How teaching yoga taught me to embrace criticism.
More than anything else, teaching yoga has taught me one simple, powerful lesson:
A few weeks ago, I headed to a yoga studio to fill in for a fellow teacher. I turned on the music, kicked up the heat, glanced through my notes for the flow I planned to teach, and welcomed students as they checked in to class.
Class itself went well. Most yoga teachers know that most classes are fine, in the sense that they're good, solid, no problems, nothing fancy. Some feel particularly lovely; others feel like they could have been better, but the majority are just good. I used a favorite playlist , the sequencing worked and seemed accessible to all in the room, we laughed a few times and seemed to have fun together.
Then as folks sauntered out as class concluded, a woman paused at the door, turned to me, and said, "That was the worst class I've ever been to."
Confused, I paused and cocked my head.
"What?" I said.
"Terrible class," she continued.
I quickly thought about my impressions of her during class. She seemed late middle-aged, and not super flexible. I noticed that she opted out of several postures and didn't close her eyes or seem to relax during our final resting pose. But . . . there's no way she hated it, right? She couldn't have.
She stood in the doorway, as other students squeezed past her, staring me straight in the eyes.
"I'm sorry to hear that," I replied. "Did you have a question about class today? Every class is a little bit different, so if my teaching style didn't work for you, you could certainly check out a different instructor. . . "
I trailed off as her eyes bore into me.
"No, it's not that. I come here all the time," she answered. "But this was just an absolutely terrible class. Horrible."
Me, mentally: Hey, screw you, lady. Thanks for being so RUDE.
Me, out loud: "Again, I'm sorry you feel that way and had a negative experience."
She shook her head. "Me too, because it was a complete waste of my time."
I retold that story about 10 times, feeling more and more vindicated with each telling. What an awful, old woman! Friends exclaimed. I know! I replied.
I kept adding lines about how I "didn't really care," and it "didn't matter" and "the problem was her" and so on.
Except . . . I obviously cared. I couldn't shut up about it, about my poor victimization from this random lady when I was clearly trying to just GIVE HER THE GIFT OF YOGA.
Then I shared the story with one of my best friends, and she said, "Hmm. Well that was rude, but haven't you ever been to a class you hated before?"
I immediately felt defensive, and dived into the fact that okay, yes, maybe I have, but I would NEVER treat someone poorly like that and besides, I've never been to an absolutely, terrible, horrible class, and my class was NOT. TERRIBLE. It was a good class! I had great music! I made jokes! I gave excellent cues! I offered modifications and adjustments! It was safe and the flow was simple and I did everything right and she should have liked it.
Ahhh . . . "she should have liked it."
You see, most students don't actually offer up feedback after class. Sometimes people will say that they appreciated working on a certain pose, or comment on the temperature, or ask about a song choice, but most people walk out with a quick glance or a hello and you never really know what their experience was like.
Not this woman. She spoke her truth, which was that she did not, at all, like me or the class I taught. Specifically.
And that stung. Because I wanted to be liked.
In my year and half of teaching yoga, I've learned several lessons, such as
- be flexible with your plans for class
- speak louder than you think you need to
- buy more workout clothes so you're not always doing laundry
But the most important lesson arrived during teacher training, before I even set foot in a studio room on my own.
One of the leaders of my training was an outspoken man covered in tattoos, hair pulled back in a classic man-bun, who inspired straight-up fear within me. I did not like him. He called people out constantly. He had no time for excuses. He stared you straight in the eye and didn't smile as he asked tough questions about motivations and ego. Teaching in front of him made me so nervous about messing up that I literally, physically dreaded it.
And he would say over and over throughout training: You will not always be liked.
I did not like hearing that. I mean, I knew theoretically that fact was true, but in terms of yoga, I wanted to be like my beloved instructors! I wanted to be the cool teacher students raced to talk to after class, with great music and an uplifting message and a confident attitude and a not-trying-hard-but-still-matching outfit.
I mean, I didn't really care what other people thought. I would just be super good at teaching. Perfect, even. For my future students, of course.
This particular teacher went on to say:
I remember thinking, well, sure, of course not everyone is going to LOVE your class, dude, but I get what you're saying.
But secretly, unconsciously, I also thought Except everyone will like ME, because I am special, I am different . . .
