I recently finished my 200-hour yoga teacher training at Tejas Yoga. It was a really powerful day, an evening of reflection and connection. We're a pretty happy group of yogis...
My teachers gave us the opportunity to speak into the space and share what was on our hearts. Anyone who knows me knows that I generally don't shy away from a chance to share my opinion; but as much as I value words and their power, at that moment, language felt inadequate, so I stayed silent.
But not here.
As a student, and a teacher, one of the most important learning tools is an invested and connected learning community. I wrote a paper about this idea at the end of grad school that argued, specifically in the context of creative writing, a connected community was seminal to producing quality work.
Learning is a really vulnerable process. We take for granted the process of teaching and being taught; education, even in its flawed state, is an accepted part of our societal structure. But there's a point where learning a thing stops becoming exciting and starts becoming something that's tinged with shame. "You didn't know that?", teachers exclaim at their students. Someone asks questions and no one puts up their hand because we're all afraid of being wrong. I've lost count of how many people apologize for asking questions in learning and professional settings. I'm sure I've done it.
It takes a lot of bravery to put yourself in a situation where you don't know a thing, to acknowledge you don't know the thing, and to be willing to ask someone else to take up the responsibility of teaching you: to make lasagna, to write a compelling essay, to teach a sun salutation or to change your oil. It requires a consistent willingness of the student to be vulnerable, to (potentially) look stupid, to try and fail, and to persevere. It also takes a sense of ownership about your own education. The best learning happens when the student is an active participant in the process; when she does more than just the homework, but when she takes charge of what she wants to know. (I learned this really late; if I'd known differently, I'd have taken so many more classes at NU). Still, learning takes a tender heart, trust, and the willingness to be vulnerable.
It also requires a level of commitment and gravity from the person you entrust to teach you: I want a teacher who's present, deeply knowledgeable of their subject, excited about teaching, and willing to challenge me without feeling they have to crush me into dust and then build me into a miniature version of themselves. Teaching is an act of service; there is no room for ego, no room for complacency or boredom, no room for haphazard commitment to the students or to the craft.
Finally, the best learning happens in a connected community. When the learning community is full of people who have an interest in each other, who can see one another in their vulnerability and humanity, and who matter to each other, as craftspeople and as humans, the alchemy of support, challenge and safe competition creates beautiful things.
I've been incredibly lucky, and deeply blessed, to be a part of two such communities in my life so far.The first was at Columbia College. I remember, the first class I took, the professor didn't have a syllabus on the first day (I think we eventually got it week 8 maybe?). He just sat down and started talking about censorship and communism, and I panicked. What have I done? I thought. There's no syllabus? What are we gonna do all semester? Oh my god, I've made a huge mistake. My uptight, organized Pitta personality flipped out. But fortunately, I discovered that his unorthodox manner was the introduction to a community of writers and artists who are dedicated, hardworking (and underpaid, Amen?) people who work tirelessly on their students' behalf.
At Columbia, I learned how to look people in the eye. I learned how to listen deeply, and to read with attention. I didn't know this at the time, but I think I learned that ineffable quality of holding space. I learned the difference between good teachers and not-so-good ones, and I learned what happens when the learning community is bonded and connected, and what happens when it's loosely held together.
As a student at Columbia, I was grateful for the classes I had with writers I respected, and not just liked, and in awe of the teachers who were able to create these communities, even when things were confusing, unclear, or challenging. As a teacher there, I worked hard at providing the same experience for my students. I read a great, great book and got some great, great training from award-wining teachers and artists that made me better at my job. I learned some hard lessons, and when I screwed up, I sought wisdom, which was abundant, and tried to integrate those lessons.
The other learning community was at Tejas Yoga.
By the time I got to Tejas, I'd embraced my nature as gregarious, intense and focused. I'd looked a long time for the right place to study yoga. My work as a writer and teacher made me interested in finding a learning community that was both rigorous and supportive. It'll sound pretentious (and maybe it is), but the gift about being exposed to such good teaching is that when you experience bad teaching, you see it right away. I've learned to recognize strong pedagogy.
I think I knew Tejas was the right place at the end of my first class. At the time, it was a small studio on Wabash just north of Roosevelt, and I'm pretty sure I went one weekday after my afternoon class. Three hours and fifty minutes of reading aloud, sitting in crummy plastic chairs under fluorescent lights and engaging young writers is the perfect motivator for a little breath and movement. The class was 90 minutes of sweat and breath and sequenced postures that made me feel at once wrung out and energized. But the clincher was savasana. Near the end of class time, we lie on our mats in stillness and silence. My body fell deeper and deeper into concentric pools of relaxation. How long are we going to lie here? I wondered, just before I would descend into deeper stillness. After what felt like 30 minutes (but was probably about 10 or so), the teacher, my teacher, invited us to rise to a seat, and taught us a breathing and concentration technique to close the practice.
At the end I'm sure I was smiling. It was the first studio I'd ever been to--easily the first in Chicago--that valued deep rest, breathwork, and concentration as a meaningful part of the practice and not just physical postures. That communicated a lot to me about the integrity of the yoga being taught there by the owners, Jim and James. If I learned nothing else about them, with that first class, I knew, these were guys who knew their stuff.
I was right. Years of continuing to study with them, and this last year of deep study on the practice and discipline of yoga has taught me so much, but has only scratched the surface of their knowledge.
I felt safe making myself vulnerable, and putting my learning in the hands of such teachers. Equally important to me was the group of colleagues I would work with. I began the training seeking a community, a cadre of people with whom I could talk about yoga things. My Mister, God bless him, is a patient and generous person, but he just doesn't care much about whether a full or new moon affects the physical practice. He just wants me not to get hurt, and not to be too tired to fold the laundry I promised I'd finish.
What I discovered in the cohort of my fellow trainees-turned-graduates is a group of people in varying levels of practice and stages of life, but all of whom gave themselves to this process, and to this community. We encouraged one another, we challenged each other, we grieved together and we felt for each other. We mattered to each other. We recognized the vulnerability and humanity in each other, and in so doing, we cared for each other and connected around the shared work, the shared hardship, the shared growth.
I'm (re)learning now that, as far as bona fide teacher training goes, Part One happens when I sit in the seat of Student, and Part Two happens when I sit in the seat of Teacher. That is as it should be. But the community of people around me for Part One gives me the confidence to step, certain and humble, into Part Two. If I ever become a good yoga teacher, it is due to the community of teachers and colleagues who made me one.