One consistent theme stressed by the teachers I’ve studied with is, “Be yourself when you teach.” It took me a long time to figure out what this really meant. When I first started teaching, I thought I understood, and promptly set the concept aside, because what was important to me when I began teaching Ashtanga 10 years ago was being “liked” by my students. Because if my students liked me, they would keep coming to my classes - and that would mean I was a “good” teacher.
In the very first class I ever taught, I was excited and scared, but hopeful, too. I was doing what I loved, and what I had trained to do for some time. I was subbing for a senior teacher in the studio, so I’m guessing a few were in the room weren’t happy to see that “their” teacher wasn’t holding the class as usual. I stood at the front of the dozen or so people, and began the Ashtanga invocation. In my nervousness, I forgot a few of the words. Two people abruptly rolled up their mats and walked out.
Not an encouraging start.
Just like becoming a seasoned Ashtanga practitioner, it takes years of hard work, self study and perseverance to become a seasoned teacher. It’s 99% practice, 1% theory all over again. So, taking a lesson from the rigors of practice, rather than being discouraged, I worked harder, and taught as much as possible, volunteering and teaching for free in schools, or to friends and family. I put my hours in, just as I had done when I rolled out my mat every day.
But, even so, that need to be “liked” over being “myself” stayed with me for a very long time.
This was a deeply ingrained behavior pattern, reaching way back into my childhood. I was a latch key kid with a lot of freedom, and when I wasn’t reading or doing chores, I would be running around the woods with the boys in my neighborhood. I was the only girl, and I developed what was at the time considered “masculine” behaviors. I was very confident of my athleticism and my intellect. I was a bit of a nerd in school, and would talk about science and literature. I refused to wear dresses. My parents, thankfully, did not try to make me more “feminine,” but my behavior perplexed my female peers. I remember once one of them said disparagingly to me, “You’re a girl, but you act like a boy.” The one “girls” birthday party I was invited to in grammar school was a social disaster; in my awkward attempts to fit in, I was shut out harshly by the queen bee, who took an instant and very hostile dislike to me, which swayed everyone else at the party to shun me as well. After a few minutes of hot shame, outrage and awkwardness, I walked home before the cake and ice cream were even served. Remember, this was nearly 40 years ago when gender roles were more strictly defined than today.
As a result, for a long time, I preferred the company of boys, who were familiar and more transparent in their behavior - and more egalitarian, in my experience - than girls.
After several misfires at befriending other girls in the way I had befriended boys, I changed tactics as a teenager. I’d hide my “boyish” nature, and adopt the other girl’s mannerisms and interests to fit in and be “liked” by her or her clique. At first, these girls would like me. But, eventually in my excitement at finding a new friend or group, and feeling accepted by them, I would let my guard down a bit, shed a bit of the persona, and show them my beautifully geeky, outspoken, overly enthusiastic self. In my fears of rejection and need for connection, I would come on too strong: rather than learning how to have a conversation or really listening to would-be friends, I would be nervous and excited, and start talking too much, too quickly, and be a bore in my enthusiasm for subjects like the Lord of the Rings, Arabian horses, 19th Century British writers, or, when I got older, Ashtanga Yoga. (FYI, Aspergers runs in my family.)
Time and time again, the pattern would repeat itself, well into my adulthood. The childhood socialization behaviors I’d developed with boys - pontification, geekiness, overconfidence - were a turn off for most when it came to making girlfriends. And the coping, conciliatory mechanisms I’d developed as an alternative in my early teens were ultimately unattractive, too. Clearly, I had trouble striking a balance. New girlfriends, exasperated by my vacillating neediness combined with my over-sharing and bombast, would become frustrated, then annoyed - and eventually drop me. Which, of course, crushed me.
(Those who have remained loyal over the years, and who compassionately look beyond my sometimes exasperating social skills are the most amazingly strong, beautiful and wonderful women I know. Thanks, dear friends, for seeing me.)
Meanwhile, remember that first Ashtanga class I taught? Well, after that less than auspicious start, it took me some time - let’s be honest, years - to get over my lack of confidence, and my sense of inadequacy. Those first years of teaching deepened my “like me, like me!” behavior. For example: I taught with music because a teacher in the studio who was popular with the students played music; then, because it was “not done” in Ashtanga (and I wanted to be considered a true “Ashtanga” teacher) I taught without music.* Sometimes I tried to be silly and make people laugh; or, sometimes, I’d try to be serious and quiet, because I’d observed those behaviors in successful teachers.
I tried a lot of methods and experiments and took on a lot of personae. It all felt false and filled me with panic, frankly - and eroded my confidence even more.
My lack of confidence wasn't helped when was told more than once, "You shouldn’t teach Ashtanga, because you haven't been to Mysore." The censure of those whom you reach out to in your community, and whom you hope to feel are your peers, is devastating. It felt exactly like I had been told not to sit at the cool kids’ table: a repetition of those crushing childhood ostracisms.
I didn’t become conscious of this self-destructive social behavior pattern (which did more to ultimately push people away from me and cause me suffering) until I had been practicing for several years. And it hasn’t been until I began teaching Mysore style Ashtanga yoga, and really learned how to be a more truly compassionate person, by pulling my own ego out of the equation, that my confidence in myself actually grew, both as a person of value, and as a teacher. When I began to truly listen to, see and serve my students - when I became what I call the “holder of the space” for their experience - only then was I able to let go of the need to be liked. Not just by my students, but by, well...anyone. This wasn’t a conscious choice, but simply arose out of the letting go of my own fears of rejection. I’m more able to feel equanimity in the face of being rejected, through the process of making myself vulnerable without ego. And, I’ve come to understand that most of us are operating from a place of fear - fear of rejection, fear of being judged, fear of being ostracized, fear of not being loved. Because I operated that way for a long time.
“Be kind, everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” (Plato)
So, now I understand what my teachers meant when they said you have to “be yourself” when you teach. You have to be your Self when you teach. Which is the True Self, beyond facades, beyond fear - always there and always loving. It feels like coming home.
“When one raises above I, me and mine, the Atman reveals Itself as the real Self.”
*Although I do still teach without music, because there are so few spaces in our modern world where silence is allowed to happen for a sustained period of time.