Change and the Hope of Being a North Star

fullsizeoutput_596My favorite sweatshirt is from The Lost Whale, a bed and breakfast near Trinidad, California. On the front, in bold blue Times New Roman, is the word ‘lost’. On the back, of course, is the word ‘found’. 

I was much better at being lost when I was younger. I thought nothing of exploring foreign cities or wandering off marked trails when hiking the hills near my childhood home.

I now prefer leaving the getting lost to others. I want to believe my resilient and brave self of the past now clings to safety – clings to what is known – because the world has changed.  But as much as the world has changed, so have I.  My fearlessness has been tempered by sixty years of life experience. It emerges from time to time but for the most part I enjoy cheering others as they take great leaps of faith.

Months ago I had a conversation with a student weeks away from graduating from a 200-hour yoga teacher training about how it feels to be lost. This student was filled with deep uncertainty and considered leaving the teacher training and abandoning his yoga practice. Reading a recently published book about yoga in the West triggered deep self-doubt and distrust in a tradition thousands of years old. He felt lost.

My advice? I counseled the student to stay true to himself. I told him to read more books and to embrace feeling unmoored. To trust the unknowing and to not be afraid if he found himself wandering from a well-trod path.

I don’t know if my advice was sound but I can empathize with his dilemma. How do we continue to teach yoga when the practice we love evolves into something that feels far removed from what we understood yoga practice to be when we first began? Change is constant. Are we obligated to be carried along? It can be a positive force but change can be detrimental, too. So how do we discern the difference between change that elevates our practice and change that dilutes the power of our practice?

polaris-2-15-2013-Ken-Christison-NC-sq-e1463582304603Remaining true – living authentic lives – leans against the change that arrives unexpected and uninvited. It leans against the change that is slow and stealth*. Leaning against the latter – against the change that can’t be felt until we look behind and see how it all once was – requires a steadfast awareness of who we are as individuals and what we offer as yoga teachers.

We’re encouraged to ‘be the change we want to see’. That’s nice advice. But what if we turned it around. What if we decided to be a North Star? What if, as teachers, instead of riding change and trends what if we became a shining light? I guess what I’m trying to say is this: be true north for your students. Keep studying. Keep learning. Understand the depths of the tradition we teach.

*the rise of the YIC (Yoga Industrial Complex), the need for yoga teachers to also be adept at creating mix tapes, the presumed need for Yoga Alliance, the glut of factory-like teacher training programs, the focus on asana at the expense of seven other limbs, the revelations of teacher misconduct and the assumption that if you see the words ‘guru’ or ‘master teacher’ in front a name then it must be so, the loss of humility…


How Do We Know How to Teach?

CIMG0701There are yoga teachers who prepare for each moment of each class with intention and crystalline clarity. These are the teachers who write a script and a set list of poses. They’ve chosen a pranayama practice, cued a playlist on their iPad and have bookmarked a Pema Chodron quote.

Being prepared for the roomful of students we are about to teach is absolutely necessary and this type of teacher is, if anything, prepared. But is that truly being present for your students? Or is it the means to an entertaining end? I don’t know the answer to that question. Perhaps it depends on the collective intentions of the individuals in the studio – the expectations we have for the practice.

I’ve just stepped into my third decade of teaching and there are still times when my confidence takes a hit. Perhaps my attendance has temporarily faltered or a student unfamiliar with my teaching style offers criticism. No matter. Out of some misguided belief that all good yoga teachers create detailed lesson plans, I will find myself writing a set list of asanas. I’ll maintain this routine for a few weeks before realizing that I am not that teacher. It’s not how my asanas roll.

It has been my experience that teaching from a script inevitably results – for me – a less successful class. While this won’t be true for all teachers, my scripted classes lack connection and the seamless organic flow that I enjoy and believe are a necessary component of all good yoga practices.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not prepared.

While I have a set of intentions for each and every class I teach, it’s not until I arrive at the studio and can feel the energy of the room, the energy of my students and the energy contained within me as the teacher do I decide on the direction the class will take and the sequence of poses.

My decision is based on intuition and instinct. The trust I have in my teaching intuition took time to manifest and it is something that I now value and hold near to my heart.

I don’t believe it is something that can be taught. The qualities of intuition and instinct we develop are nurtured through our successes and our failures as teachers. And I’ve had plenty of both.

But – and as teachers we know this – intuition and instinct or the ability to create a great playlist are not the only qualities on which we should rely. As long as we teach we are also and always students. As long as we teach we are also and always beginners.