A few weeks ago I started going again to a certain yoga studio and found that I liked a pafticular teacher’s style. Because this is not a Yelp review I’ll call her Nina. I’ve been to her class twice.
What was unusual was that she really didn’t tick some of the boxes that I typically expect ticked in order for me to like an instructor. For instance, she didn’t exude a lot of personality. Generally I like personality in a yoga teacher if it’s not too overbearing or New Agey. And she didn’t try to establish direct communications with the students. The classes at this studio are usually pretty full because they don’t charge much, they make their profit on volume. So I realize a larger class makes it more difficult to build personal connection with students, but that didn’t seem to be the dynamic at play; it was just she didn’t care much about that, she was businesslike. Even more fascinating, she didn’t make any jokes, there was no humor in her approach. Yet it was all very effective. She was just there to bang out the flow, as it were, and to work the spell of yoga. She had a pleasant way of wandering around the space. She seemed relaxed and easy. She wasn’t just cueing relaxation or trying to relax, she was relaxed, and that’s what she was exuding.
In a Rolling Stone interview John Lennon said something about borrowing from other artists. “But if I see or meet a great artist, I love ‘em. I go fanatical about them for a short period, and then I get over it. If they wear green socks I’m liable to wear green socks for a period too.” I’m now so aware of this syndrome (and the fact that new green socks with the wrong outfit can look ridiculous), that I don’t take classes on days that I teach, because I’ll start trying to incorporate ideas before I’ve digested them. But the next time I taught, a few days later, I decided to consciously try out being more like Nina. More precisely, I decided to cut out the humor. On the way to class I said to myself: absolutely no jokes, just work through it, just exude your imperious calmness as you dispense the immaculate instructions.
See how hard it is for me to control the sarcasm? I only managed to fulfill my vow for about ten minutes into class. Then, of a sudden, an utter FAIL ‒ usually I use the teacher mat for demoing, and I was starting to stand and noticed a long hair on the mat, so I picked it up and said, well this hair isn’t mine, and there was general laughter, but then I thought, damn I just blew it! However there were several times when I did manage to resist the urge, and I made it through class only cracking wise a couple more times.
The experience got me thinking about humor in the yoga class, the positives and negatives…
Humor can loosen up the atmosphere in a class. Laughter and lightness do make us more comfortable, more relaxed. It’s always fun and encouraging to see smiles from people. And humor can sometimes provide insight; as it depends on surprise, it requires a new way of ‘seeing’ what’s going on, therefore it can indicate to students that the teacher is truly observing the moment. As Tzahi Moskovitz pointed out in his interview in these pages: “I think that both humor and freshness of language… is a reflection of being there. But it’s the same call that we’re asked as practitioners to practice, are you actually there?”
Also, one is called on as a teacher to use one’s entire personality, to be vulnerable, to be out there, and if humor is there, should it not simply be expressed?
Okay I’m still figuring this out, but I think one of the first problems is that the atmosphere of a yoga class is not necessarily comparable to a comedy club. One doesn’t go to yoga expecting to laugh, and there are moments I know, when I’ve said something I thought was humorous when people were otherwise engaged and so they don’t know how they’re expected to respond. Say if they’re in the middle of cat/cow, it can actually upset the rhythm. Of course I understand something about timing and I’m not going to rip a quip when the assembled are lying in Savasana (though I’ve been sorely tempted at times!); still, I would say that emphasizing the humor can unbalance the moment, even be disruptive to the trance-like nature of a vinyasa flow.
Then there’s the fact that it makes the class more about the teacher and the teacher’s performance. I believe the class should be about the students, and to try to shift that focus to them. Now I’ve been a performer of one sort or another all my life, and I love it when I can crack up an audience, but is that really how I should be judging the “success” of my yoga classes? Which I have caught myself doing.
There is also the pernicious habit that if some line is a great hit in one class, one tends (especially as time goes on!) to repeat it on similar occasions, and perhaps some of the students are inwardly groaning that they have to hear about “bicyclasana” and “backpedaling like a politician” again.
Finally, a sense of humor is a precarious, subjective quality. Some people are not going to understand the humor, and feel left out, puzzled, even irritated, or they may actually get it and not think much of it. Complicating matters, the teacher can get irritated that no one got the joke, or responded to it, at any rate. Not necessarily the sort of emotions one wants to be dealing with in this situation, which is supposed to be about the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind (or however you would translate that sutra).
I can say that on the whole it’s been an edifying experiment, trying to eliminate the humor. The first to go are the old saws, anyway, and that’s always a good thing ‒ give the old go-to the old heave-ho! And I like letting the yoga, and the serious intent behind it, be more of the focus. But it may also be about integrating and being sensitive to the moment, to being present, and intuiting how best to “get it across,” and sometimes humor can help in this regard. Timing is everything, as the saying goes. I’ve always enjoyed the work of artists such as Shakespeare and Bob Dylan who can be really hilarious but whose intent is deep, serious and true. And not that I’d be comparing myself to them in any regard (no, not me!), but teaching is an art form, or at least it can be, and as such, it can be worthwhile for a teacher to go through different periods exploring what does and does not work.
In the meantime, I look forward to another class with “Nina”.