Why Failure is Necessary

Today, I’m telling you a story of a moment of deep failure. I failed as a teacher. I failed as a yogi. I failed hard. And it was this failure that made me want to do and be better.

When I was a young teacher, I’m talking one of my first ten classes as a yoga teacher, I failed. I remember it vividly.  I was teaching a 5:45pm class on a Friday night in Midtown.  The class was packed.  The people who offered me this class as part of my permanent schedule believed in me big time.  Fresh out of training, I felt so excited to share all of the things I learned. I led the class through a fun, dynamic, athletic sequence focused on, you guessed it, heart opening and strengthening. I felt so comfortable teaching. My playlist was elevating the sequence the way I had hoped. My cues felt clear; every person was doing the things I asked. There were some giggles at my weird humor that I sometimes inject into class. It felt like a good class.

At the end of the practice, everyone was rolling up their mats and as per my normal goodbye, I ended class encouraging student to talk to me if they had questions or needed support in their bodies, minds, or hearts. A young woman, probably slightly older than myself, came up to me.  She ask me about backbends and shoulder mobility and all of the physical things about the body that I knew like the back of my hand. We talked for a few minutes about heart opening in a support way.  And then she said, “What can you do for a broken heart?”

My mind, my heart, my whole self, froze.

I honestly had no idea how to answer this question.  I felt ill-prepared to support someone I hardly knew in the middle of big emotional turmoil. I mean, what would anyone say?  We all know what it feels like when your heart is ripped out of your chest and shatters into a million pieces.  It’s an overwhelming sadness that invades every corner of consciousness. Sometimes, at it’s most devastating, it invades the subconscious.

There was a hurt person standing opposite me, looking for an answer. I felt like I had to offer a solution.  So I tried.  I said lean into those supported heart openers and then take some time to go inward with child’s pose.  I hear that answer and it feels so cold, so clinical, so far away from what I would answer now. She was vulnerable and trusted me and I let her down. She never came back.

That moment taught me a lot about what it means to be a teacher and how I want to show up for the people who come to practice. In my moment of failure, I truly understood the thing I was doing with these people in space. Leading them through a dope sequence with awesome music is great.  Most people will enjoy that.  But as a teacher I have a greater responsibility. This practice has been passed down for generations and now finally science is starting to back up the anecdotal claims of the practice.  It doesn’t matter if it is my intention to change people’s energy. It will happen. The body stores trauma and memories and adversity. It is irresponsible and a complete denial of the tradition of the practice and the science of modern day to ignore the psychological effects of the practice on the community. In a very real way, as a teacher I have a duty not just to the physical but to the emotional and energetic. The reason why the practice is so powerful is because the physical is often the key to unlocking the memories and feelings stored in our bodies. As teachers we call the reason or lesson behind the practice the dharma. In fact, most of the things labeled “wellness” on this blog are the dharma that I use in class.

I look at that moment of big failure as a one of my biggest teachers.  I led this group of humans through a practice and was responsible for their bodies but I didn’t take on the innate responsibility as a yoga teacher of their hearts. So I failed. And that failure made me want to do better. I researched and read and learned and continued to explore both psychological and yogic texts so that the groups of people I would encounter for the rest of my life were taken care of in a way that I didn’t take care of this woman. It took me this catastrophic failure to realize the ways that I need to be better. Years later, I can say that I took the lesson to heart. During some of my final classes at the studio I previously worked at, many of my students said they felt like they were losing their therapist (not quite one yet but soon I will be, thank you NYU). I don’t think they know how much those words meant to me. I am a teacher and so I will take care of your physical body. It is my job. But the often overlooked part of the job is taking care of people’s hearts. Had I never failed, I’m not sure I would have realized the how important the second part of my job is.

Failure. It’s hard to swallow. If we never did anything wrong though, how would we learn?  Failure is a normal part of life.  Not all of life is sunshine and rainbows.  There are challenges and stressors and mistakes and hurt feelings and shortcomings.  Denying those things only sets us up for crippling disappointment. Failure is all about how we frame it.  Of course, it can be the thing that deters us from a path. It can be the thing that makes us give up on our dreams and turn to something safe so as to not encounter the difficulty of failing. Or, failure can be the greatest teacher we have. It can show us ways to be better teachers, better partners, better humans.  I’m voting for being better.