Friday, March 7, 2014

The Shadow Student

A brash regular student in my Yoga Basics class stepped off her mat, crossed the room, and loudly told another student how to align her leg properly in a pose.

A breast cancer survivor who was healing a double mastectomy came to my Gentle Yoga class and proceeded to do other, more active practices throughout my class; when I asked her what was going on, she told me, "gentle yoga is too gentle for me."

As we concluded our Wellness Yoga class, I asked the students to sit up and notice how they felt, and one student sat up and immediately hunched over her smartphone until the last echo of "om" was done.

I call these students "shadow students", a term I learned early in my yoga teaching career from my mentors. Shadow students are those people who rattle me for one reason or another. I usually teach with so much clarity and equanimity that when I get thrown off-center, I need to know why. Typically, it's because

these people embody some aspect of myself that I am not comfortable with: my shadow self.

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Prugh
In the first example, the student took it upon herself to "teach" someone else in my class. This displays a rejection of her own experience, showing that she would rather focus on someone else than on herself.

Yep, guilty of that one.

In the second example, the student explained that since she could do more, she felt she should do more - more than what the class was wiling to do and more than what I was offering. She also continued to move in final relaxation pose, until I explained to her that this was the time to be still and allow her body to integrate what she's done. In her case - as I could see by the look in her eyes, she wasn't ready to trust the process. Like a cartoon, I could see the thought bubble forming over her head: how am I going to get back to "normal" if I don't push myself? 

Ah, been there, too... Thought that, too... Rejected the process, too...

In the last example, the student who reached for her phone was really reaching for some other reality. Acceptance of her situation eluded her. She refused to be in that room, on that mat, in her body for one more moment. And why be there, when - at the tip of your fingers - you can be nearly anywhere your wifi can take you? Technology is a seductive trap that outwardly shows us what the inward thoughts are: I am uncomfortable in this moment, so I will follow my drunken monkey mind down some path that is far more pleasurable. We all have these thoughts, and some of us develop skills to bring ourselves back to the present moment, no matter how uncomfortable. In the early years of my practice, I was fortunate enough to not have seductive technology trap me, but my mind still pulled me away.

Correct that: my mind still pulls me away.

These folks bring me to a mirror, a picture of myself that I don't care for, like the snapshot that catches me in mid-grimace. I hear myself saying, "if only student X wasn't in the room, then everyone would be able to relax a little more." Really, what I'm saying is, "if only I were different..." (Please note: I'm not talking about the completely disruptive situations that need to be dealt with in the moment; if I'm really clear, those situations rarely arise, actually.)

So, how can I deal with my shadow self? In my early years, I'll admit that I didn't handle these situations with much skill. Here's what I've learned:

Empathy is key. No one steps into a yoga class wanting to be "that guy", the one who takes a phone call in the middle of restorative yoga, and yet, it happens.

Boundaries are key. If you don't know what the rules are, then education is important.

Check myself. It's really about my reaction, and if I don't love those shadow parts of myself, then I may not meet these students with what they need: patience and friendliness.

I was assisting a yoga workshop recently for my teacher. We had gathered into the middle of the room to look at slides and then were sent back to our mats. I noticed one student wasn't practicing, just sitting on the floor. When I asked her why, she pointed to her mat, which was currently being occupied by another workshop participant; this student had mistakenly stepped onto the wrong mat. Instead of making a fuss, or even mentioning it to the person, she chose to sit and wait for the right moment. It came. Someone was embarrassed, but wasn't publicly shamed, which might have been the case with another, less grounded student.

We all have shadows. It is important to learn what our shadows are, and make friends with them as best we can, so that we can all live together with more grace and skill.

I bow to all my teachers.