My favorite yoga instructor was absent from class a few weeks ago. Another instructor too his place, a calm, quiet guy who never introduced himself, never came over to do a personal adjustment, and could well have been conducting this instruction over video for all he interacted with the class.
After class, I went to lunch with that friend. We chewed over the differences between the regular instructor and this new guy. The regular instructor talks a lot throughout class, mentioning the history of a particular pose or how he adapts poses to fit his own needs. He’ll come over to each student and ask permission to place his hands on them to help align their body better or place block in a certain spot. One by one, he talks to us in quiet tones, encouraging our efforts and telling us to listen to our bodies. Our class varies from three to ten people each week, and he always makes time for some personal connection.
My friend noticed that the substitute didn’t even mention the words “breathe” or “breath” once in the whole 90 minute class. If you’ve done any yoga, you know how often that word is used. It’s a lot.
I was surprised to find out later that the replacement teacher was actually the person who started this yoga studio a decade ago. The way he behaved seemed more like he was new to this studio and was being cautious with his interactions, unsure of his place. And maybe he has just cultivated such a deep peace that he didn’t feel the need to reach out to the class.
Whatever the case, I did not find his demeanor inviting.
Our regular teacher bridges the gap between strangers because of his imperfect presentation. When he talks about how yoga calms his mind, you can see the restless energy moving through his body. The lifelong battle with addiction and homelessness he shares openly shows in his weathered face and worn clothing.
It is this willingness to be vulnerable that is so compelling. The older I get, the more moved I am by vulnerability. As a complete novice to yoga, I feel exposed in most classes, like I’m under a neon sign that reads “She has no idea what she’s doing!” Meeting a teacher who gently guides all comers through this complex and varied practice has made me want to come back week after week. Being in the presence of someone who understands how to reach through that anxiety made inexperienced, “wrong-size-for-yoga” me feel welcome.
It took me a long time to understand the difference between vulnerability and weakness. A person who makes a decision to share their imperfections, to open themselves intentionally to the possibility of failure and ridicule is taking a true risk. That takes courage.
My older piano students are a perfect example of what I find so compelling. Every single one of almost 40 students has decided in late adulthood to admit there is something they have always wanted to learn, and set aside time every week to get together with other adults and play the piano imperfectly.
And they do so in front of other people — each other — and a trained professional musician purely for the purpose of learning something that’s meaningful to them. They have no other purpose for being there except doing something they find fun and rewarding.
What’s on the other end of the spectrum from opening yourself to possible embarrassment?
Not even trying.
Whether the substitute yoga instructor/studio owner is good at his job is irrelevant. My friend and I have both decided to stick with the original instructor, and seek out his classes outside our regular meeting. Each class, I learn something different about his history, and am tacitly invited to go a little deeper into my reasons for being there. I can relax knowing that everyone, including the instructor, is still learning, still moving toward our own levels of competence.
It is, after all, my progress that matters to me, another truth I have learned to embrace and try to impart in teaching piano. Comparisons are odious, as John Lydgate said in 1440, and yet here we are 500+ years later struggling to understand our own ongoing personal development in a world of pressed and shined and boring perfection.
I’ll take the burden and gift of vulnerability over the falsehood of implied flawlessness — because perfection will never be reached, not completely. Humanity doesn’t work that way. We are all flawed. It’s what keeps us together, our common sense of imperfection. I’d rather open myself in honesty to other humans than cling to the imperviousness of striving for perfection.