Learning Through Teaching: Lessons from the Yoga Room

I’ve only been officially teaching yoga for about three months now, but already I feel like I have learned so much. Teaching has given me a deeper understanding of the practice, of myself, and of people more generally. I wanted to spend a little time reflecting on these past few months as a way of tracking my journey. I like the idea of, years down the road when I am a more experienced teacher, looking back at this and seeing how my observations and interpretations have expanded or shifted.

I keep a personal yoga journal, but I wanted to share some of this with you all on the blog, partly because I know a lot of you are interested fellow-yogis, and partly because I haven’t made a new recipe in weeks (yikes!). I hoped this kind of post might be kind of a win-win in that way. :)

So, in no particular order, lessons from the yoga room:

Everyone is going through something.

I think I become most aware of this in two moments during the class. First, when I adjust people in half-pigeon. It’s a hip opening post, which means it’s really intense both physically and emotionally since we rarely stretch our hips in everyday activity, and because the hips are one place on the body where we store our history. When I press people deeper into the pose, some students surrender in a way that intimately shares with me that they are letting go of (emotional) hurt, disengaging with something that is causing them dis-ease in their life. This release is often coupled with trembling, and a long exhale. I know how this goes—I’ve cried in half-pigeon on more than one occasion.

The second moment is at the very end of class. I bring people out of savasana and invite them to gently sit cross-legged in the front of the room with their eyes closed. I deliver a closing, ending, of course, with the word, “Namaste,” and directing us all into a bow forward with our hands at our third eye center. Sometimes when I sit up and open my eyes there are people who are still curled over. Once again, I know from my own experience, that it is often in that moment of submission that feels most important to acknowledge and release something that is causing us stress, anxiety, or sadness.

Bearing witness to students’ process of navigating their pain is incredibly powerful. It inspires me on a daily basis to be as kind as possible to every being I encounter, because everyone is going through something.

Every body is different.

I mean that very literally. We were taught this during our anatomy portion of Yoga Teacher Training, but it wasn’t until being in classroom after classroom of students that I really internalized this. The first clue was seeing hips and booties in the air during child’s pose. “Sink hips to the heels,” I would say. The hips and booties wouldn’t budge. “Hips to heels,” I’d say again, gently, hoping they’d hear me. Booties and hips remained stubbornly afloat. Finally, I approached one of The Lifted, and pressed my palms into their low back in an effort to place them into the pose. The little sinking I enabled from my pressure was reversed when I released my hands. The hips sprang back up. Oh, I realized, not everyone’s hips can sink to their heels.

This was a good lesson about the importance of remembering that if some hips can’t sink to the heels, then it makes sense that some bodies are naturally more curvy or thin. As someone who still struggles with a constant need to make my body different, it’s humbling to witness the unique dispositions of bodies not as something to work against, but to work with.

Yoga is not free from cOMmodity fetish.

Do you see what I did there? I highlighted the “OM” in “commodity fetish” to make a clever connection between a yoga term and Marx’s theory of objectified value! Okay, bear with me a sec, I promise this’ll make sense even if you’re not brushed up on your copy of Das Kapital.

The concept of commodity fetish is way more complex than I’m about to make it, but for the sake of this being a food blog and all, let’s just go with it. Basically, it’s the way the labor behind products becomes invisible so that consumers are fooled into thinking that products are magically imbued with qualities that go beyond their use-value. The commodification of yoga in the Western world is no different.

Like the macbook that we think makes us part of the “cool kid group” without considering the help of sweatshop workers, our magical yoga studios are not abstracted from the labor that makes them run. I was reminded of this the day that two heat system repairmen walked into my (hot-style) yoga room before class started. What is usually a place of serene quiet and skinny middle-class white women in Lulu gear became, well, a lot more like the real world. Dirty, working-class men and all. Workers whom we unwittingly depend on to create our little slice of yoga heaven. That day, I dedicated my yoga practice to them.

We are So Different, but So Similar.

I teach yoga to two very different populations. The yoga I get paid for takes place at Corepower, a corporate yoga studio that caters to mostly middle and upper-class white folks. The yoga I volunteer teach takes place in a jail and consists of 18-20 year-old mostly Black men.

