Sometimes people critique my approach to educating yoga teachers on the intricacies of psychological processes behind yoga practice and teaching. People say I am giving all the credit to the therapists. I get admonished for 'turning yoga teachers into therapists'. I get hammered for thinking yoga teachers should ‘do more’ and that good yoga asana teaching should take care of itself.
1) To be clear, I do believe that much of what we see in neuroscience is originally found in yogic texts. Patanjali is speaking much like a great therapist would. The field of psychology is simply illuminating scientifically what we know to be true anecdotally. This is actually really great because we live in a scientifically oriented, emotionally sterile society. So in this way perhaps these findings will continue to draw people back into the source of these understandings, such as back into yoga or meditation.
When you do yoga long enough and it is working and your smart, don’t you sort of want to know what the hell is going on? Why some things work and some things do not? If you have been doing yoga a long time and you still really aren’t that nice, don’t you think its time to clean up your act? Do you not find it curious--all that shame blame guilt and jealousy we do to each other as teachers--not to mention our poor inner selves? Learning some key elements of psychology will, I believe whole-heartedly open your practice and teaching to new dimensions. It will only serve to clarify.
2) I am not in the business of turning yoga teachers into shrinks. Nor do I believe if you are a yoga teacher you are qualified to give psychological advice. But what I do see rampant in our yoga culture is one in which the teacher gets hammered with projections, and transference and they do not know how to effectively and skillfully use a very important god-given process called somatic countertransference. This one teaching I support the cultivation of in teachers is a complete game changer. This is the one skill we have taken for granted as teachers and it supports the whole shebang.
Furthermore, I teach and advocate 'scope of practice'. One pitfall in yoga teaching is in believing you have the skills to counsel someone. When I was 24 I had student after student coming up to me and asking me if I thought they should leave their marriage. To this day I still believe that they simply saw some young spirited free-bird yoga teacher who could pack all her belongings into her car. (She was also a sad, lonely, terrified, rage-aholic but of course all behind closed doors). For whatever reason, this bohemian carefree character I represented was appealing to those students. They saw something in me that they missed in themselves. Well look, was I in a position to tell someone with children that they should leave their marriage? No way! And even now, if someone came to me I probably wouldn’t give advice one way or the other.
In my days in Anusara yoga I saw the big kahuna giving lots of marital advice, for better or for worse. I am not saying the actual advice was wrong. Maybe for some people it was the thing they wanted to hear. And maybe that was supportive and healing. The point is that when you are a leader, when you are seen as a teacher, people will come to you with so many questions. You will represent something to them.
When I got married who did I ask to perform the ceremony? My yoga teacher! And you know why? She and her husband have a relationship I admire and live up to. So it wasn’t her down dog and side angle teaching skills that I wanted that day. I wanted HER. I wanted the presence of her yoagfied authentic self to bare witness on that day. So yes it was the yoga I had learned from her. And no it wasn’t the yoga at all.
So in regards to teaching about “scope of practice”, we spend ample time in my courses talking about what it means to be a teacher, what happens for students when they see you in the light of teacher, mentor, or spiritual leader. Oh you better believe that students may see you as a spiritual leader. And look, if that’s what you are up to, if that’s your intention--to be a spiritual leader and your message comes through yoga asana—great! Hallelujah! You better have the chops and integrity though to support that role.
Some teachers are actually quite good at offering a supportive listening ear and so why not cultivate further skills to support that natural offering unfolding out of that person. Does that make them a therapist? No. But it makes them an effective teacher with listening and reflective skills they wouldn’t otherwise have. This comes in handy especially in regards to teaching privates.
One of my mentors used to say, “if it smells like therapy, its therapy”. And so one of the things we need to understand as teachers is our listening and supportive limitation. We need to know when we really need to hand over our students’ issues to a therapist. We are so eager to help and please, us yoga teacher folk, that we get stuck too often in a cycle where we are covertly doing therapy. Lets stop this. Lets let the therapists be therapists and lets allow ourselves to be the teachers. Now there will be some overlap always. This is normal and fine and appropriate even. But we need to be educated enough to know when enough is enough. This education really isn’t happening in other places.
Lastly I will say in regards to this topic, that we have lots of rules and regulations about physical safety in classes. But not many have a pulse on psychological safety in classes. It’s not a requirement in teacher trainings. The process of teaching whose who and what’s what helps the yoga teachers be yoga teachers and the therapists be therapists. When someone works with me they are under no obligation to believe what I say or apply what I teach. It’s a perspective, an opportunity, and an application of curiosity. That’s all. Sometimes people realize in working with me, that really they just want to teach yoga. Straight up yoga. To that I say AWESOME! Sometimes people are like “Wow, I want to be able to help people through the emotions that come up for them when they practice.” To that I say, amen! Hallelujah. Sometimes people realize they got into teaching yoga because they wanted to be in a helping profession and guess, what? The yoga really isn’t all the important to them, so they go back to school to be come a counselor. Again, that’s amazing and awesome! So in this way I am helping to weed out and separate these professions. I believe this to be a good thing.
