Like many writers, I follow the credo that ‘bad writers borrow, good writers steal.’ This also seemed like a good practice to take into my first year of yoga teaching. I wasn’t yet confident that I could weave yoga philosophy into my classes without sounding like a try-hard earth mother, but I found that memorising others’ words and repeating them as my own worked a treat. Until one day it didn’t. Karma, as they say, can be cruel.
I was searching for inspiration for a class on authenticity (the irony is not lost) when I came across a podcast by poet and philosopher Mark Nepo, in which he described the etymology of the word ‘Sincere’.
“During the renaissance, around the 1500s there was a glut of painters and sculptors. Naturally, there was also an amazing amount of stone sellers; they were like hardware stores today,” says Nepo. “Like any retailer, there were honest, authentic stone sellers and there were fraudulent sellers. One way that fraudulent sellers would try to pass off damaged marble is that they would fill up the cracks with wax, polish it up and sell it as a pure piece of marble. Word got around, and very quickly an honest, authentic stone seller was one who didn’t hide the flaws in the stone,” he said.
“So the words sine cere in Latin literally mean without wax. It came to be that a sincere person doesn’t hide the flaws in their humanity – the cracks in their character or their heart.”
It was wonderful; I couldn’t have put it better myself. So I didn’t. That evening, as I lead my students through a standing sequence I went ahead and parroted the story as I’d memorized it.
“Not hiding the cracks in our humanity or the wounds we carry is essential,” I said, guiding them into a Warrior Pose, “because that’s how everything larger than us can enter us and heal us. A spiritual warrior always has a crack in their heart because that’s how the mysteries get in.”
The students’ eyes seemed to shine with inspiration as I spoke. Sure, the words weren’t mine, but I felt like an inspirational football coach, rallying the team for the final quarter.
Perhaps it’s time, I thought. Perhaps I’m finally ready to freestyle.
“You know what?” I said, gathering courage. “Let’s set ourselves an intention, for the week. A sankalpa. Let’s here and now, together, all make a firm commitment,” warming to my theme, I paused for dramatic effect. “A firm commitment that just for this week, we will not wax our cracks.”
Silence. The room felt different. And did I hear someone … snort?
Just keep going, I thought. They’re digging your vibe. Taking a deep breath, I continued. “We will commit to not waxing our cracks, in order that something larger may want to enter those cracks.”
Ok, that was a laugh. Definite snorts from one corner of the room set off a Mexican wave of yogic laughter. Which is kind of like normal laughter except muffled, because everyone knows that yogis don’t laugh at smut.
I felt myself blushing like a child, busted at playing ‘teacher’. Bless my two older students for looking confused, hopefully unfamiliar with the concept of Brazilian waxing. I wanted to yell at the class, “Stop looking at me! Stop laughing at me!” but all I could do was ask them to close their eyes and take three “slow, conscious breaths” in an effort to stem their titters. Then I made a mental note to crawl into a hole after class.
For a novice teacher it was a turning point. Until that moment I had labored under the delusion that I was different from my students, or at least that they saw me as different. More refined, perhaps? Further along the path? But how could I inspire people as a laughing stock?
Imposter syndrome: a curse for new teachers
According to yoga therapist and teacher of 25 years Heather Blashki, ‘foot in mouth’ syndrome is extremely common among new teachers. “For the first few years of teaching if I said something wrong I would be mortified,” she says, “I thought everyone was judging me and I would just want to die. But the beautiful thing about experience is that it helps you to laugh at yourself. Eventually I learned that you don’t actually die, no one hits you with a stick except maybe yourself.”
‘Foot in mouth’ could be closely linked to ‘Imposter Syndrome’; when you feel that at any moment someone will tap you on the shoulder and say, “I don’t know how you got here, but make way for someone who knows what they’re doing.” To be seen to struggle when you already feel like a fraud—yes, even when you’re teaching authenticity—can be excruciating. Once you’ve put your foot in your mouth, when nerves get the better of you it can be hard to remove it.
