Do you have students or clients?

This past weekend, I had the chance to unexpectedly connect with a good friend and fellow teacher of mine. I’ll call him Brian, because that’s his name. Brian is a passionate and dedicated yogi who is always up for a meaningful conversation about any aspect of yoga.

So, Brian and I are having one of our long, meandering discussions, and at some point, he starts talking about how, as a yoga teacher, he doesn’t have clients. He has students.

This kind of blew my mind.

If we’ve known each other for a while, you know how strongly I believe in the power of language. I think words matter. A lot. Language is the way we communicate with ourselves: they don’t call it the voice inside your head for nothing. Language is also a powerful way to communicate with others and to describe the world around us.

When Brian mentioned the distinction between students and clients, the difference between the two became totally clear to me. Lit up in big neon letters clear.

A student is someone who shows up expecting to learn.

A client is someone who shows up expecting a particular result.

Starting to see the difference?

Let’s take an example. In addition to running Edge of the Mat, I also own a copywriting business. The people I work with are most definitely clients.

Why? Because they hire me to complete particular services, like writing books, proofreading dissertations, or creating blog posts. My role is to create the content, to finish the project, to complete the task. I’m not there to teach my clients, for example, how to write a blog post of their own. That’s just not how that relationship works.

Now let’s look at teaching yoga. Do yoga teachers have students or do they have clients?

What I see in the yoga world right now is that many, many teachers are looking for the next best thing they can do to stand out and get noticed. Maybe that’s teaching a specialized style, creating clever playlists, developing innovative sequencing, or something else. The underlying thought driving much of this effort is, “I need to figure out what people want and then give it to them.”

But does the yoga practice always give people what they want? It’s a question worth asking. Sometimes the practice is uncomfortable, even wildly so. Yoga asks us to look at our patterns, our habitual behaviors, the way we respond to the world around us. And it also asks us to make changes if what we see doesn’t serve us. IMO, that’s more what people need than what they want.

As a teacher, you have something to impart on your students. In a classroom setting, the teacher sets the curriculum, not the students. The students will influence the course of the conversation, sure. Likewise, the teacher needs to be flexible with the curriculum when necessary. But the point of a teacher/student relationship is that the teacher knows something the student doesn’t yet know or hasn’t yet understood.

What if, instead of approaching people you worked with as clients, you approached them as students? I think what’s likely to come up is a sense of insecurity. Taking the seat of a teacher is a big deal. It’s a courageous act to get up in front of another person and proclaim, “I have something to share with you.”

Where we find the courage is not in our egos, but in the practice itself. You teach yoga because something about it has worked for you. Maybe you got relief from chronic pain. Maybe you learned to love your body. Maybe you battled depression, became a better friend, or were able to wake up without your mind racing each morning. That’s the place you teach from, that’s where you find the confidence to hold space as a teacher.

You’ve got a message to share with the world. It’s time to let it out.