Autobiography of a Beginner Yoga Teacher
I walk into the studio and stroll to the front of the room.
People are looking at my clothes – am I showing too much skin? Or too little?
They’re looking at my body – do they think I’m “fit enough” to be teaching them? Are they judging my shapely thighs or my scrawny arms?
They look at my face – are my eyes bright and am I smiling big enough? Can they tell that I’ve had a stressful day?
I start to speak – clearly, calmly, and loud enough so the back of the room can hear me. “Everyone come up into a comfortable seat and start taking some deep, slow breaths.” Now that they know I’m American, are they judging my intelligence or my politics?
I take a moment to survey the class – do they look comfortable with some Om-ing? Open to getting into a more mindful practice or are they just here for exercise? How can I satisfy everyone?
Safety. I am responsible for this group’s safety and I’ve only just met them. And this isn’t just physical safety, it is all-encompassing. The person in front of me might be going through a divorce or dealing with a death in the family – I need to aware of what feelings I may elicit and prepared to manage things I may not understand first-hand.
I ask for people with injuries or conditions to raise their hands and go have a whispered conversation with each of them, while keeping the rest of the class breathing. I have one man with a total knee replacement, one pregnant woman, a woman with repetitive strain injury in her right wrist, a man with a disc injury, and a woman with vertigo.
What can’t they do? (More like what can they all do.)
I decide to take a couple of poses out completely and probe more specifically into which movements cause pain to understand a bit more. But I also tell them: “Listen to your body. Don’t worry what other people are doing – do what serves you.”
Knowing that I don’t have everyone’s health history, I tell the whole class to do what feels comfortable and not push through pain. (I always think of the horror story my teacher told of a man who snapped his hamstring in a very basic pose.)
All this and I haven’t even begun teaching yet! “Let’s get started!”
Yoga teachers are arguably some of the most judged people in our day-to-day lives. Deciding to be one sounds fun in theory, with printed spandex and unlimited flexibility, but the actual work is surprisingly challenging on multiple levels.
When I signed up for a year-long training, I thought it would be amazing to learn the philosophy and techniques, but didn’t think about all the implications I had attached to my teachers. They fill a space that is very unique – something different than a friend, less formal than a mentor, in some cases, with undertones of worship. I have found myself emulating my teachers, wondering how I could possibly compare. Needless to say, it isn’t the healthiest expectation to set for oneself.
Early in my training last year, I remember walking into the class of a teacher who was only a year into her teaching career. Someone came up to her asking how to manage a very specific health issue. The teacher handled it so well – coming out with all sorts of helpful information. I will never know how to do this, I thought to myself. My breath quickened and I found myself edging towards a panic attack. It felt impossible – and I seriously considered quitting.
I used to think of teaching yoga as creating a perfectly curated class – leading an effortless, perfectly sequenced, deep and meaningful flow while smiling, helping people with hands on adjustments, and holding the space for a peaceful and welcoming environment. Birds would perch upon my upturned feet as I held a one-handed handstand. It would be lovely.
That unrealistic expectation lived somewhere deep in my brain. And, as a chronic over-analyzer, I spent the first several months out of training in a state of constant, obsessive sequencing (in the shower, on the bus, in meditation, in my dreams). I thought I needed bells and whistles for people to enjoy my classes. But whenever I taught them, I wouldn’t feel quite right.
What I found out was that my concept of “teaching yoga” was all wrong. That perfect class I described comes from a performer, not a teacher. And my attachment to it came from my ego. My ability (or inability) to do fancy poses has no bearing on my ability to teach. And the reason I wanted to do the training came from another place – what the yogis call the Atman (or Divine Self). But to remember this, especially in the days of Instagram contortionism and inspirational quotes, is not easy. As a beginner just trying to find her way – it was confusing and overwhelming.
In order to become a good teacher, I first needed to answer the question: how do I define success? For me it isn’t really about the poses, but creating a space where people can feel into their bodies and stop judging themselves.
Then I needed to understand my students. What do they say they want? What do they really need? (Those are often two different things.) Each class would be different, as each person is different and each day is unique.
Next I had to get feedback. That could be visual, through body language, or verbally during or after class. I needed to be looking at the people in front of me rather than scared of them. It meant putting myself in the position to be criticized publically. It meant I needed to not jump to the defense, actually opening myself up to varying opinions.
This part was really hard.
I’d see emails from a private client telling my boss how the sessions have been going with small, but fair criticisms in them. I’d hold my breath and feel my hands get shaky. I felt judged personally.
And I’d take this self-involved criticism further: a few weeks ago, I came home from teaching and said to my partner, “I’m an idiot.” Mike smiled at me and asked why I said that. “Well, a guy from my class missed last week and I assumed it was because he didn’t like me. I had been taking it personally all week. But then today he came in and told me he was really sorry to miss the class, but that he had a big event on that night.”
“You are an idiot,” he laughed, always the practical one.
It seems odd that you have to develop a thick skin in a space that is seemingly sensitive, but it is a business in that way. And my product isn’t my personality – it’s my classes. Therefore, I’ve learned it is really important to distinguish the two. A criticism of my class does not have to be a criticism on my character.
I regrouped a few weeks ago – reminding myself what I was working towards and why. “Stop working at it,” Mike said. He reminded me that I know how to teach; that improvisation is my strength; that I have the instincts and ability to be able to read the room and plan accordingly. “Your head is getting in the way of what you already know.” He was right. It’s that damn ego again.
I decided to give it a shot and just let it happen with minimal questioning or obsessing. Since I stopped trying so hard, my classes have started to feel like my own. They’ve been pared down to the simplest, best quality, and most authentic practices I’ve taught yet. I don’t feel like a “yoga teacher” – I just feel like myself, while (hopefully) enabling people to be comfortably in their own skin.
Since I began teaching, the main hurdle was that I had to get over myself. My desire to learn needed to take precedent above my pride. And once it did, I forced myself to stop hiding – as I would be willingly putting everything out there for people to judge – my brain, body, and soul. So it may as well be authentically mine instead of me pretending to be someone else.
Since I changed my approach, I got a call from the teacher who trained me asking if I’d like to have a permanent class at his studio. All my bullshit came up again and I wanted to say “I’m not worthy,” but I said, “Yes definitely!”
This will be interesting…