Over the past few years I’ve come to reflect more and more on what it means to be a teacher; what responsibilities the role brings and how to create a healthy and stable relationship to the people who come to class. The often daily contact creates a connection where I end up being far more than an asana instructor. I become a listener, a mentor, someone to share happy and sad news with and a shoulder to lean on. This closeness brings with it a vulnerability which is beautiful but which needs to be handled with care. It is important for the teacher to be sensitive and responsive to each student in order to create and hold a safe space for their practice. I therefore need to continuously ask myself how to assist the students for their individual benefit and not in order to satisfy my own ego. How can I help each individual grow without creating a situation of dependence? How can I help empower the students in their practice and personal development? How can I be a support to them whilst still keeping my integrity and energy levels intact?
Every student/person I meet is unique with their background, personality, body and thought patterns. I have to listen, observe free of judgement and then reflect on how to best meet each particular person depending on their specific needs. Some students will need more support than others, be it physical or psychological, and this will also vary over certain periods of time. My role as a teacher is to share my experience and help guide the student on his/her journey. But I can only pass on what I’ve learnt so far. We are all students of yoga, I the teacher included. To continue to teach I therefore need to (and want to) keep learning and educating myself through my personal practice and with the help of other teachers.
As the teacher I’m there to facilitate the student’s practice and to help them understand their own body (and mind). I’m also there to motivate and inspire, but not to push or force (instead I sometimes have to hold back a student who is too motivated for his/her “own good”). My role isn’t to force the student into postures (or anything else for that matter) or to make strong adjustments. Sometimes, I of course have to use some strength to help but most of the time oral ques or a light touch in the right direction is sufficient. It is the student’s own practice that is their best teacher. Through exploration we gain experience and learn to know ourselves better. My role is to help the student find that inner connection and to listen inwards.
It always saddens me to hear when people have suffered injury or abuse on either a physical or psychological level in yoga (or elsewhere). To me the practice has always been a form of healing that has allowed me to become stronger and healthier and it continues to help me in various ways. This is what I would like to convey and pass on to my students. To avoid creating a setting where there’s a perceived need to perform for acknowledgement – whether from the teacher or from the student’s own ego – I believe it is important to have an open dialogue climate in the shala. It should be a safe space; a trauma informed practice environment where there’s mutual trust and equal rights/responsibilities between student and teacher.
We start our yoga practice with asana and pranayama – two of the 8 limbs in Ashtanga yoga – as they are the most accessible and easiest tools to work with. They also give tangible results relatively quickly. But asana practice alone will not bring enlightenment – although it may most likely teach us a lesson or two about ourselves. Physical postures and breathing can help us become healthier as we learn to be more aware of and listen to the body’s signals. When we become increasingly present – rather than being only “in the head” aiming at future goals (more asanas for example…) – we can practice more mindfully, which allows for sensing and reflecting upon how we act/react. We can start to question our behavior and why we tend to do things in specific ways. Why do we push ourselves or why we are afraid and hold back? Do we practice asanas to collect them rather than to improve our health? Can we learn to act without being attached to a certain result? Do we always need to achieve something? What happens if we don’t?
When we begin to free up old tensions and change old behavioural patterns we may encounter resistance and this can hurt; physically in terms of soreness or aching; mentally it may hurt to let go or to acknowledge difficult feelings/thoughts. Change is often met with resistance. It’s rarely a comfortable process. The support of a teacher who has “walked the walk” may be comforting and make the process somewhat easier. Though sometimes, even under the best of circumstances, we accidentally end up getting injured. An injury, although it may be instructive and one can learn a lot from it, it is not something that should be accepted as a general part of the practice. I don’t believe that you need to “break something” in order to rebuild it “better or stronger”. There’s no quick fix to create physical or mental stability – the practice needs to be done slowly and repeatedly over a long period of time to give space for change to happen gradually. This is not a process that can or should be rushed either by the practitioner or the teacher.
Depending on what phase of life we’re in or on the mood or energy of the day there also needs to be flexibility for how and what we practice. It is not my role as the teacher to judge something to be right or wrong – this to me would be counterproductive and make the practice too rigid. I can only share my experience and give advice on the most suitable method for each situation and then it is up to the student to choose whether to take it onboard or not. Practice is never the same from one day to the other. Asanas come and go and we sometimes need to do less postures depending on age, health, stress levels, the amount of sleep we’ve had and other commitments in life. To allow for modification, adaptation and to be flexible and responsive to daily fluctuations is essential. As a teacher I need and want to be responsive to this both in my own practice and to the students’. One of yoga’s most important principles is ahimsa – non harming – on both a physical and mental level. To hold the room for the students to feel safe to not perform or to push, to be themselves and to be vulnerable without fearing is my most important task.
Teaching is something I honour and respect deeply. Every day I’m grateful for each and every student that walks through the doors at the shala. The individuals who come to practice inspire me and help me develop on many levels and my hope is to help and inspire them just as much on their respective paths. My aim is for our relationship to be equal, based on mutual trust and respect. That we learn from each other, appreciate each other and don’t take each other for granted. Each student’s journey is unique, everyone needs to make their own experiences. My role is to empower the student while walking next to them on their path for as long as they need me and can make use of my advice. To all the practitioners who choose to come and practice under my guidance I’d like to convey my sincere and humble thanks for the time we get to spend together on our respective journeys.
* Isabella Nitschke is the Director of Ashtanga Yoga Malmö and an authorised Ashtanga Yoga teacher