The Gift of Saying Goodbye to Your Students

Photo credit: Yixuan Liu

As a yoga instructor, I’ve recently discovered that many teachers often miss an opportunity to say goodbye to students. Be it an unconscious dismissal, or avoidance of unforeseen circumstances that impacts our work, honoring this relationship is our responsibility. Here are a few tips to offer an easeful transition, and more importantly why preparing both yourself and your students for this shift is the ultimate practice in skillful action.

So why is it important to acknowledge the big move? In a word—attachment. We develop strong relationships with figures to whom we feel a safe and trusting relationship with, and especially with those we’ve developed a solid relationship with. As attachment figures, we are largely nurturing and attentive, attuning to the physiological and more subtle unseen energies in the practice room. As teachers, we enter an arena of language through the felt connections between people. Long term relationships that include the development of consistent, honest, and clear communication offer a ground from which we can open.

When a teacher no longer serves as a point of reference in one’s practice, by means of abrupt change, or unprocessed and unanticipated circumstance, it can be destabilizing. When teaching children, this is especially important, as their sensitivity to attachment figures are often heightened. Subbing-out classes, long periods away, or ending teaching terms are perfect situations to explore a meaningful goodbye. These gaps in a relationship can offer students strength, which can deepen their practice in a way that gently explores space, rather than an abrupt ending, which may unintentionally leave a triggering response.

We’ve all had something or someone in our lives with whom we’ve had an unsatisfying goodbye. Perhaps as teachers it is we ourselves who feel as though we are abandoning our students, somehow wishing to lighten the situation by minimizing this very potent time. Life is full of unresolve and unconscious process. Yet, the practice of Yoga can be an opportunity to explore this potent and transitional time.

5 Tips to Help You and Your Students Let Go:

1) Give good notice. When possible, give as much notice as you can. This will help students process and pose an opportunity to ask questions. It will also help YOU as an instructor let go, with the confidence of knowing you have offered a space that’s inviting, accommodating, and honest. In case you are wondering about a time frame, your wisdom will tell you. I will just share that when ending a long term relationship, 2 weeks is not enough.

2) Use themes on transitions. Begin to incorporate thematic elements such as “transitions between poses” or “the dissolve of the breath.” Encourage students to feel the gaps within actions. Embodying the psychic elements of physical transitions, and exploring moments between the breath can be an impactful way to yoke the processes of an exit with exploring new space. I enjoy teaching poses like setubandha sarvangasana (bridge pose), urdvadanurasana (upward facing bow pose), hunamanasana (named after Hanuman’s leap!), weaving playful and heartfelt themes throughout the class.

Remember you are co-creating with your students an empowering and dynamic relationship. This does not end when you stop teaching their yoga class. Our relationships are ever-present.

3) Be transparent. Share with students how much you’ve learned from teaching and the joy and meaning you have felt. Give examples. Be fearless in sharing your tender heart and confident that both you and your students can handle your vulnerability. This will invite an open space for them to feel their own emotions as well. Feel strong in your ability to touch on your experience while at the same time holding the space with an open heart.

4) Give thanks. Either with a gesture, words, or even consider offering thanks with a transitional object. I often give my students friendship bracelets, made of a simple colored single strand. In many Yoga traditions, the relationship between a teacher and student is acknowledged by an offering of an object. Any object or piece of art can serve as a reminder of this sacred relationship, even a card with inspiring words. I’ve found that a small gesture also helps me to give away any sense of worry. A final offering of a formal and embodied object offers  closure, as it seals our relationship. In group classes, you may wish to create a collaborative poem, an art piece such as a collage, or a bracelet utilizing strands of cord that represent each student.

In addition to thanking the students, I give thanks to the lineage of teachers, to offer context to what has been transmitted, and so that the students, if inspired, can research or inquire about any traditions I’ve studied. I feel grateful that I can refer students to other sources. Depending on where you teach, this isn’t always possible, but as a teacher in a living tradition, this will honor our lineage of yogis and both you and your students will feel that sense of honor.

5) Be the bridge. Whenever possible, find a well-matched person to take over your class, state their name, and your relationship to them. If you have faith in the instructor, reassure your students they are in good hands. If you were not part of the process of finding the new instructor, let your students know that. However, remind them to keep an open mind.

In the last 9 years of teaching, I have given and received so much, so often–it’s difficult for me to tell which is which anymore. Acknowledging service, the relationships created between you and your students, the facilitation of community, and ameliorating the relationships people have with themselves deserves recognition. Over the years, I have learned endless lessons through my own mistakes of missed opportunities, and I now take the responsibility and opportunity to address relationships as a practice. I’ve witnessed too often when bureaucracy has gotten the best of grace, or where ignorance or our inability to relate has left a karmic imprint. 

As yogins, the ones who “yoke,” our greatest offering is the power to join the mind and body within the space of creativity. Embodying these energies and is our gift. And we move through these arenas with full awareness.

Of course, our final goodbye is found in savasana, and our actions with each other rest in this space. May it be easeful, playful, and clear.