Friday, June 5, 2015

When the teacher is ready the student appears

        It's the end of the school year for a lot of my friends who are teachers.  Grade cards have been completed, bulletin boards are covered for the summer, and the May marathon is finally over.  After a long season of spring fever, the kids have finally been set free to enjoy three months of fun in the sun.  Every June I'm reminded of a first grade class I once taught in the mid-nineties, and how saying "good-bye" to them was incredibly bittersweet.  My former six-year-olds are now in their twenties, but I still stay in touch with many of them.  I've attended college graduations, cheered them on via email as they made their way into the adult world, and continually marvel at how they keep growing older while I keep feeling younger.
But that's how it goes when the roles are reversed and the teacher becomes the student.
I knew in the fall of 1994 that my group of primary kids was unlike any other I had taught.  Methods I had learned in college and during my early years as a teacher were quickly abandoned for alternative techniques, for I found the children were quick to pick up phonics and double digit addition.  Most of them breezed through the curriculum in record time, and some were reading on the third grade level by Thanksgiving.  They kept me on my toes, but joyfully so, as I learned how to be flexible and intuitive and mindful.  What better way to pave my path to being a yoga instructor than being in the presence of twenty-four little yogis all day long?
Not that everything was perfect.
There were disagreements and frustrations among the boys and girls.  I had to be firm, but fair in following through on the boundaries and consequences in the classroom.  But the kids preferred to meet as a group to solve serious issues than to come to me to fix their problems.  Looking back on it, it was as if I was teaching in a "Little Esalen" where community was just as important as individuality. 
The last week of school was difficult for me, for I knew my first graders needed to move on and grow and learn from other teachers.  Still, there was a part of me that wanted to welcome them back into my classroom the following fall so we could all continue learning together.  To help soften the necessary ending, I asked the kids to sit in a circle on the last day of school and choose a student who taught them something during the year, something beyond academics.
One boy said, "Brent taught me how to draw sharks."
Another smiled, "Amanda taught me how to tie my shoes so they stay on tight."
A girl nodded to the friend sitting next to her.  "Kayla taught me that even when I mess up, I can try again."
Kayla smiled and nodded.  "Yeah...we all mess up sometimes."
Tim, a boy who had an ongoing challenge with another student, chose that very girl, and I wasn't at all surprised when he said, "I learned from Jenny that I don't have to like another person to learn how to get along with her."
Jenny wasn't offended at all, for she had learned the same lesson from Tim.  It took a while, but they finally made their peace around Valentine's Day when they agreed it was best to simply give each other space and respect the fact that they are very different people.  How many of us can say we know adults who are this mature?
When all of the kids had their turn, one of the girls turned to me and asked, "Miss Ingersoll...who did you learn from this year?"
With tears in my eyes (and I find that while writing this now, they're still there), I replied, "Oh, I couldn't choose any one person...I've learned so much from all of you."
Kaitlin nodded.  "I know...we taught you how to listen to your heart."
And they did.  I knew then that I wouldn't be in the classroom for the rest of my career, and while it would take another four years before I was able to make my way into a different life, I continued to carry the lessons I learned from those wonderful children.

The Zen saying is actually, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear," and I've been told by my yoga students many times over the past seventeen years that I arrived in their lives at the most opportune moment.  Many of the people who join my classes are in the midst of transition when they arrive for their first practice.  Some have lost a parent, others a job.  Some are going through a divorce or have recently been married.  Some are pregnant, while others are experiencing an empty nest.  All of them have come ready to embark on a new journey, one that might take them into darkness for a while, but one that also allows them to find peace and patience within the mystery.
I've been blessed to become friends with many of my own teachers.  My first yoga instructor and I are still great pals nearly twenty years after I ventured into her studio, exhausted and in need of balance.   I'm fortunate that I can not only call my rolfer, Tony, a good friend, but an incredible mentor as well, for I've learned more about teaching yoga from him than anyone else on the planet.  From massage therapists to my Reiki instructor to my acupuncturist, I am surrounded by a host of incredible souls who have taught me how to live more fully...and with greater appreciation for the never-ending journey we all must take. 
Still, as an instructor, I am ever-mindful to be an eternal student.  I know what I know by practice and study, but the best way for me to learn these days is through connection with other people on my path.  I've mentioned in other blogs that it's truly a joy to watch my students surpass what I can offer them and enter into the spontaneity of their own inner wisdom.  This year it happens all of the time, and like being with my first graders in 1994-95, I am in awe of who they are becoming.   The clarity with which they are able to articulate their experience is amazing and allows me to guide them even further into their own self-discovery.  The grace and beauty they embody while practicing is a sight to behold.  The strength and determination they bring to recognizing their limits is heartening, for I know they'll go to the edge when they can, and when they can't, they'll trust their bodies' messages and soften into something more simple. 
It truly is a privilege to be a teacher.

A little over a year ago I had the opportunity to teach a corporate yoga class at the Marco's Pizza headquarters.  A group of women were interested in a relaxation class after work, so we scheduled a six week series to see if it was a good fit.  I've been in and out of the traveling yoga circuit for almost sixteen years and have come to learn that it's not the longevity in the business that's important.  It's the people I'll soon connect with who resonate with my style and want to join me in my home studio for semi-private classes.  Sure enough, after the six week series was completed, a couple of lovely ladies joined me for the summer of 2014 and have been stalwart students ever since.  
A couple of weeks ago I was teaching an advanced balancing pose to my Thursday night class.  "Have you ladies done the full moon pose?" I asked.
"Doesn't sound familiar," Nancy said, shaking her head.
I turned to Becky.  "Have you seen it in the Saturday morning class?"
"No...I don't think so," she smiled.
So I tipped over and went into the first position, then showed them the more advanced work, saying, "It took me a while to get into this one, so be's all a process."
And what do you know!  Becky easily went into the first, then second, then third position with ease.  "What's next?" she asked brightly.
I laughed, "I can't show you, but I can tell you."
And just like that, as I guided her through the adjustment, Becky was able to get into the full position...on her first try! 
I don't have an agenda for my students.  Any expectations for myself are always left at the door when I go to my yoga studio, but I'm always delighted when a yogi can slip into something that took me years to master - and some days need to take two steps back in order to avoid injury.  Over the years I've seen beginners move into a perfectly balanced tree pose or fold right into a forward bend.  They are uninhibited by my limitations and simply follow where their bodies lead them.
As I often tell them, "I'm not invested so much in what you can do, but who you are and how you approach your practice."
We're all working toward headstand in the coming year and all of my students are progressing nicely in down dog variations and dolphin push-ups.  I'll demonstrate where they're headed and many will shake their heads and say, "Not in this lifetime."
I give them a gentle smile.  "Don't have all eternity."
For it's not the pose itself that teaches the student, but their approach to it, day by day, moment by moment.
I suppose that's what I learned from my students twenty years to simply be with myself, no matter the circumstances, no matter the outcome.  I learned how to hold on and to let go.  How to accept what I can't change and move through the transition with acceptance and open hands.
I may have been their teacher, but the lessons they lived while in my classroom have been beacons on my path as I journey ever-onward into the future.
Here's lovely Becky in full moon pose.