I recently asked a student if she was new to my class, forgetting that she’d been coming for a year. Upset that I offended her, I tried to cover up the mistake by saying “I’m sorry, you just look so different since you got pregnant.”
Blashki says that it takes an enormous amount of presence to catch those moments when we’ve said something inappropriate and gracefully acknowledge them.
“None of us are infallible, but we can deal with that infallibility with humour and grace instead of judgement and suppression. If you can mess up and laugh at yourself, that’s a wonderful message to pass on to your students.”
The pressure we put on ourselves as yoga teachers to be ‘inspiring’ can often translate into a tendency toward perfectionism, whether in the mind of the teacher or the student.
“For some strange reason there is this belief that yoga teachers should be perfect. But when students perceive you as being perfect it just sets up guilt in them. It’s a trap, and when I notice my students putting me on a pedestal, I work really hard to get down. You get over that all-knowing yoga teacher thing,” she laughs.
Nerves aside, what causes us to get tongue-tied and gaffe-prone when we’re teaching?
Our most common shorthand for embarrassing ‘verbal accidents’ is the Freudian slip. The term has come to signify a secret desire on the part of the speaker (for the record, I’m putting my ‘let’s not wax our cracks’ comment down to ‘trying too hard’ more than a desire to encourage the hirsute!), but the original meaning had a much wider-ranging scope. The term actually refers to any thought or belief that our conscious mind finds unacceptable, yet which we bring to consciousness by miss-speaking.
Therefore a yoga studio, with its emphasis on the calm and the sacred, can be a rich environment for Freudian Slips.
“I’m always terrified I’m going to say masturbating instead of meditating,” said one teacher I spoke to who (surprisingly) chose to remain nameless, “Sometimes I think I should just get it out the way and say it.”
My most excruciating Freudian Slip is etched in my memory.
It was the second class I had ever taught.
Whenever I felt nervous I would bring my students into Downward Dog Pose until I could calm my breath (this also proved helpful when I had to do a quick change after the lid came off my water bottle and I soaked the front of my t-shirt). Then I would watch one student as a visual reference as I called instructions for the pose.
On this occasion, I watched a woman in the front row, using her body parts as my guide. “Spread the fingers, push down with the hands and lift the hips,” I called to the class. I had noticed the woman before—clearly an advanced student, there was something else that impressed me about her, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I watched her absent-mindedly and continued. “No, spread the fingers, spread them.” Suddenly the woman looked up, looking confused and…hurt?
In that moment, I remembered what it was that had so impressed me.
She had only one hand.
Fortunately, our slips are often more mundane than Freudian. Lately, my neural pathways have solidified around the phrase ‘jump your hands between your feet,’ when I mean ‘feet between your hands.’ My lefts have become my rights, and I’m struggling to remember names. But far from representing an unconscious belief or wish, the answer could be much simpler.
“Usually that kind of thing is a sign that you’ve slipped into teaching by rote,” says Blashki. “It happens a lot when you’re tired. It also happens when you try and get ahead of yourself.” That made sense; my teaching load has recently tripled, and I find myself trying to remember which class I’m in. “I know that when I start saying ‘put your elbow on your arm’, it’s a sign that I need to slow down and become present.” In other words, practice yoga while teaching yoga.
Know thyself (Svadhyaya)
Psychologist and yoga teacher Janet Lowndes says that avoiding embarrassing word blunders can be as simple as getting clear on your motivation for teaching.
“It’s not always a comfortable process, but being really truthful about what’s driving you at any given time is essential. Not only does it show you what kind of messages you’re putting out to your class, but it gives you a strong indication of any potential tripping points … hopefully before they happen.”
