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Tread Lightly Teachers: Put Down Your Big Stick


I was raised as a response to Hitler; or Pharaoh, maybe. Never give up and never forget and do not make yourself someone else’s bitch. If you can get a B there is no reason you can’t get an A. There is no excuse for doing less than your best. We cannot afford that. Be the best or be nothing. Add to that my father’s undertone of don’t fuck with me and my mother’s banner of nobody tells me what to do and someone reading this says that explains a lot but appearances can be deceiving.

For those of us of a generation still imbued with the work ethic handed down from a country begun by Puritans as well as the lessons of  immigrant parents and grandparents who escaped oppression, the pressure has always been on to be better, do better as human beings, to fix wrongs where we see them.

Now there is pressure from below to learn a system of living based on the paradigm of a global connection. There is the pressure to fix others when we ourselves are broken and thanks to the internet we know that more of us need fixing than don’t. The old, more physically present, order is largely gone but for its lingering poltergeist of try harder, do better, just do it. Now we are a mechanized nation, disconnected to ourselves while more connected to others, where the majority cannot give up, cannot do less, cannot relax because it will cease to survive.

Does that message that you can try harder and do better belong in a yoga class? Is it acceptable for a yoga teacher to encourage students past pain and emotional thresholds by pushing a party line that giving up on the mat is akin to and translates to giving up in a life? I got a taste of both on my recent foray into modern yoga. It was a small taste but a surprising one as I hadn’t realized that a message made popular years ago by Bryan Kest, later confused by other teachers in the way messages transform in the child’s game of telephone, had mutated and was still alive and potentially dangerous.

It can be acceptable to encourage students past a comfort zone if you know what you’re doing which is a huge if.  When you have someone like me in your class and you will because we will ask for a challenge, you will find someone who loves challenge and resistance equally. You will find someone who is practicing defiance as much as gratitude for being forced and it’s important to convey the allowable absurdity of that combination with a sense of humor and sportsmanlike conduct.

It is imperative foremost that the teacher be kind; not kind because she was taught to implement that as part of her teacher training course but because she is naturally kind. Anything less will fool only the most lost souls.

There is nothing sicker in a yoga class than a mean yoga teacher saying unkind things in a (not) funny way while she tells the class to smile and have fun. It’s akin to be raped by someone who tells you to enjoy it with his breath in your face.  It encourages resistance and fight but not in a way that serves a student ultimately seeking a way to come to peace.

It is not acceptable to guilt trip the crowd to leap from a cliff. Some members of this crowd have been standing at the edge of the cliff for a long time with weak spines broken by over flogging whether by their own hands or someone they trusted. You may be someone they trust. Yoga teachers are imbued with the misnomer of “one who can fix everything” which ranks at the top of the world’s most stupid conceptions.

Power Yoga originated as challenging classes accompanied by the banter of creator Bryan Kest who repeatedly preached that the hardest pose to do in that room was to lie down when everyone else kept going. He encouraged that in word though the undertone to work till you dropped was implicit in the very challenging nature of the class; probably because Bryan had mixed messages in his own head. All of our teachings are an extension of us unless they were bought at the yoga store.

I didn’t realize that a mutation of that message as;

You can do better, you can try harder.  If you quit here, you are a quitter,

is alive and well in yoga today. I will mention only one experience in a studio with this moniker because it was outrageous. Otherwise I would tell you nothing because my pilgrimage has revealed something about me as well.  Though I love to tell a good story, I do not relish destroying anyone’s reputation as much as my own.

I walked blindly into a nearby studio which had no indication of heat in its name. It was summer and hovering at 100 degrees and so was the studio as it turned out. Or it was 100 degrees on the floor and about 115 when you stood up closer to the low ceiling. I was on a yoga pilgrimage, exploring the current face of yoga and determined to be an open book doing yoga in any environment whether it pleased me or not and so I entered. The owner/teacher knew me from my website although we’d never met. I had been practicing yoga for as many years as she had been alive. I told her I was injured (another story) and would she allow me to care for that in my own way. She agreed. Then she forgot.

I will offer a disclaimer for her right away. I believe her ego got the best of her in this instance. She is unseasoned. That is why I went back one more time after this experience. I couldn’t leave her with the taste of her own bad medicine.

