the perfection of the imperfect teacher: q&a with jennifer louden & michele lisenbury christensen

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You’ve finished your yoga teacher training. You’ve started teaching a few weekly classes. You’re committed to your practice. If you’re lucky, you have an inspiring mentor. But many aspiring yoga teachers, after finishing their YTT, are left to fend for themselves. After putting so much energy into learning the technical aspects of communicating yoga, the teaching part may be overlooked.

Jennifer Louden and Michele Lisenbury Christensen have years of experience teaching in non-traditional settings. They have learned the hard way how to breathe inspiration and a spirit of service into teaching in any environment. They have also created a unique online course, Teach Now, which is about how to teach with more ease and joy. They talked to me about ideas of perfection and imperfection, and how to teach yoga (or anything) with a beginner’s mind.

Why do we expect our teachers to be perfect?

Jen: I don’t know if we expect our teachers to be perfect as much as we expect them to be a better version of ourselves, otherwise known as projecting our own goodness and possibility onto our teachers. That’s actually a good thing because as teachers, we can use those projections to help people (and ourselves) learn.

There are myriad ways to do that – falling over when demonstrating a pose, demonstrating poses that are challenging, sharing your own past missteps.  The aim is to use your own experience – not to beat yourself up or to make it about you – to serve your students while gently piercing the idea you – or your life – is perfect.

Michele: The mind will use even yoga itself to further its own aims! Our minds want to use our teachers as evidence that worldly perfection is possible and, at the same time, it wants to disprove our teacher’s efforts, and support our counter-thesis that the pursuit of equanimity is hopeless.

Students will have projections. They’ll paint you as perfect and then possibly try and tear you down – your role is to be aware if you are encouraging your students to think you are perfect, and gently stop yourself.  And also to point out to your students their own power projected onto you so they can claim their own brilliance.

How do we reconcile with our imperfections?  

Jen: Attain enlightenment? Baring that, savor more yoga, enjoy more self-study, love yourself and others through your practice. Find good teachers. Let go more of who you think you need to be.

Michele:  The simple act of looking straight at what we’re vaguely labeling “my imperfections” can be enlightening.  Write a list:  “My Imperfections.”  As you do, you may well see that some of them are your gifts as a teacher.  They may make you a perfect fit for the students whom you can best serve.  Some may be sources of the pain that has taught you compassion for your student’s suffering.  Some may be habits (as my teachers Denise Benitez and Rainey have taught me) that are simply inauspicious that you do want to change, like being late for class or using too many words.

This is one the exercises we do in Teach Now – we call it closing the gap between who you want to be and who you think you are.

What does it mean to be imperfect (and vulnerable) in front of our students?

Michele:  Great distinction!  We are always imperfect in front of our students. Like criminals who leave clues, we’re all always striving to “get caught” and truly be seen as we are: real, flawed, and fabulous. Don’t think you’re hiding your flaws from your students.  They see them.  That is the good news!  It means we can relax and stop trying to hide.

To be openly vulnerable, that takes skill.  It’s easy to confuse being vulnerable with seeking to get your needs met by your students.  Bringing problems to your students can hijack their attention and the agenda of the class.

Jen: The key distinction is to ask “Does this serve my students?” and “Have I processed what I am about to share; enough to know the lesson in it?”   Sharing for the sake of our own needs or when we are deep in fresh suffering is when we get into trouble.  I once lead my annual writing retreat while my husband was in the hospital for cancer and we didn’t know what kind or how bad it was. I did not share any of this until the end of the week when we knew he was going to be fine. I wasn’t ready and it didn’t have a place in their learning.

Michele: If you’re suffering in a way that prevents you from being present to others (the way I was right after I lost a baby at 13 weeks), you may want to step out of the teacher role temporarily. Or it may be appropriate to give students just enough information so they know why your presence feels different, and to let them know you’re getting the support you need and you’re still available to them as their teacher.  Either way, your attention is focused on getting your needs met and ensuring that your needs don’t distort your relationships with your students.

In your experience, what have you learned from your imperfections? When have you been most perfectly imperfect?

Jen:  What have I learned from my imperfections? Only everything worth learning. My desire to be something other than I am blocked me from experiencing life as it is, which is tragically sad. It’s very simple when you get right down to it: you either live in the future when you will finally be – fill in the blank – or in the past, when you wish you had been – fill in the blank  – or you drop your idea of perfection and imperfection and engage with life.

