that I’m of most value to my students. I’m able to serve and support them in the challenges of their yoga practice and their lives not because I’m above those challenges, but because I share them. So when I find myself, as I have this past week, in the thick of stress myself, I know it’s an opportunity not only to grow as a human and a teacher, but also to connect to my students on a deeper level.
I wrote the first draft of this article standing at the bar of our restaurant, tapping out a few dozen words between customers. The time I had set aside to write had disappeared when the second proofs of my book landed in my inbox with a request for me to review, check and return them three days later. Which happened to be the same day I was due to hand over the next draft of an especially tricky chapter of a book I’m writing now. I’d been working 15 hours a day for two weeks and I still didn’t seem to be catching up.
I was tired and overwhelmed, struggling to do much more than simply remember to breathe, and soften the muscles of my jaw every now and then. But my yoga students were expecting me to show up on our weekly coaching call to help them find yogic tools to manage the stress of their lives.
Vulnerability, according to Dr Brene Brown, is the only doorway to intimacy and trust. To establish trust in the yoga teacher/student relationship, I have learned to be honest with my students about what I find difficult. When students read or hear that I, too, still have days (weeks, months) when I feel overwhelmed by life, and when I forgot to use the most basic tools of my yoga practice, they find it easier to meet themselves in those same moments with compassion.
In January 2012, the American Psychological Association released its annual “Stress in America” report, which stated that participants’s responses to its survey “have revealed high stress levels, reliance on unhealthy behaviors to manage stress and alarming physical health consequences of stress - a combination that suggests the nation is on the verge of a stress-induced public health crisis.” My experience in New Zealand, and teaching yoga online to students from around the world, tells me that this stress-induced public health crisis is not limited to the United States.
What does this mean for me as a yoga teacher?
Firstly, it tells me that most of my students feel stressed, and that stress is likely to be either a contributing or an aggravating factor in many of their other health conditions and complaints. And, secondly, it tells me that many of my students are likely to be relying on unhealthy behaviors to help manage their stress.
As they grow in their yoga practice and learn new tools to manage stress, their reliance on those unhealthy behaviors will decrease. That’s a significant part of the benefit yoga can offer them. But, in my experience, there will still be days when their stress levels will outgun their yogic tool kit and they’ll fall back on old habits. When that happens, they may feel guilty, ashamed or hopeless – and tempted to give up on yoga altogether, since they have “failed” to sustain it.
In that moment my most powerful tool as a yoga teacher is my own vulnerability. If I’m willing to share with my students the times I’ve made bad choices and regretted them, and then let myself off the hook of self-loathing, instead starting anew with yoga (and with life) each breath, each moment and each day – they may be more likely to believe they too can start again.
So the most powerful tool I have to support my students is often not a specific pose or practice, but simply telling the truth about my own experience of stress. Not only the times when I met stress with a deep breath or a grounding mantra, but also the times when I lose it, and have to draw on the compassion yoga has helped me develop for myself in those moments.
Whether you are a yoga teacher, an experienced yogi or just starting out on your yoga adventure, may you remember that you are not alone, that your humanness and vulnerability are the greatest gifts you can share with anyone, and that you get to start over again, and again, and again.