Yesterday I tweeted a bit about my terrible yoga experience. Here is the letter I wrote to the yoga studio. It helped. It reflects my thoughts on empathy and teaching.
Dear Yoga XXX,
I’m writing to tell you of my experience yesterday night at your studio. I guess the reasons are twofold: 1) I think I need to for my own catharsis and 2) I truly hope that it will help your yoga instructors to understand just how words can affect people. I’ve been helped by putting myself in someone else’s shoes, and, while I don’t pretend this letter to be entirely altruistic, it’s coming from a good place.
I’m going through a particularly stressful time in my life (it’s not important what it is, but it is one of the most difficult periods of my life). My friend recommended Yoga XXX because I am really looking for a mind/body connection and hoping to bring some focus into my life if even for the hour that I can center on me. I had done yoga briefly in the past and had enjoyed it.
I admittedly didn’t start off great because I ran into the studio five minutes late. I had never been there, and I got lost, even with GPS on my phone my sense of direction is horrid (and taking care of three kids on my own and getting them settled before attending a XXX class was just a big task on this particular day; I don’t mean this to be an excuse, just an explanation).
I was determined to do some “self care,” and there was no turning back for me. In my heart and soul I needed to begin at that moment otherwise I feared that I would keep delaying my own care and keep neglecting myself. Have you ever had one of those moments where you just felt compelled to move forward with something because that is what you needed for yourself in that instant? Yes, this is what was going on in my head.
I entered the studio and XXXX asked me if I was joining that class. I said, “yes.” She replied, “just be aware that you are late.” It wasn’t the words alone, but the tone, and the way it was done in front of the class to publicly scold. (Oh, I knew I was five minutes late. I had been anxiously trying to find the location only minutes before. Not only did my mind already know it but my tense and stressed body knew it too.). She directed me to the cubicle area with her finger and told me to take off my shoes. I went, and do you know what I did? I cried. My eyes filled with tears, and I watched my face in the mirror as my emotions drained out of it. The weight of the stress in my life and the place where I was seeking to alleviate some of it, to find some refuge, just deflating in huge disappointment in those seconds. But, still, I was determined to stay. I was going to get through that class because I needed to for me at that very moment. (Maybe I should have just walked out because no one deserves to feel that they are being abused when they come to learn. I’m still struggling with the idea of whether I chose to stay because I was embarrassed to leave or because I truly needed to stay for me…maybe both…things aren’t that quite neat.)
I joined the group. Everyone seemed to know each other, and I was getting an inkling that it wasn’t a “beginner” class like stated on the schedule. But, that was okay, I was going to give it my all, and learn what I could. Well, what happened about half way through the class really shook me up once more. I listened and observed a pose being taught, but there was apparently one thing that I forgot (recall, it’s my first experience at yoga in many, many years). I did the pose as best I could, and XXXX came over to help me (I did appreciate that). However, I forgot what to do with my hands. I laid them flat instead of open and up. She said to me, “you really need to work on your listening skills.” Yes, she said that to me in front of the whole class. And the tone was not one of patience, kindness, or respect. My eyes welled up once again, but I held it in. I felt abused in that moment, but I was going to stay. Here I was, a grown woman, feeling like I was two years old. Once again, the place where I was looking for a mind/body centeredness and stress relief turned into another stressful event to pack onto the chaos of my life. She did go around and help people with their poses, and in that sense, she was attentive. She has students in her classes, so they must get something from the experience. And maybe they respond to her sharply telling them, “none of you are listening to me; I’m just talking to myself.” Maybe they don’t know that there is a better way. And maybe some respond well to that given what is in their own personal histories. I don’t know. I will just speak for me and my experience as a teacher…
I choose to take something positive from this experience, and so in that sense it can help me and maybe XXXX too. First, I am a college professor, and in my many years as a teacher, I have learned much about the relationship between student and teacher. One of the most important things I have learned is empathy. As a teacher you never know what is going on in the lives of your students, and I have learned over the years, through the struggles of my students, that giving someone the benefit of the doubt is truly an enriching thing for both parties. In order to do this, one has to have empathy, to be able to put oneself in someone else’s shoes and try to imagine what they may be going through. Empathy also involves kindness, patience, and respect. XXXX cannot possibly know what is going on in my life. I just walked through the door and into her class. But that is the beauty of giving the benefit of the doubt. One doesn’t know what is going on in other people’s lives, and so it is best to err on the side of a kind word. That is a path to opening up communication and empathy.
On my being late, what I would have done differently? I would have taken me aside at the end, asked me about myself, my experience with yoga and would have probably said, “You looked a bit frazzled walking in. I hope everything is okay. We need to start on time for your benefit and the class’s, so I hope I will see you here again, and that you can make it on time.” That would have meant so much to me. What is the point of humiliating someone in front of the class? It is not about teaching anyone a lesson. In my years of teaching I have learned that that is not about gaining respect for oneself in front of a group; it is, in fact, quite the opposite. Making someone feel small to feel large, in the end, hurts teacher and student(s). Here is an example from my own teaching: Just this semester a student missed her presentation. I gave her the benefit of the doubt that she wasn’t being lazy or disrespecting me, etc. The very first thought that popped into my head was, “I hope she is okay.” I voiced that first thought out loud to the whole class. Hopefully, I emulated for them the importance of giving the benefit of the doubt. I could have ranted on about being angry that she wasn’t there, and messing up the schedule, and so forth, but that didn’t really matter. She emailed me later in the day, and it had indeed been a very tough evening and morning for her, and I am just glad she was okay. Sure, I will have students who will lie, but I’d rather take control of my own thoughts and know that if they lie to me (and I think the majority won’t), it’s on them. They will experience the consequences of that in the long run, and I will reap the benefit of giving the benefit of the doubt and having empathy in my life.
On my having the “wrong” hand pose: This one really took me aback. Again, what was the point of humiliating me in front of the class? Does XXXX really know anything about my listening skills? No. She does not. Does she know about my state of stress and how it can affect my cognitive abilities? No. She does not. Do students learn best by humiliation or patience? I think you can probably know that intuitively without me listing the studies that show humiliation is not a positive mechanism for teaching. What motivates students?: patience, understanding, mutual respect, …all of those things that we might intuitively expect but don’t always put into practice (myself included, I have to make a conscious choice sometimes to remind myself that these things best serve my students, and me too). What would I have done differently? I’m sure that by this point whoever is reading this can come up with positive ways that my learning could have been enriched other than through putting me down.
I don’t know how this letter will be received, but I send this letter with only good intentions. Like I said, my goals are to provide a catharsis for myself, and more importantly, to communicate some things from my own experience as a teacher to let XXXX know how powerful words can be, both positively and negatively. I hope she can take something from this other than defensiveness because that is often the first response to feedback that isn’t glowing. I should know…I’ve experienced that feeling with end of the semester teacher evaluations.
I also choose to empathize. Maybe XXXX is going through a difficult time herself. The only thing I do know for sure is that her reactions to me actually had little to do with me. I hope that whatever it is, this letter can let her know that teachers have effects on people’s lives in ways that we may not know unless we are told, and that we can learn from these experiences. She has reinforced for me the importance of consciously being aware of having empathy for my students. I will take that silver lining. And if something is going on in her life that is affecting her negatively, I wish her full and rapid healing. Like I said, she has students in her class, so that also speaks positively to her skills. I don’t know if her words to me reflected a pattern or a bad day, but we all have our struggles, and hopefully we can learn from each other.
May we all work to make the world a better place by showing kindness each day. Thank you.