I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ways in which my work as an artist and my work as a yoga teacher are really just exactly the same.
I do think of teaching yoga as a form of making art. I love coming up with creative, flowing sequences, I love bringing poetry into my classes, I love figuring out new innovative ways to describe or get into a certain pose, and I even love the challenge of trying to figure out how to fit what I have in my head with the individual humans that come into my classes. It’s fascinating, and it’s beautiful, and just like with my spoken word poetry, some people are going to hate it.
I remember when I was a teenager, and my parents kept on telling me that I should stop worrying so much and just “be myself.” I had no idea who “myself” was, so how could I possibly stop worrying and do that? By definition, being an individual self in this world, with integrity and values and intention, means you are not the same as anyone else. If you’re lucky, you won’t even be the same self now that you were last year. Of course, some people will dislike you or think you are weird or infuriating. If they do, you are probably doing something interesting, which means you are likely well on the right track to being yourself, or at least a self you can get behind.
Wayne Campbell has a great line from my favorite movie, Wayne’s World: “Led Zeppelin didn’t write tunes everybody liked. They left that to the Bee Gees.” Nothing against the Bee Gees, but I’ve always suspected that if everybody really likes you, you are either lying or doing something wrong. And I am a self-confessed, eternally recovering people-pleaser.
I’ll admit it: I love me some validation at the end of a yoga class. I can’t help but enjoy hearing that my students liked my class. Like most humans, I also dislike insults. I try to keep in mind, though, what a very wise teacher once told me: Inflation—the glowing adulation you get from some students floating out of your class—is the same exact thing as deflation—angry or dismissive comments from someone else (usually via Internet comment forums). Both of them speak directly to your ego, and neither of them have anything to do with you.
When I perform a poem on a stage, it’s often a deeply personal story about my life told to half-drunk strangers in a bar who literally hold up numbers on sticks to tell me exactly how much they liked or disliked it. It is bloody terrifying. In talking about my stage anxiety with a fellow poet, he reminded me that I am only responsible for my half of the poem: I get on stage and do my best with what I have prepared and what I feel I want to share. The other half is the responsibility of the audience. I have no control at all over whether they will like it. We are having a conversation, and how they receive it has nothing to do with me.
I have a poem, for example, about a secret. I read it in a workshop setting and asked the participants what they thought the secret was. Here it is, and feel free to try to figure it out yourself.
Guesses ranged from pregnancy to cancer. I agreed with them all, though none of them guessed what was in my heart and mind when I wrote it. The secret is revealed to the listener depending on whatever their mind and experience create from the images presented. That’s what’s so cool about poetry: It doesn’t tell you how to feel or what to think, you have to do that all by yourself. (And no, I’m not telling what the “secret” was!)
Teaching yoga is just like that. I can come in with my experiences, my inspirations, my sequences, and my plan, but it will transform into something else as the students receive those offerings. I once taught a class with a similar theme and sequence to two different groups of people in the same day. One class felt positively magical, and the other felt kinda flat. Neither the magic nor the flat was about me: they were two totally different conversations, and every individual in those two rooms left with a new secret, all their own.
This is a good thing. It takes a lot of pressure off the artist and teacher when you work from a place of integrity and intention rather than trying to figure out what everyone else wants from you. Perhaps I became an artist and a yoga teacher so I could keep learning these lessons, to keep trying to figure out what “being myself” means even when I know not everyone is going to like it. It’s okay, though. That’s why we have the Bee Gees.