Your Body, Your Teacher
by Don Stapleton
Don Stapleton is the Dean of Yoga Education at Kripalu and the author of Self-Awakening Yoga: The Expansion of Consciousness Through the Body’s Own Wisdom. Drawing on 30 years of experience designing and directing professional-level yoga teacher training courses, in this article Don shares his unique gift for inspiring self-awareness, transformation, and deep understanding of the path of yoga.
Many people who do not intend to teach yoga do venture their way into a teacher training course, primarily because it offers an immersion experience in yoga. For any number of good reasons, most yoga practitioners simply do not consider the possibility of developing themselves as yoga teachers. For those who do consider it, one of the biggest internal conversations about whether or not to teach centers on the perceived discomfort of being in front of a group, feeling that they don’t "know" enough or won’t be able to express what they do know. Ironically, the confidence, ease, and knowledge of the yoga teachers we study with, admire, and hold as our role models can make our own budding dreams of teaching even more unimaginable. And yet, many of the people who come to a teacher training course intending to just soak up the yoga and skip the teaching end up graduating as shining examples of enthusiasm for teaching yoga. With respect and gratitude, I call these my "miracle people."
Journeying to the Source
How does this miraculous transformation happen? I believe it happens when we witness and experience the phenomenon of self-love that arises through an immersion in yoga. Somewhere along the way, we start to realize that although an external teacher may inspire us to experiment with an array of yoga methods, it is we ourselves who must digest what we are learning to make it our own, especially if it is going to make any authentic and transformational difference in our lives.
The self-awakening that occurs through yoga practice unfolds from our own personal journey into the source of self-love. There are no shortcuts for nurturing the movement toward wholeness other than drinking from the well of self-love. Self-love radiates from the inside out as inspiration, kindness, lightheartedness, faith, sensitivity, truthfulness, humility, and every other quality that has the transformational power to kindle an enthusiasm for life. Embodying these qualities is what inspires others to make their journey to the source within.
Developing Inner Authority
Prior to learning to love ourselves through yoga, much of our bodily learning has occurred under pressure to achieve some kind of predetermined or competitive goal. With idealized body images internalized at both conscious and unconscious levels, gyms, fitness studios, and health clinics can reinforce self-images that shape the way we feel about ourselves by judging the way we look to others. "Belly in, chest out! Drop your shoulders! Do this. Don’t do that." Many of the authoritarian directives used in body-centered learning situations have become internalized in the voices we use to speak to ourselves.
Although few of us would say that we enjoy having someone telling us what to do, we are actually more than willing to give over our authority to a coach, teacher, or DVD in the hopes that what is presented will help us improve in some way. Thus, even yoga can be used to reinforce reliance on external authority and to separate you from receiving wisdom directly through your body. Seeking and taking in external guidance and teaching is certainly a natural and valid stage in the learning process. Eventually, however, it is essential to bring the locus of authority back inside your own world as a reality check: Is what I’m hearing true for me? Does this work for me? What is missing here? What is my experience?
Experience Is the Teacher
It is precisely the experiential nature of yoga that reflects back to you the essential truth that you are the source of your own learning. Simply stated, experiential learning invites one’s actual experience to be the teacher. Experiential learning occurs as you listen to the inner voice of your own body, guided by the wisdom that comes from within. When the deeper experiences and understanding of yoga emerge from practice, it becomes obvious that everything we need to know is already inside of us.
And yet it is still so easy to get hijacked into the external systems and details of yoga and forget the fact that one’s own experience is the ultimate teacher. As I write in my book: "The value of following a teacher or structured set of practices is to receive inspiration, confidence, and courage to make the inner journey." In making a gradual transition of withdrawing authority from the external teacher or prescribed yoga practice to the internal teacher, we are learning to discriminate between consciousness and the techniques of a practice. As consciousness unfolds, the techniques we have used naturally become less important and recede into the background.
Honoring Your Individual Journey
These principles form the underlying basis for yoga teacher training courses I offer at Kripalu and Nosara Yoga Institute. Founded in simple, time-tested, reliable, and "user-friendly" methods for generating relaxed learning, the emphasis is intentionally placed on developing value for the journey of each individual. Developing greater awareness through the practice of unconditional positive regard, accurate empathy, and authenticity allows for communication with clarity, truthfulness, and compassion. Practices that cultivate witness consciousness and nonjudgmental self-awareness pave the way for releasing yourself (and your students) from unrealistic expectations and allow an authentic experience and expression of yoga.
The essential preparation required for being an experiential teacher—a teacher who encourages his or her students to draw from their own experience—is to be a dedicated learner and hold the intention of learning from your own life experience as it unfolds. As you deepen your own self-trust, it is natural to begin trusting in your students’ capacity to learn from their own experience. The depth of your own self-acceptance encourages your students to listen to the voice of their inner wisdom as the source of authority from the very beginning of their practice. Of course, you will likely continue to seek out teachings and experiences from others, a valuable and rewarding way to experiment with new ideas and approaches. But these encounters will simply add to our bag of tools and techniques, not replace personal inquiry and knowledge.
I invite all students who enter the doorway of a yoga class to consider taking a yoga teacher training as the ultimate opportunity to becoming the best teacher they can be—for themselves. This is because in an immersion training, as you begin to draw from your own experiences, you notice and get interested in the way that you best learn and what works for you. You also nourish the desire to deepen your personal yoga practice—and yoga teachers universally report that the primary source for deepening their own practice is when they share their enthusiasm and passion for yoga with others. Should you go on to teach, you will do so from the depths of your own evolving yoga practice, ensuring that you remain grounded in the experience of ever-deepening self-love.
Even if you never choose to take a yoga teacher training course, I encourage you to draw on the principles shared here in developing yourself as the single best source of your own yoga learning and teaching. We are each our own best teacher.
Don Stapleton, PhD, has taught yoga worldwide since 1976 and was a resident teacher and director at Kripalu Center for 19 years. His extensive training includes Kripalu, Iyengar, Ashtanga, Siddha Samadhi, and Oki Do styles of yoga. He lives with his wife and son in Costa Rica, where he is cofounder and codirector of the Nosara Yoga Institute and the director of Interdisciplinary Yoga Teacher Training.
© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in March 2006 issue of Kripalu Online. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.