Kill them with kindness was a favorite phrase of my mother’s yet my father was a rageaholic and getting angry comes easily to me. I also have the ability to cut someone down with a few choice words. It is a talent that I’m not proud of but used to employ regularly.
As a yoga student I was once embarrassed by a yoga teacher in front of one hundred students because I couldn’t demonstrate something that he wanted me to. I have watched other extremely successful teachers belittle students for reasons that only they could know. Three years ago I witnessed my daughter come home from her pre-k in tears with what at best could be called an abstract finger painting, because the teachers assistance told her “we don’t do scribble scrabble here”. She was four.
As a younger man I was a waiter for fifteen years and I have a vivid memory of the last time I was very hurtful to someone. Working in the executive dining room of a major law firm in the financial district one of my coworkers wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. And I was mean to him for no reason other than I could be. One day he asked me to stop, telling me that it didn’t feel good. Simple as that. It was one of many watershed moments in life where I realized that I had choices to make, and they didn’t have to be mean ones.
Iyengar yoga teachers have a reputation for being mean and I have witnessed this first hand. I never studied with BKS Iyengar but he had a reputation for tough love and many of the early Iyengar teachers that studied with him saw fit to bring similar energy into their classrooms. I never understood it.
In a class I took this morning, the teacher read a quote from the Buddha or the Dalai Lama or someone like that, and I paraphrase: “you have the opportunity to live a life of peace.”
I have two little kids and I work really hard, and sometimes unsuccessfully, to not yell at them or make them feel bad. It strikes me that this is worth the effort with my kids and my yoga students as well. There is a concept in yoga, Ahimsa, which means do no harm. Maybe some teachers think that being mean does no harm and in fact wakes people up. That seems a strange choice, as a yoga teacher especially, but everyone has many choices to make on their path.
But who is it that likes a mean teacher? Because lord knows the ones I have experienced are often very popular. My family lives in an apartment building and we live next door to a father who yells at his crying child a lot and it is powerful to hear. Is that boy growing up in an angry household going to reject that anger as an adult or will he be drawn to authority figures that reflect the father that yelled at him?
I think it is the responsibility of a yoga teacher, and all teachers for that matter to teach from an undeterred place of kindness as a gift to their students and the world.