As the definition of yoga continues to stretch as wildly as the most agile practitioner, I seem only to recognize it by what it isn't. Rather than having a clear definition, I only know it in its absence. It's not just a workout, and its not just hanging out.
Teaching Yoga class is an opportunity to share my musings on the mysteries of life, the shared unseen that has many names. I ask students to sit tall and still, to breathe consciously and then I speak to them with all the openness and honesty I can manage. This isn't something you get at spin class.
A technique I use to weave that mystery into class is theming. A theme can be any anchoring concept or purpose. It doesn't have to be a heartfelt talk, and just as forcing A Big Talk on my partner or best friend could go horribly wrong, forcing A Big Talk on my yoga class has the same potential pitfall. But I am gratified by feedback like, "That's exactly what I needed to hear today! How did you know?" I'll tell you how I know: I figure that if I'm experiencing something, there's gotta be somebody else out there that's experiencing something similar. And if yoga helps me, it can help others too.
I find the darker emotions of doubt, confusion, shadow and depression to be doubly harmful because I feel alone in them. Modern yoga can have a sketchy veneer of forced joy or calmness that makes me feel even more alone. So when my teachers have shared honestly about their process and how they made transformations within that process, I feel a relationship with that teacher. How do I build that relationship with students?
I extract the essence of my personal experience, and then generalize it sufficiently that students might identify and thus know they are not alone and that change is possible.
There are two potential pitfalls with theming in this way: one, that the class devolves into me complaining (or bragging), and two, that I haven't yet found my way out of the problem and therefore can’t teach it. To avoid these pitfalls I:
- Share a limited amount of my personal story, no more than a few statements to set the context. Then I tie my experience to the larger theme.
- I try to let a problematic situation cool off for a day (or year!) or two, and then see if any insight has arisen, or if I'm still stewing. A good check in for me is if I'm not comfortable meeting the student's eyes, then I'm probably not speaking truthfully, or I haven't completed the process of my work inside.
But when I remain in honest connection with the class, and we are all unified in our forward progress from darkness into light, a good share goes a long way. That's why it's called "sharing": it is the common currency of our lives.