When Your Friends Are Also Your Yoga Students
Lessons in Boundaries and Self-Acceptance
by Kaci Yoh
During my 200-hour yoga teacher training, the instructors were clear that new teachers should refrain from teaching yoga to their friends. They often voiced their concerns about the risks in connecting social life with work life—that we, as teachers, could alienate our friends with our newfound yogic wisdom, as well as bring less discipline to the classroom.
I appreciated their concerns. I live in a very small town, however, and it would almost be impossible for me to teach a class without some friends being in the room. I’ve inevitably, then, spent the last few years teaching friends and friends of friends—and I’ve had some remarkable experiences that have enriched and informed my students’ practice and my teaching prowess. Many teachers are hesitant to teach their friends, but the result can create a powerful sense of community both on and off the mat.
I learned to embrace my imperfections.
Teaching yoga to friends forces me to embrace my personal struggles with living the yogic lifestyle and have greater compassion for myself and my imperfections.
As a yogi, I often feel a cultural pressure to eat an ayurvedic diet comprised primarily of sattvic foods (foods that nourish and energize the body) like vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains. Nevertheless, I still sometimes meet friends at a BBQ or a happy hour, where I may eat potato chips with French onion dip and drink an IPA.
My friends/students have been with me when I’ve dropped the f-bomb. One afternoon we were driving down a gorgeous, winding canyon road that leads out of our mountain town, and the driver behind me passed me on a two-lane road—putting minimal space between their car, oncoming traffic, and my vehicle. It scared me, and I lost my cool. It embarrassed me that the same people to whom I say “namaste” at the end of every yoga class heard me curse. But to my surprise, my friends/students found the whole experience entertaining, and they now jokingly recall the moment they saw me lose my cool.
My friends/students were also present when I discovered that my dad had cancer. They witnessed my inability to practice non-attachment (and for a time, yoga in general). I struggled to take the time for self-care, because I felt that speaking with doctors and insurance companies had to take precedence. But my friends/students didn’t criticize or judge me for not prioritizing my practice—they simply waited on the sidelines with encouraging words and gestures. When I was again ready for yoga, they diligently rolled out their mats, and we picked up where we left off.
Because my friends attend my yoga classes, I realize that I can’t separate the teacher I am in the studio from the person I am outside of it. They are going to see me order a second glass of wine at dinner and occasionally eat more french fries than any one person should have in one sitting. In fact, their acceptance and appreciation of me as both their friend and their teacher helps me to embrace my imperfections both on and off the mat. In all of my seemingly “perfect” and “imperfect” moments, I have the opportunity to simply be human and authentic. What a gift.
Because my friends attend my yoga classes, I realize that I can’t separate the teacher I am in the studio from the person I am outside of it.
These not-so-yogic moments gave me an opportunity for personal growth. I was able to examine why I felt shame, and I worked through it. I observed my desire to run, and yet I stayed.
My students see my humanity, which puts us on something of an even playing field.
Because my students see my off-the-mat human moments, they don’t idealize me as some all-knowing guru. I can serve as a guide with asanas and the eight limbs, but I don’t have to worry about them glorifying me, which runs the risk of them externalizing their practice. It’s appropriate to respect and even admire your yoga teacher, but the larger purpose of yoga is creating a union between your body and your mind, and that is a very personal experience. During our time together outside of class, they see that I’m still working on myself, both physically and spiritually. Some of my students are physically stronger or more flexible than I am. I verbally cue them into more challenging postures, while acknowledging my own limitations. And sometimes my friends help me see the bigger picture as I sort through scared or jealous feelings. My students see me as a whole person who is working through challenges, and my hope is that it gives them the strength to use this practice as a tool in their toolbox to work through their own struggles.
I am better at creating appropriate boundaries.
Boundaries have always been tricky for me. If you ask me to do something for you right this minute, I have to resist the strong urge to drop everything and help you. But through yoga I’ve learned how to listen to my body, which has allowed me to discover the art of self-care. Now I’m better at knowing when I need to rest and restore—which sometimes means saying no to invitations or requests for help. And teaching yoga to friends has also taught me to create boundaries and stick to them. For example: I won’t create another weekly class simply because your schedule no longer allows you to come to my current offerings (even though we are friends). Nor will I offer you free classes (even though we are friends). And the most important rule of all: I will not discuss outside of class anything relating to class—unless you have feedback on my teaching style, or questions about your own personal practice. We will never talk about how so-and-so can nail an impressive posture, is physically attractive, or showed up late. My class is a safe container for students to explore their minds and bodies.
I’m far from perfect. But as a yoga teacher, I am creating a safe space for soulful sadhana (practice). Seeing my friends on and off the mat has surely spotlighted my shortcomings, while their support and acceptance has also strengthened my resolve to offer them (and myself) loving kindness.
If you’re considering teaching yoga to your friends, I’d recommend you do it. See what comes up. My guess is that, like me, you’ll experience yourself to be the student as well as the teacher.