It is far far to easy to become a “yoga teacher” these days. Many people get into it not because they actually want to teach. They want to be transformed. They are seeking a rite of passage. They want to help. They want to support. There are many avenues through which to channel your yoga teaching ‘skills’. If you are teaching yoga for the long haul, you better be dammed sure you are up for it. The long haul yoga teacher is a dying breed in my opinion. So is the long haul therapist by the way. So lets get clear on what we are doing, why we are doing it and for whom we long to serve.
3) I believe in the power of asana. I really do. I have fought with many a somatic therapist advocating the fact that yoga truly is one of the original somatic psychology methods. If you put yourself in those various shapes, something deep happens. Trikonasna is not just good for your hamstrings. There is a whole other element that we experience in practice that has everything to do with the asana and how well you line up that asana for your body and then letting the so called ‘magic’ happen. Asanas are medicine. I believe that. I know it to be true.
I also know that not every teacher of asana is for everyone. We are attracted and averse to different teachers teaching the same shapes for a whole variety of reasons. This then leads me to believe that there is something about the way one might teach, and how one is that is just as important to the thing they are teaching.
Now of course you can eliminate this factor by not having a teacher and just doing asana at home. But look, sooner or later we need a teacher. It might not even be a yoga teacher. But we need teachers. Why do we need teachers? We need them because we need examples of how to be. We need people to respect and emulate so that we might grow into our own self-respect.
Our parents are our first teachers. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. In the cases where the parenting was not the most successful teaching in human beingness, we need to find non-parent teachers to assist in the learning. Good parenting teaches us something about the world and ourselves. Good teaching re-parents and repairs us well. That goodness, those successes, is psychologically healthy and healing. So a great yoga teacher affords us the opportunity to receive healing simply by the act of being a great teacher, and person.
Like I teach all the folks that come my way, YOU are the greatest asana in your class. YOU will be the greatest indicator of your student’s success. YOU are the teaching. I realize this puts tremendous pressure on the teacher. But I am challenging all of us to consider that we can no longer live double lives. I can no longer be Livia and then Livia the yoga teacher. It’s the same. If you see me at whole foods I am me. if you see me at the studio I am me. If you see me on a date with my husband, well, I might be tipsy from my cocktail but I am myself nonetheless.
Many teachers feel that because they have become visible pillars in their communities, when they go out they are in a fish bowl. Their moves are observed and commented upon. My challenge is that this fish bowl does not actually exist. We are now in an age where we are all in the sea. We can comment upon our lives globally through twitter and facebook and we can instagram our entire personal sphere. Either the fish bowl no longer exists or we are all inside a giant one together.
In this manner, we must be integrated as teachers. We must be fluid in our authenticity. For me it seems that one of the greatest gifts we can give students of yoga is our authenticity as human beings. So yes, this is a mighty tall order I am calling for from my colleagues. I am advocating for a kind of transparency that we have yet to see. Being a good person, helping people when you are called, honoring yourself deeply, these are all vitally important at their essence and they are at the core healing to everyone.
It is possible to teach healing poses. It is also possible to BE a healing. And I am in the business of teaching people how to be a healing. How to be their own healing and healing for others.
We all come into this life with the capacity to offer medicine. The medicine person is no longer reserved for the tribal shaman. We are all medicine people. Its just that some of us are gathering our tools to make our healing salve and some of us are not into that quite yet. What I am suggesting is that there are a plethora of yoga teachers out there who are willing, able, and totally ready to be those healing salves for this world.
It is important to also understand that “this world” might be 25 people in your community. “This world” doesn’t mean the entire planet. It doesn’t mean 500 people at the Wanderlust festival. It means being a healing for your people, which has nothing to do with amount of people. Your medicine will be unique. The way you teach yoga will be unique. Those teachings are custom made for the ears and hearts of certain people. In some cases it is few in numbers and in others it is many in numbers.
To the yoga teacher trying to build their class numbers or teach at a yoga festival, I ask you this. “Is what you are trying to offer, communicable in a large number? Is what you are up to suited to dissemination through a large or small number? If your medicine is best offered one by one or through small groups, then why are you wasting your medicine on a mass? That would be like throwing away an epi-pen in the vital time of need. Don’t do that. Just don’t.
So yes, my critics are correct then. I am asking yoga teachers to buckle up, and giddy up. News flash: the world is not starved for asana anymore. The world is starved for YOU. It is starved for healthy whole and embodied people. So yes I am expecting a lot of yoga teachers these days. Healing is no longer reserved for the therapist’s office. Healing must happen everywhere and all the time. In a world gone completely mad we must take ourselves up with the highest respect and curiosity so that the more integrated, whole and healthy we become, that solid ground and rich healthy sea of BEING translates out to support the whole.
In the end, BEING HUMAN is a tall order.