Walking to a yoga class in October, my friend Marie accidentally tripped and fell amid a big road construction project near the Berkeley studio. She was not seriously injured, but she did fall hard on her face, skinning her nose and scraping her hands and a knee.
Arriving bleeding at the studio, Marie’s longtime teacher immediately paused the class to attend to her. With a bandage on her nose, Marie felt like a dork, but stayed and spent the entire two-hour class doing supine restorative poses to stem the bleeding. She listened to the class continue, while recovering “from complete discombobulation.” When her teacher checked in, she told Marie, “Just do your own practice,” which was just the right thing for her. “Now that is a teacher!” she said.
A friend in Sydney lost her husband two years ago. She nevertheless attended her regular yoga class soon after. Arriving at the studio, stricken, she told her teacher that Joe was gone. “My teacher cried and hugged me,” she said. “It was spontaneous. It meant so much.”
Teachers must regularly deal with the unexpected in class. I know someone who was teaching an elderly student with a hip replacement, when the femur popped out of the socket during a standing pose. She called 911, stopped the class, and accompanied the student to the hospital. A classmate of mine, during a stressful holiday season with her mother-in-law in the house, lost control and cried in class. The teacher had to act with sensitivity, to acknowledge her breakdown without calling too much attention to her.
How should teachers respond to such emergencies and emotions? There is no set answer. It’s more common sense and innate compassion than anything trainable. A “human” response is impossible to teach. All I know is that the best teachers are also outstanding human beings, regardless of yoga.
Actually, while people’s responses to crises are revealing, I suspect that their ordinary, everyday behavior is even more telling. Who are they when no one is watching?
One day I noticed my current teacher wiping the messy restroom counter and changing the water in a vase of flowers. “Do you supply the flowers?” I asked. It is a shared restroom for the whole floor in a nondescript, back-office type of building. My teacher generously regularly buys flowers not only for her studio but for the floor restroom, too. When she’s gone from the studio, other teachers typically neglect to change the water in the vases, or even to discard the withered fallen petals. How can they not notice? My teacher smiled good-naturedly; people are people; you either notice or you don’t.
A person’s fundamental nature is revealed at the extremes. How do they cope with crises? And how do they behave in the background, when they’re not subject to criticism or commendation?
It’s relatively easy to be a decent teacher (or person, for that matter) under expected circumstances, in expected ways. But does that decency crumble when things go awry or when there’s no payoff? That’s why it’s important to watch, long and hard, before making judgments about people.