“To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”
I’ve arrived at a point in my life where I actually crave criticism.
Now, before you go telling me you don’t like my new haircut or think my Kale Caesar Salad is under-seasoned, I should elaborate that I don’t like criticism from just anyone. I like *constructive* criticism from people I respect and trust. And I’m not saying it’s always easy to swallow. It’s not. But if you’re lucky enough to have teachers in your life who practice and teach with integrity, why shy away from an opportunity for growth – even if the criticism ends up revealing to you how much you still don’t know and how much work is yet to be done? (Perhaps because it reveals to you how much you still don’t know and how much work is yet to be done.)
Joyce and I just returned from a weekend at Menla Mountain Retreat Center for the final weekend of the Yoga Shanti Teacher Training, where we are both mentors. At Menla, each teacher trainee teaches a class to Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman Yee (the leaders of the training) as well as all of the mentors and other trainees. Following their classes, students are given a critique.
This year, I requested an assignment for myself. I rarely get to receive feedback from my teachers and thought it would be a good opportunity for me to get up in front of my peers, teach a sequence and get some constructive criticism.
When it was my turn, I taught my class (a sequence on flying in ardha chandrasana and being ‘on the bones’). Before Menla, I’d practiced the sequence multiple times and taught it to a number of my students and fellow teachers. I’d read everything Rodney had published on ardha chandrasana in his book, Moving Towards Balance. I did the Gaiam Yoga Club sequence on ardha chandrasana at least a dozen times and tried to embody all of Rodney and Colleen’s instructions. I faithfully rolled out my mat and did the pose over and over again trying to discover my own thoughts on the architecture of half moon. I consulted with fellow yoga teachers whom I admire. I’d given so much thought to my alignment cues.
I was prepared. I was well-practiced. I was rehearsed… And I thought the whole thing went pretty darn well.
… and then I got my critique.
Here’s a nugget of wisdom for you: whenever you think you’ve finally “got” something – when you think you’ve really nailed it – chances are, you’re missing the mark…
In my critique, Rodney and Colleen shone a spotlight on my blind spots. Some of their feedback was immensely positive. Some of it wasn’t. Now, let’s be honest here. It’s uncomfortable to listen to others discuss your “areas that need improvement.” It’s difficult not to get defensive. It takes guts to open yourself up to criticism, but if you can stomach it, the process can be illuminating and even transformational.
But before you get to the whole “transcendent” part of criticism, you’ll likely first encounter some resistance and frustration. I sure did. I often feel in this whole yoga game, that the second I grasp one thing, I quickly realize how much farther I still have to go. It’s maddening! The moment I make any sort of progress in my practice or teaching, a whole new dimension of what I don’t know is revealed. I suddenly question everything I thought I knew.
When confronted by all we still need to learn, it’s easy to get discouraged, but (and here’s where I think the real ‘growth’ occurred for me) I couldn’t help but think: what if I choose to be inspired by all I still need to learn instead of feeling overwhelmed and down on myself? Isn’t that the whole point of constructive criticism? To get re-inspired and reinvigorated so you can stop doing the same old thing and evolve as a teacher, as a student, as a human being?
As I’ve sat with the events of the past weekend, I realized I’ve spent a lot of my life avoiding criticism by trying to “nail” everything. I’m really good at figuring out an assignment, preparing my butt off and getting it “right,” but what if in the process I’m becoming too polished, too prepared, too rehearsed? What can I learn from being messier and more open to improvisation? What would happen if I was less attached to my memorized instruction and more in my body? Could being too prepared build a wall between me and my students as my class unfolds in the present moment?
I don’t know. I didn’t used to think so. I love the interplay between teacher and student. I thought preparedness was a way for me to better serve the students in my class. Now I’m reconsidering everything. It’s a lot to digest!
Hopefully the critique I received at Menla will help me break out of patterns that aren’t serving me so I can be as authentic and present as possible both in and out of the yoga studio.
What’s clear is that I still have much to learn and a long way to go. What’s exciting is that I’m not discouraged – I actually feel pretty encouraged. And to put yourself out there and open yourself up to criticism takes courage. I’m proud of myself and all of the students and teachers who got up at Menla, bravely taught their classes and then (even more bravely) sat and absorbed their critiques.
We don’t want to say nothing, do nothing, and be nothing. If we want to grow, we need to put ourselves out there. And when we put ourselves out there, criticism is unavoidable.