Lowndes herself had this brought home to her during a weekly yoga class she taught to a local football team. “I was single, in my early thirties, and very keen to meet a new partner… There was one particular class full of good looking men and I was intending to say ‘stand on the balls of your feet’ and instead kept saying things like ‘stand on your balls’, ‘feel the pressure on your balls’, and ‘be very conscious of the weight in your balls’. It’s funny now, but at the time I realised I was getting flustered by so much male energy and decided it was time for me to hand the class on to someone else.”
The reason we teach can change over time, and it may not be the same now as when we started. For this reason Lowndes encourages teachers to make regular dates to ‘check in’ with their own motivation for teaching.
“For teachers, it’s important to have regular meetings with yourself to check-in as part of your own Svadhyaya. Ask yourself some key questions: What are my unmet needs? Am I trying to meet some of these needs through my relationships with my students—like friendship, love, validation? If so, recognize these unmet needs so you can explore them in the appropriate places and not muddy the waters of the teacher-student relationship. It’s also very helpful when teaching to be aware of your own vulnerabilities, attachments and aversions, as these can provide important insights and information to guide us in behaving ethically and appropriately.”
Answering Janet’s questions helped me see that I had a strong leaning towards being seen to be an authority, particularly as I was struggling with confidence. If people thought I wasn’t perfect, my theory was, they wouldn’t come to my classes. In my mind, every mistake meant the potential loss of a student. But according to marketing consultant and yoga teacher Claire Nettley, authenticity is effective not only as a teaching tool but also in the world of marketing.
“People connect with authenticity; it’s not even a conscious choice,” says Nettley. “People want to know that you’re real, and when you demonstrate that, it draws people in. I once had a teacher who kept getting confused and repeating sides. It was fine, we knew what she meant, but you could see she was getting flustered. What she didn’t seem to realize was that in that moment the whole class was on her side, there was a sense that everyone was supporting her. Eventually she seemed to relax, and it was actually quite lovely for us to see that occasionally vulnerability can go both ways.”
While ‘Authenticity’ may be the new marketing buzz word, it has to be … well, authentic. “Our own struggles are excellent tools to use in teaching, but truthfully, most of us are more comfortable when there’s a time-lapse between whatever the challenge was and bringing it into the studio!” says Blashki.
When handled gracefully, humour and our own foibles can indeed be excellent teaching tools, but there are times, like during relaxation and meditation, when we want to avoid drawing students out of their experience as much as possible. I once did a guided relaxation in which students visualized drifting down to the bottom of a pond and listening to the sound of their heartbeat. The effect was meant to be peaceful. Unfortunately, one student was claustrophobic, another had a fear of drowning, and the fact that I said ‘death’ instead of ‘breath’ didn’t help things.
So how do you recover when something you’ve said has drawn students out of their practice?
“Hopefully when people are in relaxation they’re either too absorbed to notice or care,” says Nettley. “Just stop, connect with the breath, correct yourself if you think it’s necessary and move on. Don’t over think it or you’ll make it worse.”
And if it’s a clanger? Laugh, says Blashki. “The best lesson I ever had was actually from a new teacher,” she says. “She was demonstrating on the podium and she broke wind. Mortifying! But she was great. She just blushed and said ‘Bonus points if you can include your own version in the pose.’ I don’t think anyone took up the challenge, but it was just such an empowering way to handle it.”
We teach by example, and so becoming a good teacher is not always a matter of changing what we teach, but changing the person who is teaching. I wanted to give a class on vulnerability and sincerity because those were things I was struggling with. But the last thing I wanted was to actually be vulnerable in front of the class. Shame researcher Brene Brown says that through interviewing people she describes as ‘the whole-hearted’, it emerged that a willingness to be vulnerable was essential. “Vulnerability,” she says, “is our most accurate measurement of courage.”
Perhaps the real trick is to re-frame how we think of our mistakes. We can view them as the threads through which we connect with others, as Nepo says, or even as the cracks through which ‘something larger can enter us.’
If that doesn’t work, we could all borrow this re-framing trick from another seasoned yogi; my mother. “They’re not laughing at you, darling. They’re laughing with you.”