Yoga – Teaching With Compassion

The mind will strive to create in the body exactly what it believes to be true. As self-help author Earl Nightingale puts it, “You become what you think about.” At age ten, my daughter came back from school one day and said, “My teacher told me again that I am not good at math. If she keeps telling me that, how will I ever become good at math?” My daughter apparently feels the power of the mind more clearly than her teacher does. In Milton’s immortal words, “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

Years ago, a student of mine was plagued with chronic pain in her spine that would not go away no matter what I did. She even studied with Iyengar for ten years and could not get any relief. After 25 years of pain, she finally decided to go to a doctor. After a slew of tests, the doctor told her she had lung cancer, and that it had metastasized to her bones and spread throughout her spine. She had been given two months to live. I tried very hard to convince my student not to submit to the doctor’s death sentence. After all, she had had the same pain for more than two decades. Unfortunately, it was too late. She had lost hope by surrendering all her power to the doctor. Two months to the day of her diagnosis, she was dead. This example highlights the way that, as teachers, we must use our profound influence wisely and choose every word carefully. Careless words may destroy a life, whereas thoughtful words create the power to blossom.

This approach is not about hiding the truth. We must tell our students the truth that we see. However, we should avoid an inflexible attitude that says, “This is the truth and I must tell it no matter what the cost!” We must tell the truth in a way that serves the student by always reminding them of their power to cause positive change. We must balance ahimsa with satya: non-harming with truthfulness.

The language of transformation is the language of compassion. What transforms our students is not a barrage of fiery words intended to burn down their egos, but the flame of love, warmth, and care. If we have a student who is stubborn and self-important, we can’t help her by beating on her ego, for the ego, in defense, builds a hard shell around itself and becomes inaccessible. The way to transform the ego is with compassion and warmth, so the ego removes its outer coat and allows itself to be available for change.

We probably all know teachers who diminish their students because it makes them feel more masterful and aggrandizes their egos. These teachers can be our models of how not to teach. As teachers, we can ask ourselves, “Do I want to appear to be great, or do I want to help my students grow? Do I want to be the star, or do I want to create stars? Do I want to impose my pose on the student, or do I want to help my students go inside and discover their own postures? Am I serving my student or my ego?” We can’t serve both.

The art of guiding others is about knowing how to help them harness the power of their own minds and enabling them to overcome their resistance to transformation. In time, they will become attuned to inner guidance rather than being scattered and misled by external references and comparisons. We can help our students use the power of their minds to destroy or build, stagnate or transform, bury or rise, imprison or set free. Evolution is only possible with freedom.

© Aadil Palkhivala 2008

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