Obviously, the life experiences of each community differ considerably. And it’s because of the privilege of the former that enables the disenfranchisement of the latter. Those things are obviously very true.

But despite those tremendous disparities, there is, truly, some common ground. At the risk of sounding really soft, there is something remarkably beautiful about seeing how both sets of students gain similar things from the practice. I teach the class in almost the exact same way at both places. When the students reach savasana—whether at the jail or the studio—I feel the exact same energy circulating in the room.

And then I remember: Yoga means union. “To yoke.” If we are all one, then it makes perfect sense that there are some things in this world that can be universally felt. What a powerful truth!

***

If you’re a yogi (student or teacher), what lessons have you learned in the yoga room?

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27 thoughts on “Learning Through Teaching: Lessons from the Yoga Room

  1. nikki says:

    I like this post. I’ve had to learn patience with myself through yoga. I’m still learning.

    I’ve learned similar things through nursing, about us all being the same and different. It’s humbling and enlightening to work with such a variety of people.

  2. melody says:

    I have learned that focusing//being present is entirely more useful than body strength. If I am struggling with a pose, it is usually because my mind is not in the present moment–not because I am not strong enough. When I bring my mind back, it is amazing the difference. I have also learned that it is ok to cry during yoga! Yay!

  3. Kibby@Kibby's Blended Life says:

    Wow! This is a beautiful, heart felt and powerful article! Thank you so much for sharing your experience. When I first started yoga, I was trying to get all the poses right and compare myself to the others in class – watching them. Now, I allow to go deep within myself and feel/flow with MY BODY and where I am at the moment. It is quite profound and healing to me. Yoga has helped me heal and continues to do so. The hip opener poses are incredible emotional releasers. I love them. You are such a beautiful soul, I hope you realize. XO

  4. Gabby @ the veggie nook says:

    This is such a great post! It took me a long time to be able to go into a yoga class and not compare myself with those around me and to not be hard on myself when I couldn’t do something. But you’re so right- every body is different and you might be going through something personally that could be inhibiting your practice that day. It’s so individualized and learning to be kind to yourself is such an important lesson :)

  5. Lou says:

    ” a place of serene quiet and skinny middle-class white women in Lulu gear” giggle! So so true ;) I love that you volunteer at a prison – I would love to do something similar – must be a huge challenge, but with rewards?

    I totally LOVED this post, Raechel, you’re a fabulous writer, and I wish I could experience one of your classes!

  6. Jess says:

    This is such a great post! The first part resonated with my especially—I’ve also cried during half-pigeon, though it very, very little to do with physical pain. Hip openers in general. It’s amazing what we store in the body, and its so wonderful that you’re teaching people how to work on letting go through yoga.

  7. FoodFeud says:

    Some beautiful points. I love the commodity fetish mention. This post makes me feel like I should really start taking some yoga classes. It’s great that you’re learning, even while teaching.

  8. Kat @ Mayumi Yoga says:

    Hello! I stumbled across your blog, and was drawn to this post! When I first started teaching yoga, I was incredibly self-conscious and would constantly hear my inner critic after each class. My biggest lesson was to move beyond that barrier, and to shift my focus on the experience and energy of others. Breaking out of my comfort zone has helped me tremendously in connecting with my students in a powerful and authentic way. Thank you for sharing your experiences and lessons! -Kat

  9. lou says:

    i love this post! and i love that you teach yoga to inmates. what an awesome thing, to bring some OM to members of our society that could greatly benefit from it. heck,everyone can benefit from more OM in their life!
    for me, coming to the mat has helped me to ease up on my self judgement. i used to really struggle with myself internally when i wasn’t yet able to do a pose or hold a certain pose as long as i had done the previous day. my practice changes daily depending on where i am at the moment and i am learning to be more accepting of the process.

    • rebelgrrlacademy says:

      Yes, that is such a great lesson…I feel like that with headstand all the time. Some days it’s practically *easy* and other days, I can’t even get my legs in the air. A good reminder that everything is temporary–the good and the bad!

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