Learning to Fail

a brick wall with hanging yoga mats.

Image by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay

For nearly all of my adult life, when someone has asked me what I do for a living, my answer has been some form of “teacher.” Mostly, this has come down to some form of “English teacher” or “writing teacher.” But for a little while, in the not-too-distant-past, I could also tell people I was a yoga teacher.

Mindfulness pedagogy is having a moment: there is more literature than the constraints of a blog post will permit me to cite. Jared Featherstone and Paul Gamache, to give just two examples, have both written effectively of their use of mindfulness in the writing center, ten years apart. In Yoga Minds, Writing Bodies: Conteplative Writing Pedagogy, Christy I. Wenger has written of her study and use of yoga in conjunction with writing instruction: a text that I found incredibly moving as I finished my yoga teacher training program and applied to my Ph.D. program. Megan Fulwiler has written about the connections she sees between practicing yoga and teaching writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Karen Costa has written about teaching more broadly for Inside Higher Ed.

A lot of what I find in this literature resonates with me. Studying and teaching yoga have had a profound effect on my teaching and my consulting in writing—even on my own writing life. I think Fulwiler sums this up most succinctly: “My experiences on the yoga mat have helped me understand what my students face when they write: I fall all the time in yoga, but what’s important is the attempt itself and the ability to continually begin again.” Practicing and teaching yoga helped me to concretize that process, as well, and to remind students—and myself—that the goal is not perfection, not the perfect pose or paper, that there is no perfect pose or paper, but on the process. There are similarities here with the literature on failure, and on the necessity of teaching our students how to fail.

Yet, what I miss, in this literature, is the most profound experience that teaching yoga has given to me: not just teaching students how to fail as writers, but teaching me how to fail as a teacher.

I signed up for RYT-200 teacher training course from the studio where I learned to practice yoga at the urging of my teacher, not primarily because I wanted to make a career as a yoga teacher, but because I’ve been a student almost all my life and a teacher almost all my adult life. I felt like this was the best framework for me to keep learning. I still believe that that is true. Yet, by the time I finished my training I’d already been asked to begin subbing and teaching at a studio. I was honored, of course. And I was excited to see what that experience would bring, and what I would learn in the process. I wanted to help people experience some of the relief from pain, and even more, some of the connection with my own body that I had found through yoga.

All the same, I was also a little afraid. I knew that 200 hours of training was not really that much time. And I knew that people would be coming to my classes seeking relief from all kinds of things—things they experienced in their bodies that I did not experience in mine. I wasn’t sure I would know enough to help. And even more importantly: I knew that, in a yoga class, there is always a risk that a student will get hurt—hurt seriously—rather than helped. Compounding all of this, the popularity of yoga as an extreme form of exercise meant that many of the students who came to my class with previous yoga-studio experience had developed risky or even dangerous habits of moving their bodies. From the moment I began teaching, I was nearly overwhelmed with the fear of injuries in my class: developing injuries that I might not know how to prevent, immediate injuries that I might cause, strategies and techniques for preventing injuries that I might not know how to deliver.

And this is where I think of the Writing Center. We have a long history of being classified as a place for remediation. It’s an image that the field has alternately (and simultaneously) embraced and resisted. But one practical effect of this reputation is that some students come to us seeking relief.  I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to call the way many students feel about writing “pain,” or to consider their past experiences with writing in school “injuries.” And they may not pull their hamstrings or wrench their spines during our consultations, but the danger of doing harm in them—through exacerbating old injuries, inflicting new ones, or failing to provide strategies that might prevent injury—is still real. Those dangers are just as real as the possibilities for hope and connection students can find to writing, and that we can facilitate.

For me, the fear that comes along with that responsibility is important to experience. But it is not a sufficient response, as a teacher, or as a consultant. The story of my yoga teaching career has not, at the time of this writing, had a “happy ending,” yet (if endings exist in learning, which is debatable). I knew, standing in front of a room of students, that I needed more education in body mechanics and structure. Above all, I needed to learn how to trust my own knowledge and judgment, but I also needed to build that knowledge base in order to do so. I began studying with two Iyengar-trained teachers, myself, and as a consequence my teaching began to change. My classes became “slower.” More focused on alignment. They became safer and more challenging, but less aerobic. They also became less in-tune with the studio where I was then working. We parted ways, I moved to Texas and started graduate school, and I have not taught a yoga class since.

But when I think about consulting, and about our tutor/consultant preparation process, I think about my experiences in the studio world. We, and our consultants, are going to be faced with these same kinds of fears and same kinds of choices. We have an opportunity, in our centers, to offer consultants what I was not offered and had to seek out, myself: continued mentorship and training on how to confront and work through these fears and risks. We also have the opportunity and mandate to facilitate consultants growing and changing in their consulting practice, to become safer, more mindful, and more attuned to student needs. We have the opportunity to help our consultants, as well as the students who come to us, to develop resiliency with the idea of failing in the moment, and learning from it.

Works Cited

Costa, Karen. “Off the Mat and Into the World.” Inside Higher Ed, 25 March 2016, https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2016/03/25/teaching-yoga-provided-lessons-classroom-essay. Accessed 28 Nov. 2018. 

Featherstone, Jared. “Mindfulness Meditation and Service Learning: Complementary Ways of Knowing.” Re-Envisioning Higher Education: Embodied Paths to Wisdom and Social Transformation. Information Age Publishing, 2013, pp. 299-315.

Fulwiler, Megan. “On Yoga and Teaching Writing: What Faculty Members Could Learn from Yoga Instructors.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 6 Oct. 2014, https://www.chronicle.com/article/On-YogaTeaching-Writing/149237. Accessed 28 Nov. 2018.

Gamache, Paul. Zen and the Art of the Writing Tutorial. The Writing Lab Newsletter, vol. 28, no. 2, 2003, pp. 1-5. https://wlnjournal.org/archives/v28/28.2.pdf. Accessed 28 Nov. 2018

Wenger, Christy I. Yoga Minds, Writing Bodies: Contemplative Writing Pedagogy. Parlor Press, 2015.