It turns out, this always wanting to be liked, this striving for perfection, is my biggest, most self-destructive habit. And I am not unique in this desire. Literally every single person I know struggles with this tendency.
You see, even though I know that I don't need to be liked, even though I know that I love myself and am loved by many others, even though I know that this wanting to be liked brings me more confusion and pain than any other habit, even though I know that I'm only human and I will make mistakes . . . I still fall prey to the lie of people-pleasing perfection.
Remembering that this is, in fact, a lie, is a daily process. I have to constantly, actively work against it.
Because guess what? Though I adore and respect my friends who literally do not care what others think of them, I am not built that way. I do care.
I feel so tender about approval and rejection, as much as I try to pretend like that isn't true.
I think we all feel this way, actually. We worry about being liked or not liked; we get caught up in pleasing others. For a long time, criticism paralyzed me -- but through the practice of teaching yoga, I managed to figure out how to embrace it in a healthier way.
It sure as hell didn't happen overnight.
I ended up auditioning three different times for a teaching spot at the studio I loved. Every time, the feedback was the same: you're not ready yet, work harder and come back. It sucked to feel like I wasn't good enough, when so many of my peers were added to the teaching schedule. But it forced me to decide: how much did I want this opportunity? Enough to keep going? The answer was yes.
Then I participated in an advanced level training, basically an opportunity to practice teaching more complicated flows. The same instructor was there, and just as before, he provided direct feedback and criticism to our small group. One day, while trying to teach a half moon sequence, he called me out for everything: talking with my hands, pacing, missed cues, missed theming opportunities, etc. At the end, I burst into tears, embarrassed and overwhelmed and mostly feeling stupid and attacked. I went home and told everyone that this guy was so mean to me.
Except . . . It really wasn't about him at all. He bluntly pointed out areas of improvement. I took it very personally. Why? Because I wanted to be liked and I wanted to be perfect.
Slowly, teaching helped me let go of that desire. The more I taught yoga, the more I realized that every class could not be perfect. It was impossible. The more I tried to be perfect, the more I stumbled over my words and confused students with the poses. But the more I embraced the fact that yes, I would mess up, I might say the wrong thing, I might make a small mistake -- the more authenticity I experienced.
I started to feel confident about the fact that I was doing my best. I knew I could teach a safe, logical class. That mattered most, and the rest . . . well, students could take it or leave it.
If you worry about being liked or not liked, if you feel caught up in pleasing others from time to time, remember this:
Being liked doesn't matter; liking yourself does.
The more time I spend fretting about approval, the less time I spend being creative and working toward my dreams, priorities and goals in life.
The quicker I dive into the lie of being liked, the deeper I fall into despair and anxiety.
The times when I get caught up in pretense are usually the times when I'm not living in according to my own values and truths.
When I remember that, oh hey, I do actually like who I am -- a person who strives and tries and cries and ultimately means well -- then I discover a stronger ability to be brave, to get things done, to tackle new challenges.
I can like myself as a yoga teacher and still be open to feedback and growth. I can like myself as a writer and still recognize that I have a lot of work to do. I can like myself as a friend, a partner, a sister, while knowing that sometimes I really suck at calling people back or struggle with speaking my truth. And if along the way, others are disappointed . . . they'll live. Because I really am doing my best. I'm bound to fail, but I'm a lovely work in progress. I'm human.
Just like you.
This past week, it happened again -- though not to the same extreme. I taught a class and as people exited, some exclaimed how it was the "best" class ever. Then another man walked out with annoyance on his face and sweat dripping down and gave me an "ugh" look. Maybe he hated it; maybe he didn't.
The point is, it didn't really matter. I let it go. Who knows what was going on his life, what he brought to his mat that day. That's his work to do; not mine.
What I've learned is that once I let go the desire to be liked, even just for a SECOND, it stops mattering. And once I stop living in the loop of a lie that says I require approval of all to be worthy, my life begins to feel much more fulfilling.
Because life is actually pretty boring when everybody likes you.
So here it is, your permission slip to -- gasp! -- not be liked. You can stop worrying about it, right here and now. You don't have to be liked. You are lovable even when people don't like you. All that time and energy that you used to devote to being liked can be put to better use.
And that, my friends, is a blessing.