Teaching Yoga with Your Whole Brain
As our conversation about language continues, I’ve been both observing myself, in the classrooms which I am honored to teach (studio, prison, ashram), and observing other teachers’ delivering their teachings. It’s continually clear to me that a significant aspect of teaching is what we call transmission. Even if a language (or vocabulary) barrier exists, a transmission can still occur. As well, even if someone has extraordinary use of language a transmission may not occur.
- What factors contribute to this?
- What do we, as laypersons teaching yoga, need to understand about transmission when we aren’t (yet) an awakened being?
- What are tools we might turn to as teachers to allow a possible transmission, or auspicious offering, to come through us on behalf of our students? And, on behalf of our developing inner teacher?
- What words might block our students’ from experiencing a well-intended transmission from us? Are there words that magically open the vibrations for such transmissions?
What factors contribute to transmission occurring?
With honor for the traditions of yoga and meditation, and all the masters who have graced our planet, many of whose teachings continue beyond their lifespan, the most significant contribution to the experience of transmission is the awake-ness of the teacher.
Shining through them is more than knowledge. There’s also Love. Tranquility. Grace. Quietude. Their presence transmits a shift in paradigm that pierces our hearts. It is visceral; more love than intellect. In the presence of such teachers, we have the opportunity to open ourselves to this with the porousness of our minds, hearts and bodies.
When a living teacher is not able to be present in a specific classroom, we as layperson teachers can be a vessel for the transmission of our teacher(s). Giving gratitude to them and having their photograph on our altar are public displays. Carrying our teachers in our heart is a vital reminder of that which is teaching through us.
Some may say the readiness of the student is another significant factor in whether transmission occurs. While this is certainly so, let’s not underestimate the “receptor sites” within us all to have a transmission sprout within us. Perhaps it will then live a while, haunting our distracted minds and burdened bodies with the possibilities of grace.
What do we, as laypersons teaching yoga, need to understand about transmission when we aren’t (yet) an awakened being?
When we are newer to teaching yoga, often the teachings we are trying to share are, understandably, beyond our personal state of development (or awakening). While one of the risks in this regard is coming across with pretense, one of the potential strengths of this effort is that as the words we’ve heard from our teachers flow through our bodies and our lips they can awaken us more sincerely to the teachings. (We can all benefit from a little more awakening and much less forgetting!)
This works if we’re really humble to the process and aware of how to wisely use the practice of emulation (imitating our teacher). Sadly, for many of us, we actually aren’t yet this aware (though I know we would like to be). I count my own earnestness and naivety in this regard.
When we walk into our classrooms, we may also be walking into our persona (our yoga teacher persona). We may, unknowingly, start becoming activated by the dynamics in the classroom. Self-doubt can sneak in from (seemingly) nowhere, from minor sense impressions that we pick up from our students’ faces and bodies, or from our existing reservoir of self-doubt.
What are students expecting? How will we entertain* them? What if they don’t like us? And so on.
(*teaching yoga is not a performance and we are not entertainers; however, that is for another blog!)
Here our brains start signaling us with messages of potential danger (a threat to our self-perception, fear of being seen poorly or as inadequate, apprehension about our place in the ‘tribe’). When this occurs, we cannot also be available for the transmission of Yoga, nor as a vessel for our teachers’ teachings. And, the facial expressions and body language of our students become potently able to further activate our insecurities and doubts. In these currents, we’re funneled even more downstream from the headwaters of our teachers’ grace.
Alternately, as some of us aim to practice wise emulation of our teacher we may forget that we’re still very much under development. This may show up in this way: “taking it personally” seeps in as our echoing (imitation) of our teachers’ wisdom causes the vibration of transmission for our students. We forget that we are not the do-er. We climb onto a pedestal that may initially feel like relief (we feel more expansive and loving up there, we’re less in the mud of our own minds and histories, and we bask in the adoration of our students’ gratitude to “us” for causing their bliss). We’re in difficult territory here, partly made more difficult by the deep inner craving we have to be seen well. I will address this particular challenge in our discussion on Turning On Your Lighthouse.
What are tools we might turn to as teachers to allow a possible transmission, or auspicious offering, to come through us on behalf of our students? And, on behalf of our developing inner teacher?
As I’ve been training and mentoring teachers over many years now, and have supported many of them through the conversation about self-doubt, I’d like to offer a few tools for us to consider here, for now (more to come). I refer to these tools as Engaging Your Whole Brain.
Engage Your Whole Brain is a practice of remembering and nurturing the innate resources within your brain.
Not Losing Your Hemispheres
When we’re teaching yoga, if we’re able to rely on both hemispheres of our brains, we’ll teach better classes, and we’ll also offer ourselves better self-care while teaching. Since this part of the conversation is about your inner experience as a teacher, I’m going to focus on the internal language choices you make when teaching.
Keeping in mind that our right-brains house our capacities for awe, delight, timelessness, empathy, and oneness, (as well as our anxieties, fears, terror, and dread), and that our left-brains are capable of logic, sequencing, science, (as well as creating separateness, measuring time, and adding narrative to experiences), what we say to ourselves while teaching a yoga class can have a very strong impact.
If we get hijacked by the questions I asked above, we may over-activate aspects of our right-brain that ignite internal feelings of anxiety. Our left-brain gets stimulated with an urge to explain to us why we’re feeling anxious. And, it can have strong, repetitive opinions about this! Once this gets going, the inner dialogue veers between sensing (right-brain) the room and interpreting it towards dread (they don’t like me); sensing internal pressure (right-brain) stimulated, for example, by interpretations of how the pace or timing of class is going (are we getting enough poses in? How could so much time have been lost on that demonstration? There isn’t enough time to do everything we planned!); or fear (right-brain) that this is going poorly because we’re an imposter (feeling like a fraud). Our left-brain chimes in here with the “evidence” that people don’t like this class, we aren’t teaching well (not enough poses, not the right poses, etc), and, since we’re becoming an anxious mess inside, we really aren’t meant to be teaching yoga (because yoga teachers should not feel anxious while teaching yoga).
