Great Expectations

Balancing what others want and what you have to give

How often do we allow our expectations to disappoint us? This is a question I’m constantly asking myself, not to mention one that I am constantly asked of. As a yoga instructor, like any form of teaching, expectations are sometimes the hardest beasts to conquer. I have expectations of myself; I have expectations of my students; the same is reversed unto me: students expect, and if you do not live up to what they hope to experience, everyone can be let down. Yet who is doing the letting down? Is it ourselves, or the expectations we ask of others?

At one of the clubs where I teach, a general policy has it that the manager will give you any feedback they receive from members, positive or not. Last year a woman told my manager she’d like to take my class more often, but it is too hard and she’d like me to tone it down. There are several layers: firstly, she never approached me to ask about the nature of the teaching. Beyond that, though, is the class itself — it is my most popular morning class, an aerobic and reflective pre-work routine offered in a demanding stretch of midtown Manhattan. Knowing your environment is as important as knowing your students, and this class is packed full of marathon runners, cyclists, and dedicated yogis who like to be challenged.

How do we break down the figures here? Is there any breaking down? One student in four-and-a-half years asking me to change the nature of the class, one among 25. Common sense says: you don’t take the class. This club offers five to six yoga classes a day of all levels. Yet the rub: when we want what we want to fit into our schedules perfectly, we try to change the external circumstances to suit our needs instead of bending to the reality of the situation.

In some ways, that’s an easy one — not easy, mind you, in presentation. No matter what, most teachers want to please everyone, yet that just isn’t a possibility in a room where different perceptions and realities merge. A much harder quandary is in teacher training. I co-founded the Sacred Strength EarthRise Yoga program in 2008 with Stephanie Culen. Last year 36 students attended the six-month program; this year the session, which begins Saturday, has been cut to four months, slightly more intensive, yet with plenty of time to integrate a powerful sliver of the yogic canon.

The expectations of 36 students are a lot for two people to deal with, just as the demands of the program is a lot for each student. In general, one is drawn to a yoga program for asana practice and refinement; when suddenly thrown into the world of Ayurveda, anatomy, Sanskrit, ethics, pranayama, meditation, and philosophy — yamas and niyamas, prana and the vayus, chakras, and so on — it can be overwhelming, to say the least.

The results of such expectations? It runs the gamut. Everything from being an enriching and heartfelt experience to “I want my money back.” Of course, that hurts; every criticism is a small dagger that pierces the heart. Yet we can only recall the discipline’s philosophy, one shared with Buddhism: let go of complaints as well as praise. Teach. Be in the service of the teachings. With 38 egos sharing one room and trying to find common ground, no one was 100% filled; yet when the cups were empty, one was nourished.

As I enter this new program, I can learn from past mistakes and rise to the challenge of not repeating them, as well as remain flexible enough to welcome these new students as they are, not as those last year were, or worse, as I expect them to be. Because of last year’s program, there are a few very powerful students who have entered the world of teaching; that’s a blessing in itself. Yoga is a shared experience, but intention amounts to so much. Like anything, those driven by an enduring love for the discipline will excel, while those waiting for the world to bend to them will quickly be toppled over by the winds.

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