Secure Your Own Mask Before Assisting Others

I was fascinated by the safety demonstrations before flights ever since I was a kid. Not the actual demonstration, but the ritual. I would pretend to follow along with the little cartoon safety manual in the seatback thing because not paying attention made me feel kind of guilty. Some of the attendants just seemed to be trying so hard, their eyes scanning the rows of bored travellers while everybody averts their eyes, reading magazines and newspapers.



So when I was on a plane recently I decided to give the safety demonstration my full attention. I sat upright and took out the cartoon safety guide to follow along. I even held eye contact with the flight attendant for a good 30 seconds or so. It got a little awkward there for a little while.


The flight attendant looked to be in his early thirties. He was impeccably groomed and seemed full of confidence. He pulled out the ‘sudden loss of cabin pressure’ mask with the bag that may not inflate when oxygen is flowing. And the flight attendant on the microphone said


secure your own mask before assisting others


I might have made an audible noise of some kind as I pondered over that statement. The Delta guy became a momentary Zen master. I’m pretty sure he was not a full time Zen master because later in the flight I saw him hitting on some girls in a really clumsy and self-conscious way. But he held that mask and demonstrated putting it on his face with such certainty and authority. It really got me thinking, but not about airplane safety.


Are yoga teachers assisting others before securing their own mask?


Securing your own mask is taking responsibility for your own safety. Not because you do not care about the lives of those around you, but because of how much you care about the lives of those around you. You intend on being alive and able to respond in some intelligent way. So you take care of yourself first.


In yoga this means healing yourself with yoga. Heal yourself before you start messing with anybody else. I’m not saying you have to be perfect. There is no perfect teacher. Adyashanti says “if you want a perfect teacher, pick a dead one.” So I am not saying you need to be perfected in yoga before you start to teach, only that you need to secure your own mask first.


There is no metric by which we can know how much healing is ideal to play the role of yoga teacher. But you must have been transformed to some extent or another by yoga. You should have experienced the transformative power of yoga in a number of different ways.


The healing can be physical, emotional, or whatever else in us that we need to feel more integrated and awake. Healing in one area of our life leads to more healing in another. There is no reason to prioritize or speculate that healing physically is more or less significant than healing emotionally.


David McAmmond posted a great piece called “Few people think more than two or three times a week.” You should read it. In the article he points out that hairdressers regularly receive over 1000 hours of training. That number stands in stark contrast to the 200 hour average for yoga teachers. It would seem that hairdressers take their education more seriously than yoga teachers.


There are plenty of yoga teachers around with well over 1000 hours of training. When you consider all the classes, workshops, and retreats it would not be unusual for a keen student to get 200 hours of yoga training in a year. Being in class twice a week and doing 4 workshops a year for four years would accumulate 800 hours. Then a 200-hour teacher training would produce teachers with 1000 hours of training.


That was not what happened to me. My story is, I suspect, not too different from many other young (ish) yoga teachers. I have been teaching for about 15 years, but I started teaching even before I finished my teacher training. I had a yoga practice for just over a year when I started my teacher training program.


Like most yoga teachers, I had a background that complimented yoga teaching nicely. I had a degree in Religious Studies and researched primarily in eastern religions and mysticism. I was also in a punk band that toured across the Canada, giving me an opportunity to get comfortable in front of a crowd. That background has helped me a great deal in building a career as a yoga teacher.


But hairdressers don’t get to count all the hours they practiced doing their hair, or their friend’s hair, or all the magazines and websites they have studied along the way before starting their career as a stylist. I may have started helping people with their masks before securing my own.


David once said that yoga teachers should recharge their batteries at least once a year. It is important that we get away, become students, learn new things, practice and re-think old things, and give ourselves a chance to grow in our practice. So that even if we did start help helping others before ‘securing our own mask’ it is not too late.


I looked over at the guy sitting beside me. He was playing Yahtzee on his phone and either didn’t notice me looking or did a good job of making it seem that way. Normally I can talk about this stuff with Sarah. But I was flying solo and Yahtzee guy seemed dedicated to not interacting with me. I spent the rest of the flight staring out the window thinking about air masks.


Zen master flight attendant had a blank-eyed smiled waiting for me as I exited the plane. I thanked him for his safety demonstration. He cocked his head slightly sideways like a confused puppy and squinted as though he might be able to see what I meant if he tried hard enough. I shrugged my shoulders and thanked him again.


We need to secure our own masks. We need to take responsibility for our own health and well-being. We cannot teach yoga effectively if we are struggling. But we cannot teach yoga genuinely if we have not struggled. This is putting on our mask. Having struggled through our challenges, having healed ourselves with our practice, we are now in a much better position to be able to help others.


And just like those safety demonstrations, learning it once is not enough. Safety demonstrations ensure that every new comer gets the same information, and every travel expert gets constant reminders.



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