July 23, 2014

Teaching to an Empty Room.


Krishna Das’ “Baba Hanuman” plays softly in the background. You have turned the lights, music and fan to their optimal levels. The door is open, the sign-in sheet blank and expectant.

You unroll your mat, set a clock down within sight, and sit. 15 minutes to class time. You wait. Five minutes. Still waiting. Then, show time.

You look around at the room. It is blank and expectant like the sign-in sheet.

You will be teaching to an empty room today. Maybe you won’t really teach. Maybe you will do your own practice, or you will lock up and go home. At some point in your yoga teaching career, however—especially at the beginning; especially if you are starting a new class; especially if you live in a small town where there is lower demand for yoga—you will face the expectant stare of a blank sign-up sheet and bare wood floors.

Recently, I began a Monday evening Vinyasa Flow class at a busy studio in Middlebury, Vermont.

Week one of this new class, nobody came.

Week two, nobody came. Week three, two friends walked in the door and shook up the trend. Week four, nobody.

Then, slowly, things started to pick up. Two students arrived for class on week five. Then three the next week, then six. The class is beginning to look promising.

But right now, I am not writing about success. I am writing about the slow and tedious journey that sometimes leads to it. Teaching yoga is demanding work, but nothing, in my experience, is more challenging than teaching to an empty room.

Many studios do not pay a flat rate to their teachers. How much you make is directly proportional to how many students come to class. The empty room is costly, as well as demoralizing.

That first week, I practiced alone once it became clear that no students would come. The second week, I went home. I had started new classes before and knew to expect this. It takes time for people to add something to their schedule, or to form a new habit. By week five, however, I was losing confidence. The sound of the door opening that evening jostled me out of my growing pessimism. People were coming in!

Even knowing what I knew, I found that blank sign-in sheet to be threatening.

I started to feel that I was wasting my time, walking to the studio only to walk back, unlocking the door only to lock it, unrolling my mat only to roll it up again.

But in hindsight, I don’t think it was a waste of time.

Committing to walk to the studio, unlock the door, and unroll my mat regardless of what followed was, in and of itself, a practice. Waiting was a practice. Being disappointed when no one walked through the door was a practice.

Through these weeks of fruitless preparation, I practiced dedication, patience and humility—difficult things for me. In the end, I don’t think there was anything fruitless about it.

If there is a lesson to be found here, it is this:

Yoga teachers, don’t despair of teaching to an empty room.

It will fill up eventually, but it is in the waiting, maybe, that you will learn the most. Embrace the bare wood floors. Smile at the blank sign-in sheet. Let them humble you. Learn patience and optimism from them. They practice equanimity with a skill that I would be thrilled to possess. I am (trying to) learn from frustration, and I am sharing this in the hopes that it might resonate with someone else.


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Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Author’s Own

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