I had committed to going to every studio more than once as I know how lousy it is to be judged by one class should it be the wrong one. I had entered the room to the smell of Nag Champa, was sung in by Lady Gaga and later sung out by a reggae band accompanied by a lovely scent of peppermint. The class was a brutal mix of sorrow and fear and an attempt to cheerlead anxious new folks into believing that it didn’t matter what they did to their bodies as long as they were having fun because all yoga was good. I will say no more on that despite the many devilish descriptions dancing through this memory where the incense and peppermint gave me false hope.

The next time, the room was crowded for a special class. I was stuck in the middle as I’d waltzed in at the last minute hoping to hide in a corner. Damn it.

My nerves were quickly fried between the heat, the race to each posture and the uneven sequencing. I imagined myself in a torture chamber and calmed my mind with amusing anecdotes trying to push away the constant lecture on how my behavior here was a reflection of my entire life if I gave up. I watched the other students flair miserably around apparently unnoticed. I idly wondered what joints on the knock- kneed flat -footed over -arched slump- shouldered depressed looking young teaching assistant would inevitably go first. I ought to know.

Suddenly the teacher was nipping at my heels or to be accurate, one heel, like a Jack Russell hurtling toward the bacon in my pockets.

“Push my hand”, she ordered. I looked over my shoulder.  Excuse me, are you talking to me?

“Extend your heel”, she demanded. She would demonstrate that she had skills to teach the teacher.

I turned to look at her crouched on the floor by my lunging back foot and said quietly, “I cannot do that today”. She walked away but not for long. She was grinning. She wore a grin that must have worn her out by the end of that class. It never wavered.

A balancing sequence was starting. I was slick with sweat and my hurt leg was trembling. I used my polite Iyengar student voice.

“Do you mind if I use the wall for support?” 


“No you may not!”, said she, still grinning.  I didn’t react because I didn’t believe her.  I just stared and didn’t move.

“You are a yoga teacher, Hilary, you should be able to do this!”, she shouted. Gee, I hope none of your students missed that highlight for your celebrity reel.

Now I know that right there, anyone who knows me just took a breath and hasn’t let it out. Yes, I could have killed her with my mind alone and that would have been a no brainer but I didn’t. I just didn’t give a shit, which is worrisome in a different way. I reminded her that I had an injury and said I could hurt myself so I would sit it out and she said, no, again. She would help me and offered me her arm in the way a Boy Scout would walk an old person across the street. I still didn’t kill her. So go ahead and breathe.  In my new zombie pilgrimage mindset I place my hand on her arm, which was not steady or serious about the job. I finally had enough of letting her use me to show off and told her to go away.

As she walked away I looked to the side wall and saw the image of a woman outlined in the shadow in the way people see the face of Baby Jesus or Mother Theresa in a scone or a potato chip or something. She was a vision of feminine grace. She was astonishing. I couldn’t stop staring. The teacher looked at me looking at the wall and I whispered; do you see that? But she did not.  When the lights were later dimmed, the face disappeared replaced by a halo of light. Crazy, I know. Maybe I had heat prostration.

Years ago I had a student who later became the keeper of my words. The first time she came to class was the first class I taught in Nashville. She asked me if the class would be hard. I told her it would be hard enough. She left without a word. I figured it was the last I’d see of her. She came back for the next class and said in a trembling voice, “thank you for being my teacher, thank you for moving to Nashville, thank you for teaching this class.”

She was one of the most complicated people I’ve ever met; sensitive, intelligent, creative, tough and fragile, nervous and brave. She wrote music that rivaled the greatest poets, she wrestled with eating disorders, she had a general and fierce disdain of almost everyone and x-ray vision for bullshit.

She called me years after she’d left Nashville to pursue a law degree to tell me that she had almost lost her nerve on the way to take the Bar and the only thing that got her into her seat was the memory of the words I’d said in a class so long ago; “You can’t do this pose. This pose is crazy. You can only try.”

That is my last story to wrap up a tale of a new story. I tell it because there are fragile people out there under the disguise of tough people who will come seeking tough teachers to fulfill their destinies. They might be treated harshly by a teacher of any discipline, I just happened to tell it as a power tale today.

In this season that holds the Jewish New Year; the season of burning off karma, of forgiveness, of the acknowledgement of past transgressions, of prayer to be granted another year of life to do better, I’m the student who wants to be asked to give all I’ve got and assured that however that goes, I’m still worthy and so are you.

(As posted on Elephant Journal)