Teaching yoga isn’t always the paradise experience we imagine when we meet our first yoga teacher.
To teach means to expose ourselves exactly as we are, which sometimes means that teaching is boring, maddening, exhausting, humiliating…even downright miserable.
As a former traveling yoga teacher and current studio owner, I’ve experienced all of this and more. I’ve come home from classes feeling so down in the dumps that I’ve questioned if it wouldn’t be a more worthwhile use of my time to just sit down at an office job answering emails all day because at least then I’d have a 401K.
But I’ve also experienced my teaching as a mirror that reflects back to me my own patterns of psychological suffering, and if I’m wise enough to look, the resolution lies within.
I’ve been cultivating the following list as a guide to help me command confidence as a teacher, keep me out of teaching ruts, and most of all, enjoy my yoga classes no matter what. Every moment of suffering contains the blueprint to joy, and this is what I’ve found so far:
1) Love the Haters
My job as a yoga teacher is to love every student no matter what, which can sometimes be quite challenging as I open myself to the opinions of each student passing through my class.
In the past, I’ve struggled with the question: how can I love a student who doesn’t love me back? It’s actually quite easy: instead of observing their experience through the lens of judgment and interpretation, I started opening myself to looking at their experience from their point of view.
This has become very important in my teaching, because it allows me to see what they’re actually going through, which is often quite different from what I think they’re going through. After all, I have no concept of what this student is bringing into class with them. Some students may be dealing with a physical limitation that prevents them from doing the current yoga pose, while others may be experiencing an emotional or mental distraction that I can speak to, either by giving them a different pose, breathing assignment, or just a loving touch.
Dismissing my point of view has allowed me the freedom to not care what the student is thinking about me (which is usually nothing anyway), and to offer my insights of the practice evenly from the most advanced student to the most beginning student; the happiest student to the most pissed off student.
This hasn’t always been easy for me. On the contrary, my childhood sensitivities gave way to a deep-seated adult pattern of taking things personally, turning my reactions into mirrors of whatever I interpreted other people to be thinking or feeling: if you don’t like me, then I don’t like you. If you think I’m stupid, then I think you’re stupid.
And so on, and so on, and so on!
Somewhere in year three of teaching yoga, this habit became totally unsustainable, as I underwent a whiplash of emotion leaping from studio to studio, student to student, anxiety rumbling in my tummy over someone who didn’t like my class. At some point I realized that the thoughts in my student’s heads are absolute junk (as are the thoughts in my head), and that thoughts cannot be reasoned with. I will never be able to convince someone to like me if they don’t like me, but I can watch them breathe and move and offer them an insight that might make their yoga practice more comfortable or challenging.
And paradoxically, this is often what students love the most about my classes. It’s like Sri Mooji says—“you have to die before you die”: when I stop caring about whether or not people like my class, people like my class.
2) Check for Understanding
One of the things that has improved my teaching the most is watching for understanding in my students.
It begins with knowing what I’m trying to have my students understand. Why am I putting them in this pose? What do I want them to experience? When I’m clear with myself about this, then I can watch to see if I’ve been understood by students the way I had imagined.
This has made my teaching more creative (and authentic!), as I am able to study from my own teaching rather than somebody else’s. When I see the degree of success to which I’ve been understood, I can assess my options for next time, and there are plenty.
For example, if students are dropping out of half moon grabbing at their lower backs, maybe it’s a sequencing issue. If students are fidgeting through their standing external hip series (warrior 2, extended side angle, triangle, etc), maybe they need a mid-practice resting posture to re-calibrate. If they are losing integration in a new peak pose, maybe I need to break up the instruction and the execution with a demonstration, so students aren’t confused by listening and doing at the same time. If a student is revealing uncomfortable personal information about their health history in front of the entire class, perhaps I can give the group an assignment and attend privately to the student. If students are squirming during our opening meditation, perhaps they just need a reminder that the pace of class will pick up and that their legs will soon be burning (or as my partner and best student, Oli, puts it: “there will be cake, but right now it’s time to eat your vegetables”).
Every class is an opportunity to observe the effectiveness of my teaching. And next time, it’s just trial and error, just like every-time before. When I strike gold, I put it in my arsenal for another use; and when I strike hollow rock, I give myself permission to try something different. In this way, I attune myself to celebration and forgiveness: celebrate the gold and forgive the rest, which is something that benefits me outside of the yoga room as well.
3) Find Your Homework
I love homework. Yeah, I’m that freak, and always have been. Doing homework keeps my teaching informed and active, and what’s more, I don’t have to do a lot of it. A few hours a week helps me immensely to close my gaps of knowledge and continue to offer my students enriching and well-informed practices.
Homework is presented pretty easily if I’m open to receiving it, and it comes in the form of the thought, “I don’t know.” Anytime I think this to myself before, during or after a yoga class, I note it as something to come back to in my free time.
If I’m paying attention, the thought, “I don’t know,” shows up all over the place. Sometimes it’s in reference to a student speaking about their injury or illness. Sometimes it comes when a student is working on handstands in the Sun Salutations and I’m unsure how to offer them assistance. Sometimes the thought arises when a student is talking to me about their confusion with breathing and I simply don’t know how to respond in this social environment.
Whenever the “I don’t know,” shows up, that’s where my homework is. And while I’ve been known to shell out hundreds of dollars on books and trainings, the dollar-less solution is always one Google search away. I’m never looking for anything concrete—after all, I must be careful about how much credit I give my information sources—I’m only looking for something that makes sense and something that I can test in my own experience.
Yesterday, a student mentioned, “I don’t know how you keep track of all the information in your head. It seems like there is so much of it!” The paradox is that the more homework I do, the less I have to remember. Wisdom always reveals itself to be totally connected, rather than millions of bits of separate information memorized by rote.
If I can become a trusted resource for my students, then I can offer them something that they can’t buy anywhere else—informed friendship. This is truly one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching yoga.
I use these simple steps to evaluate myself as a teacher because they keep my self-observations honest, and when I am able to see my internal landscape clearly, I open myself to finding more love, happiness and peace.
As the late, great Wayne Dyer posted on the day before his death, “Why when you squeeze an orange does orange juice come out? Let’s assume that this orange isn’t an orange, but it’s you. And someone squeezes you, puts pressure on you, says something you don’t like, offends you. And out of you comes anger, hatred, bitterness, fear. Why? The answer…is because that’s what’s inside.”
Teaching yoga will squeeze stuff out of you—that’s for sure. But it’s up to us whether the juice is bitter or sweet.
We end every yoga class with, “Namaste,” which is a sentiment that recognizes that we are our own best teachers. The teaching we need the most is the teaching of living joyfully.
Now it’s time to do it.
Author: Brentan Schellenbach
Editor: Renée Picard
Image: thecosmopolitan at Flickr