One of my favorite stories about teaching is one of an older man who was losing his memory. He showed up to teach his usual meditation class, got on the cushion in front of the class, and could not remember one word. His years of teaching – all those phrases and knowledge – gone. He looked down in shame and then, naturally given his years of training, began to label his experience out loud, as you label thoughts in meditation. “Blushing… can’t find the words… so embarrassed… no words…” He continued in this for some time, his head down. When he chanced to look up, his students were watching him with complete attention, and many of them were crying. Afterward, they shared that this was one of the best meditation instructions they had ever experienced. When we show up as we are, we are of service. Period.

For me, the most imperfectly perfect I have been is when I drop trying to be smart or to make something happen, and show up and respond, moment-by-moment.  It’s so far from perfect and it’s so, so much better.

Michele:  I am a yoga teacher, and when I was actively teaching, I was also overweight. I felt quite self-conscious that I didn’t “look like a yoga teacher.”  Then I saw that many of my students were at ease by my “imperfect” curvy body.  If I could teach with extra weight, maybe their padding or inflexibility or inexperience didn’t have to prevent them from practicing.

I practice challenging poses, but I teach more simply.  I used to feel “less-than” as a yoga teacher for not teaching “more advanced” classes (I put that in quotes, because I know that more complicated poses aren’t necessarily more advanced, of course). Then Marianne Elliott, a yoga teacher who’s also one of our Teach Now graduates, taught me through modeling her way of teaching, that these sweet, simple classes can be very deep. I no longer apologize (inwardly or otherwise) for the simplicity of my classes.

So once you’re trained, certified, teaching in a studio – then what? What makes a master instructor different?

Jen: A willingness to continually be a student. One of my favorite Master Teacher interviews in Teach Now is with Zen teacher Cheri Huber, where she talks about being a student-teacher. Let the love of what you do pull you ever toward beginner mind.

Practice what you teach – live your yoga. Engage with what you love about yoga before every class – and during!

Experience of course, especially with lots of different students. My teaching curve was slow because I didn’t teach enough in the beginning – teach a lot!  Also, seek out different populations and situations.

Cultivate empathy for yourself and your students. Self-mercy. Staying on your own side.

Adjusting your own state when you find yourself tired or bitchy. Taking care of yourself financially and spiritually so you are resourced to teach.

Be who you are. Show up as you.

Michele: My mat and my cushion are where I learned to work through my self-loathing and be present in my own body without feeling like I was being tortured.  For years, really, after I started practicing in 1998, I had a love-hate relationship with yoga.  It brought me nose-to-nose with myself and that is what makes a master teacher, in time.   With every pose, I had to face myself, and my uber-harsh critical inner voice.

But I had glimpses of the freedom and splendor that ARE yoga.  Those glimpses were so compelling, they kept me going, like the annual rainstorm in an otherwise parched desert. Through that practice, I learned to witness the mean voice – the way I can see my sunglasses if I push them down my nose.  The pain of that self-brutality and the grace of that self-awareness form the bedrock of my teaching.  That give me compassion for all the self-generated suffering I see in my clients and students.  That gave me road-tested tools for helping find my way through to a place where I could be with pain, yet not generate unnecessary suffering.  That self-connection helps make for a master teacher, I believe.

Thanks for asking us to talk about what we are so passionate about – teaching and yoga. We are so grateful to be in this conversation.

Jennifer Louden and Michele Lisenbury Christensen have taught since their 20’s, everything from yoga to writing, and they’ve created a transformational program called Teach Now that delivers information, insight and Master Teacher interviews with teachers like Natalie Goldberg, Sharon Salzberg, Mark Nepo, and many more. Get a taste of the program via their first free class on September 21st. Register here and get lots of other goodies to help you Teach Now.

  1. thanks for having us over to your wonderful house to talk about imperfect teaching — very honored!

  2. Perfect. (Thank you.)

  3. Too funny that I clicked on this link TODAY
    I am just about to interview a comedian whom I hope to invite to a conference for medical personnel on: Achieving Perfection!
    It is awesome to read this, thank you for the candor and articulateness.

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