Teacher Training 2020 is drawing in to a close, and after the tumultuous year this has been, a very sweet and satisfying event took place this past weekend: trainees taught their final classes. Nerves aside, each of the 10 Trainees took hold of the material and taught well organized, thoughtful, and intelligent classes interpreted through their unique selves. It’s the highlight of the entire Training for me personally, and I often have the internal silent declaration of both relief and accomplishment that says “it worked”. It worked, indeed!
Each trainee taught a full 60 minute class, most in person with limited capacity and masks, and others on Zoom. With ten Trainees, each day was quite full from 10 – 5 with 30 minutes between classes for feedback. The feedback always elicited some really good conversation ranging from theme development, philosophy, sequencing strategies, specific instructional cues, and the like. One particular bit came up as a teacher included in the beginning of her class, an ask of the students to “turn up the corners of your mouth and smile’. I don’t fully remember what was said prior, but I know it wasn’t a jokey comment, or otherwise playful statement that would elicit a smile, but asking students to smile I think these days is not such a great idea. It is not a huge deal, but I think it can cross a very thin line into being triggering for some. Its akin to when a woman is walking down the street minding her business, and a man tells her to smile. In this instance, it crosses that fine line toward harassment, since women are so often positioned to be servants for the man’s pleasure, and a smile, well a smile from a pretty lady will make him feel much much better. So, meh to that.
I realize its not exactly the same, but there might be some similar things to understand from the harassment type incidents. Especially now in 2020, with refined awareness around what constitutes harassment and the ever-so-subtle ways that comments like these suggest a type of control over someone else’s behavior or emotions.
People smile for so many reasons. A memory stirs an emotion, or a sensation rises that flows endorphins to the brain, signaling warmth and a feeling of joy. Or the sight, interaction with, or reference to an outer display of joy can trigger a smile. Puppies, babies and kittens come to mind. Baby owls really make me smile these days. Our faces don’t tell the full story though, and we’ll never know the complete inner experience of our students.
Even with ensuring the Trainee that they’d done nothing wrong in using this cue, and with a fellow TT who practiced the class expressing appreciation for the reminder to smile, I opened the dialog around what to say instead. First we had to break down the intention behind the invitation to smile.
I think as teachers, want our students to find positive results from practice, and ultimately, to feel better from what ails them, whether its in the body, mind, or emotions. We ask students to consciously move into difficult and uncomfortable spaces inside themselves, to see what is unconscious. It’s difficult work. Ultimately, having practiced a long time, I know regular practice creates these shifts, and it’s true, I do feel better about myself than I did 25 years ago when I started. So wanting students to feel better, and be able to find and express joy is a natural goal as a teacher, and I’ve experienced the practice can do it on its own.
I reminded the trainees that as a teacher of yoga, we are asking students to go where they don’t often go inside themselves, including how they move and use their bodies and their strength. The aim is to help them recognize it is a process, they can draw new insight from this process, and from a new experience. Requesting a facial expression might come from an innocent place to remind students to be lighthearted when frustration, resistance, confusion, or any of the inner churnings arise when things get challenging. I know there are studies that show that sometimes making a smile willfully and not spontaneously can shift a stuck mindset, break an obsessive thought, or begin to lift a mood, similar to the effects of simply taking a few full inhales and exhales.
As much as being a yoga teacher may feel like it’s our responsibility to ensure every student has a positive experience, it’s not really our responsibility to make them happy, to make sure they feel joy, or to please them. We cannot please everyone. As my teacher Douglas always says, one persons yum is another persons yuk. True to form, that fellow Trainee offered that she appreciated being reminded to smile because it helped her be a little kinder to herself for that practice. So there’s that, always.
To examine this idea a bit more, what about the other students in class, indelibly triggered by this ask of a teacher to “put on a happy face”? We never know what experience internally a student is having when they arrive to practice. And anyone, from the most experienced student to the newest student in the room, may indeed make quite a few focusing gestures with their facial muscles as they are working to balance their body-mind during practice. It’s a complex string of events happening in the mind as the body moves, and in the body as the mind is figuring it all out, whether experienced at yoga or not. I have my own “resting practice face”, as well as the full range of motions of expression outwardly of what’s occurring inwardly as I do asana.
It’s also known that often when we meditate, perhaps mostly in the beginning minutes of practice, that as the mind begins to turn inward to find the stream of inner awareness, the forehead might furrow as you move subtly into the depths. I don’t smile when I meditate, same as I often don’t smile when I practice asana.
However, afterwards, and this is my point – that’s when I often do smile. I smile after asana practice because I’m grateful I made time, or time opened up in my schedule for the opportunity to move and breathe in, and as myself. Or I smile because I was able to play with a new sequence and I figured something out. Or I smile because my body released and grew strong, even just from a short period of time. Or I smile because I loved the teachers sequence, energy, music, and something worked for me that day, and the list goes on. I also smile after meditating for a whole entirely different host of reasons, too.
So the joy and happiness invited to students I hope is a naturally occurring event that arises as a result of a student even just feeling good that they made it to practice. Joy is an inner disposition, like gratitude, and really cannot be demanded or fully fabricated.
Yoga is a conscious decision to turn in on ourselves and see the unconscious that typically governs our behaviors, thoughts, and movements. It is inherently not performance. As I said, and you likely know, it is not easy.
So I offered this to my Trainees. By this point in the conversation, a few felt I was being overly critical of this teachers use of words. I did have this to offer as a final consideration:
Of course we want students to have a positive experience, on as many levels as possible. All we can take full responsibility for is what is offered, planning thoughtful sequences, how we show up, present ourselves, and be an example of the results of practice. Embodying hasya, or lightheartedness can be a platform and provide a possible pivot for someone to change an inner experience. If you come to class ready and prepared to teach, with a genuine enthusiasm for the art of teaching, that can bring a smile to anyone’s face. To the Shaktiyoga New York Teacher Training class of 2020, Congratulations. You did all of that, and you sure made me smile.