A Safe Place to be Served - The Role of a Teacher

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I woke up to a deliciously rainy Saturday morning with the first chill in the air I’ve felt in far too long for it to be officially Autumn. In my first few waking breaths, I texted my friend Jen and got the best response you could hope for on, well any morning really…
“Pancakes and coffee in 20?”
Yup. Yes.

I take a look at the yoga classes happening in my hood today and there’s a restorative going on at a small, no-frills studio I really enjoy.
“Restorative at 11?”
“Perf”

Cue a perfect Saturday.

But alas, this is not about to be a story about a perfect Saturday. This is about to be a story about yoga. About being a teacher. About being a student. And, it’s a moment of deep gratitude and love for my own teachers, Lizzy Moore and Caroline Wybar.

This is on the heels of a recent blog post by Lizzy that got quite a bit of attention. “Dear Yoga Teachers…” she wrote, “Do you understand anatomy? No? Then stop touching people.” It was a brilliant, intelligently informed, educated and fucking bold and brave plea to teachers everywhere to refrain from putting their hands on their students if they are not anatomically aware of what they’re doing. I read it and welled up with pride to be her student. I thought of this frequently during the class I took today. Since I became a teacher myself, I practice mostly on my own or with my teachers, so it’s rare that I’m in a space where I’m not intimately known by the person guiding my practice. That gap was apparent on my mat this afternoon.

Let me say first that you could take one hundred, 200-hour yoga teacher trainings and you’d have a different experience and absorb different information every single time. We’re not all being given the same framework just because there’s a “200 RYT” next to our names. The fact that my teachers delivered a training that was hyper-focused on anatomy as a baseline for our education, to ensure that we could safely go out into the world and teach - is a downright unbelievable gift. We spent hours upon hours upon hours learning the vast and intricate landscape of the body, and even in that, only scratched the surface. However, I have an awareness of the body that informs me of, if nothing else, one very important thing: I. Should. Not. Touch. People. If I’ve just met someone, the likelihood that they’ve given me enough information (if any at all) to make intelligent and safe adjustments to their shapes, is extremely slim. For me personally, at this stage of my journey as a teacher, I’d be comfortable saying it’s impossible. Most students aren’t aware enough on their own to even articulate those things to us. Beyond all of that, the question I’ve been taught to ask myself is: why am I touching them?

This afternoon I got an assist in a pose that I always make a modification in. Virasana - Hero Pose. I modify here because I have had reconstructions in both my knees, and to go into the full expression of the posture (reclined all the way on my back) just isn’t available in my body for now. In fact if I recline much at all, I can feel the oncoming sensation of near-explosion in my knees. So in my body, this pose looks like sitting on a block and propping myself up on my hands as I lean back just enough to invite a stretch into my quads while still getting the benefits of deep flexion in my knees. I ALSO know to engage my core and keep my tailbone long in order to avoid getting compressed as fuck in my lumbar spine. Virasana is not a backbend. If I didn’t know all of that, based on the modification I was damn near forced into today, I would be in a LOT of pain right now. As this really sweet teacher came around and made adjustments to my shape and the student next to me, I actually felt incredibly violated without having been offered any of the cues that would keep me safe in the shape she seemed to think I needed to find. As she put her hand on my shoulder and pulled me backward, I thought “why are you touching me?”

Last Sunday I had coffee with an old friend that teaches an ancient and very consciously preserved lineage of meditation. He said “the role of a teacher is to hold up a mirror”. For me that statement is deeply resonant and wrought with truth. However, I do wish to take that thought a few steps further. The role of a teacher is to hole up a mirror - SAFELY. Our job is first and foremost, to remove ourselves from the equation. This is not about us. It is about them. In this mirroring, the promise I make to my students is to meet them where they’re at. In their truth and as such, at their edge as they know it in that moment. As I cultivate a relationship of trust and deep knowing, it is then and only then, safe to offer the gentle nudges to lean just beyond that edge that invite them to expand - be that physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually.

Have I adhered perfectly to this rule? Of course not. I’ve put my hands on plenty of students without knowing them well enough to be making anatomical adjustments. AND, some people really love to be assisted. There are ways we can love on our students by simply placing a hand in a way that lets them know you’re there and that they’re cared for, without potentially causing harm. Today was an excellent reminder of where the line is, and an opportunity to check myself as a teacher.

As I write this I’m truly stunned at the extreme gift of being the student of my own two, incredibly humble teachers. They’ve been two of the safest places I’ve ever had to meet my edge. Every part of me has been cared for as they’ve hold a mirror up and invited me to look. My body. My heart. My spirit. Indeed I’ve painfully shed layers of fear, limiting beliefs, and ego in this journey together, but never without a soft landing place, and only at the rate of my own readiness. I could truly never say this enough: thank you. For never ever making it about you, so that I would know to never, ever make it about me.

If you are a student in the care of any teacher in any lineage of yoga, please know that you are there to be served. If something doesn’t feel good (in any way, physical, emotional, etc), please speak up. Tell us. If you are met with resistance then perhaps that isn’t the space for you to continue on your journey. It is not about us. It is about you.

May you be safely held as you are met with a mirror and offered in service to take a look.

A version of this story lives over on Elephant Journal.