If you’ve lived this experience, please know that you’re not alone. If you haven’t lived this experience, I invite you to send compassion to those of us who have.
This whole unfolding becomes more likely when our inner buoyancy is low, we’re under-resourced (personal needs haven’t been met), and overwhelmed (our senses are interpreting facial expressions and body language in our students’ too quickly, usually incorrectly; or our own tender history is showing up in the present moment, though we often don’t see it this way).
What to do?
Our fear centers are lighting up and our centers for context, perspective, self-kindness, and discernment are dimming. We may not realize that this light show in our brains, and even what we find ourselves saying to or about ourselves is linked to older, outdated, protective narratives. No longer offering actual protection, nor clear guidance, these self-assessments now become painful and derail us. With this in mind, our first task is to return to Nourish Your Presence (link to prior blog).
Next, it helps to be aware that many of us increase the activation of our left-brains (which I don’t recommend). Let’s look at three of these activations: measuring time and continuing with the unhelpful self-chatter disguised as evidence or motivation.
With the left-brain knowing how to tell time (right-brain doesn’t measure time), we might do some of these things:
- We start determining how much time we have left to feel awful about this bad yoga class and ourselves as bad yoga teachers and “decide” what we’re doing after class. When images arise of lattes, edible treats, a microbrew beer, or quickly escaping from other humans immediately after class is over, these aren’t actually going through a cognitive process of deciding. It’s instinctive to formulate a self-soothing strategy of some kind. Patterned enough, an image pops into our head and, if it’s an action we can do to feel more safe in our own skin, we feel some measure of relief from the life-threatening experience of teaching a ‘bad’ yoga class. Soothed for a time with our near-future escape route, we can go back to teaching the class and actually feel a little bit calmer. After all, we know relief is coming.
Yoga Remedy: When the image of an edible treat (for example) arises, say to yourself, with kindness, “It’s possible that I am feeling anxious right now. A part of my history has been activated.”
Then, remember that how you care for yourself in this very moment is a chance to do something different, to create a new neural pathway, and to steward your brain away from fear-based strategies and toward self-empathy.
Here, you could say to yourself: “It’s possible I am getting hijacked by my history. This doesn’t make me a yoga failure. Nor a bad person.” If you’re able to continue speaking kindly to yourself, you could add: “It’s also possible that I came in less well-resourced than I needed to today. And, it’s possible that I didn’t know that until this moment.” (Limit the urge to blame yourself for not knowing this sooner! Some sense impressions are much stronger than others, some body memories and interpretations of sense impressions are more powerful, and we may have simply been less resourced than we needed for the might of this specific experience.)
Finally, take a deep breath (help your body and brain) and commit to yourself that you’ll wisely soothe your anxiety after class.
- If we get activated and the symptom of that activation shows up as measuring time in ways that turn into unhelpful self-chatter, we might start noting how much time we spent on [this or that pose] that wasn’t effective (likely, our unhelpful interpretation); or how we didn’t teach [this or that pose] as clearly as we did last time (forgetting that teaching is a relationship not a performance; feeling we are teaching clearly includes our students’ capacities as learners, too, not just our delivery); or this [pose, discussion, demonstration] took way too much time (we measure time and forget to reflect on the efficacy of those moments, or the larger context of a life in which yoga is a practice, and both we and our students are developing along the way); or that we don’t seem to be eliciting an adoring response toward us as a teacher and we start to fear that in the time remaining in class, we may not resurrect their adoration (or respect or appreciation). We may also scan our brains for the poses that last brought facial expressions of joy and appreciation from our students toward us. If these messages once again beam in our direction, we’ll be saved! What we may not realize here is that our students’ faces look one way or another during concentration and introspection. We want to help them cultivate such internal experiences! Maybe we’re actually providing a successful experience for them?
Yoga Remedy: When facial expressions are hijacking you, take a deep breath, perhaps move to a part of the room where you can’t see their facial expressions and they can’t see yours (temporarily), and, with another deep breath, remind yourself how important human connection is to you. That’s one reason you’re getting activated. You’re having a natural experience of longing for connection. (And, hey, let’s not make this into a bad thing! Sure, it feels weird when we long for it and we perceive that it’s not occurring. These sorts of moments make us feel vulnerable.)
Once you’ve breathed your way through this kind of moment, appreciating that you are a human who needs and is wired for connection, and who is also prone to misperception, you may remind yourself that their facial expressions might not be about you. They may be the faces of concentration and introspection.
As well, draw in a deep breath and retain it for a few moments. Welcome the understandable pressure of how you are longing to offer a positive experience for your fellow humans to build inside. Sense the basic goodness in your intentions to teach yoga. When you exhale this breath, release the tension and the self-chatter about how you’re failing, or disappointing other humans, or … Then, you can bring your brain’s capacity for context and perspective in (neo-cortex) and say to yourself: “This class is one among many. These students are on their mats today. It’s a drop in the ocean of their life. I am doing my best in this moment.” You could soothe your dog and cat brain (limbic brain, with its hard-wired needs for connection and safety) by offering: “My longing for connection and safety are natural. My vulnerability when connection seems elusive is natural. (And, it’s possible that when I’m vulnerable, I might misread experiences.)” And to your lizard brain (brainstem, primitive brain) you could breathe and offer: “We aren’t right now in any real danger. We will survive this experience.”