Taking inventory of professional offerings is an important aspect of teaching. Not only does the process stimulate reflection, insight and creativity for me, it ensures that students receive something potent. If what I’m teaching is not inspiring to me, how will it be useful to anyone else? So, occasionally, I take the time to search for signs of apathy or fatigue, either of which tell me it's time for a change in my schedule or an adjustment in my attitude. New classes or curriculum ideas may emerge as well, along with areas that need pruning. Sometimes the mind just sits there doing nothing, allowing delusional daydreams about my profound spiritual impact or mental stagnation to compete for my attention. These moments -- without inspiration or creativity – don’t feel particularly productive at the time. But they do back my mind into a corner, the only place surrender is really possible. And that's a good place to inhabit for a while. I am reminded in such instances that teaching is a living, breathing relationship, one that does not lend itself to complacency or comfort.
The last time I went through this process it wasn’t just shifting classes or developing new workshops that showed up, it was the glaring absence of a long-term, progressive learning structure for students -- like the one I was lucky enough to stumble upon nearly two decades ago. I’d taught thousands of classes, written curriculum manuals and led many teacher trainings, but I was not presenting a comprehensive model of ongoing practice beyond a classroom experience or teaching certificate. Statistics tell us that roughly 36 million people do yoga, but few have been introduced to yoga as a complete system of well-being. They may find physical fitness, mental focus or a supportive community, but yoga has not endured for thousands of years because of these things. Yoga has survived through millennia because it works slowly, personally and progressively, demanding constant attention in the name of spiritual freedom.
It is easy to see why modern yoga is not presented in a progressive, systematic way. Steady, sustainable growth takes humility and patience, things Westerners are not particularly accustomed to. Meaningful change also requires a knowledgeable, experienced teacher who can support you over the long haul. With the ease of entry into teacher training programs, it is largely unnecessary to establish oneself as a practitioner before jumping into teaching. Young teachers feel pressure to provide novel experiences and fill classrooms, while experienced teachers become undervalued because they hold students accountable, even at the expense of popularity. Discomfort does not sell yoga memberships, and the pendulum has swung in favor of profits and complacency. Eventually, I had to face the uncomfortable realization that my role as a teacher trainer was contributing to the problem. So, after a bit of existential squirming, I began thinking about how I could become part of the solution.
A progressive system of yoga requires various points of entry, a clear path of progress and – ideally – a long-term relationship with a guide to support personal growth. But that model is somewhat foreign in the world of franchise yoga. Yoga’s deepest benefits involve large doses of humility and tedium, and do not bear out the life of glamorous bliss presented on smartphone screens. It's actually pretty dirty, ugly work if you think about it -- all that digging around through unexamined layers of habitual thinking, painstakingly unraveling the knots of the body. Early stages require the heavy psychological lifting of seeing our self-obsession, coming to terms with preferences, and pawing around in the dark for that elusive spark of insight. That kind of work does not calculate into the algorithms of social media, the land of beautiful people doing interesting things in exotic locations. So, I thought to myself, how might I teach someone that yoga means rolling out your mat even when no one is watching, tackling the poses on your hit list and not sharing every moment of glory or defeat on Instagram? I think most of us recognize that breaking through mental habits and attachments is the way to experience inner stillness, but sitting with ourselves feels boring and lonely at times. We want the inner peace without the grunt work, the insight without the discipline. Unfortunately -- and believe me I’ve tried -- it just doesn't work without discomfort. The light of inner bliss is definitely in there somewhere, but first you have to stop picking at your toenails.
For a while, I vacillated between inspiration and self-pity. I had doubts about leaving my comfort zone, but the status quo was becoming untenable. I consulted my teacher on several occasions and left those meetings feeling a strange combination of determination and dread. Many fellow teachers could not understand why I would break from a well-established institution, and some saw my position as quaint, old-fashioned thinking. I worried that departure from mainstream yoga would negatively affect my income, and I considered giving up teaching for a more traditional job (one with established hours and regular pay). Wading upstream would be difficult and maybe even pointless, but I was sick of hearing myself complain inside my head. I had to shit or get off the pot, so to speak, and put all those years of discernment and non-attachment into practice.
And so I did. I stopped leading teacher trainings, trimmed my weekly schedule and created continuity in my commitments. I pored through old notebooks, journals, lectures, conversations with teachers and notes on philosophy. I reviewed sequences, breathing techniques, mantra, principles of practice and various models of the energy body. I dug through tattered, dog-eared texts, scribbled out ideas on poster-sized sticky notes and drew Venn diagrams to extract the lessons that were most critical. When all was said and done, I’d cranked out copious pages of curriculum, synthesizing a jumble of experience and inspiration into a cohesive, relatable structure. I knew there were students – like me – who craved consistent, ongoing growth over the long haul, and I was determined to support them.
What I am teaching today represents the fruits of this process. I teach weekly classes tailored to various levels and a monthly format dedicated to deeper inquiry in asana. There are new workshops afoot on philosophy, eating like a yogi, and the teacher student relationship. All of these things revolve around the core of this new system, the annual Advanced Study Course. This format allows students to establish a strong foundation, creates a clear path of progress and builds a dedicated forum to share the practices I have found most helpful. The progressive course works for students or teachers, because everyone starts where they are.
I’m thankful for this new vigor in my teaching and for wonderful relationships with local studios. Having unconventional ideas is one thing, but knowing people believe in what I’m offering and are willing to give me an opportunity to share it reflects true unity. And without keen, curious students, even the most profound teaching cannot manifest. I’m feeling very fortunate.