I recently listened to an episode of On Being where Yo-Yo Ma talked about music and performance with Krista Tippett. Since I usually have my yoga-colored glasses on, I couldn’t help but connect what he was saying with my experience of teaching and doing yoga.
Here's an excerpt about performing on stage:
MR. MA: While I’m on stage, you’re all my guests, because that’s sort of like the unsaid agreement. So while you’re my guest, if something bad happens on stage, I often think of Julia Child, you know. Oh, the chicken’s fallen on the floor! Yes. Oh, well pick it up and put it right back. And, and you know what? Everybody’s with you.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. MA: Because — and even if nobody’s going to touch the chicken, they’re not going to let that moment spoil their evening. They’ll remember, oh, yes, you know, oh remember when Julia dropped that?
MS. TIPPETT: Oh, that’s so great. That’s such a great image for life.
MR. MA: [Laughs] Yes, exactly. So, you know, it’s like, oh, well, this happened, you know? Boom. But, actually, that’s not why we’re here, to watch the bad things that happen. And so it’s — so whatever you practice for on the engineering side that fails is all right, because we have a greater purpose. The greater purpose is that we’re communing together and we want this moment to be really special for all of us. Because otherwise, why bother to have come at all?
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. MA: Right? So it’s not about how many people are in the hall. It’s not about proving anything.
MS. TIPPETT: No.
MR. MA: It’s about sharing something.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s about being whole together, too, isn’t it? Which includes all these things that could go wrong.
I think this brings up so many great points about teaching yoga. Yoga, like music, is a craft about exploring an experience and joining together as a community. Teaching is much more of a performance than I thought before I started and even though you're (usually) not on a literal stage, you are certainly on a figurative one.
There are so many things that can go “wrong” in any performance or a yoga class but, in a way, that’s why people show up in person rather than listening to the album or watching the video.The fact that this performance/class only exists in this moment and can never be perfectly recreated is a magical thing. All of the flaws and deviations make the experience rich and memorable.
From the perspective of a yoga teacher, there is usually something that doesn’t go exactly as planned, from the sound system mysteriously turning itself off, to flat-out forgetting your sequence, to having several people in class with different injuries, all requiring special attention. But I do believe that it’s the overall experience of the class and the chance to practice and share together that makes a class satisfying and meaningful.
I also love that Yo-Yo Ma calls his audience his guests. Viewing your students as your guests can be a helpful shift in perspective. It’s your “home” they are coming into, which puts you in charge of holding the space. You are responsible for setting it up, making it feel comfortable in terms of lighting, music and temperature, and handling anything that goes awry. And, most importantly, you are responsible for making all of your guests feel welcome.
And — this part is especially important for brand new teachers — Yo-Yo Ma is right when he says that the audience (aka your students) wants to have a good time. They want you to do well and they want to share in a positive experience with you. They are not, I repeat, not waiting for or expecting you to make a mistake. As he says, “Everybody’s with you.”
Realistically, most people probably won’t even notice the majority of what you consider errors. What they will notice is how you deal with the things that go wrong, big or small. They want to feel your confidence and to know that you are handling things so they can relax and enjoy the class. So the next time something goes wrong in class, just do as Julia Child and Yo-Yo Ma would — pick up the darned chicken, have a laugh and move on.