Six Tips on How to Be the Best Yoga Teacher You Could Ever Be (and stay sane along the way).

Via on Jun 9, 2011

Some things they just don’t tell you in teacher training.

Being a yoga teacher is great, but behold: it’s not all rainbows and butterflies. Most lessons we have to find out the hard way. For instance, teaching yoga in Aruba is great but sometimes people show up to class with a Piña Colada in their hands. There is no way to prepare for this (but it inspired me to invent The 60-Minute Savasana, which has been very helpful). I wish I would have had some guidelines when I first started out, so fellow teachers—this is for you.

My six best tips on how to stay a balanced, healthy, loving yoga teacher:

1. There is such a thing as too much yoga.

I never knew this, but there is actually a limit to how many classes I can teach in one week without compromising my health. Yoga is great (amazing, even!) and we all know this —but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

I am not super human. I’m in great shape, yes. I’m young, I eat well. Yoga helps me build strength, flexibility and it calms my mind. But teaching 16 classes a week (and wind surfing, and going to pool aerobics, and playing beach tennis, and taking your friends power yoga classes) is not good for anyone! We all need time off, even as yoga teachers. Especially as yoga teachers. If I’m tired, it will show in class. If I have no energy to be creative, it will show in class. If I’m not happy, it will show in class (seriously, who is happy with no free time?). We know how important it is to take care of our bodies, but that also means allowing for time to rest. Make sure you have time to do what you love (apart from yoga), time to spend with your family and friends, and of course: time for a home practice. This brings us to point number two.

2. Keep a strong home practice

A dear teacher of mine once told me,

“For every hour you spend teaching, you need at least one hour on your mat alone. That means no classes, no DVDs, no books. Just you and your practice.”

I learned this the hard way. If you teach three or four or five times a week, this is a good rule of thumb. If you teach 16 hours a week, it turns into an impossible feat. Right now, I teach 10 classes, Monday-Friday. It’s a lot, and I make sure I have the weekend off to do anything I like (mainly, sleep in). During the week I find time to practice on my own before my morning classes and before I go to bed. Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes I’m tired, but I make sure I do it. It always, ten times out of ten, makes me feel better. You need a home practice to keep your strength, your sanity and your creativity flowing!

Contrary to many peoples beliefs (I’ve heard it too many times!); teaching a class is not the same as practicing yoga. Yes, I do reap some physical benefit from teaching, I do move and stretch and breathe, but it’s not the same as my home practice. With your awareness focused on your students, how can you ever tell what’s really up with your body? Plus, it’s at home where you evolve and can take your practice to the next level. And this takes us to point number three.

3. Don’t be a show-off

Hopefully you are not one of those teachers that always take their bodies to the limit in class (ever heard of “Look At Me Yoga?). Teaching is about your students, about imparting something to others and bringing out the light and possibility we all have inside. Feel out the level of your class, and work with it. The people here have come to learn about their bodies, not to look at yours! Even though you can wrap your arms around your feet two times over in Paschimottanasana, do you really need to show it in class? Do you need to teach an advanced pigeon, just because you just figured out yours? And does your Trikonasana look exactly the same in class as it does at home? To all questions, the answer is hopefully: no. At home, we can push ourselves if we feel like it and play with our boundaries. In class with our students, we don’t want to be playing with theirs. Seeing you go into impossible binds or taking a pose to a level much higher than theirs, your students might feel that:

A. They are not good enough. Which of course, they are. Each and every one of us is already perfect, just the way we are. Wherever that is. I think, this is what we should be teaching. That we all work with what we’ve got. And let’s face it: anyone would eventually be able to wrap their arms around their feet in Paschimottanasana if they practiced 16 hours a week. So stop thinking you’re special. Get out of your head and back on the mat.

B. Yoga is just for certain types of people. I hear this a lot; “I’m not flexible enough”, “I’m too old”, “I’m just not built that way”. This is not true. Anyone can practice yoga, at any age and with any body type. Yoga Journal covers, Lululemon ad’s and general media has created this idea that yoga is mainly practiced and “mastered” by thin, young and insanely flexible girls. If you happen to fall in this category (in which I think a “congratulations” is in order, that sounds like fun) it is extra important that you do not keep feeding this image. Your students need to know that you are just like them, with a body that feels the same aches and pains as their, ages like theirs, and has flaws just like theirs. When it comes down to it, we are all the same. Find this connectedness and teach from there. Save your show-off-asanas for when Yoga Journal comes knocking.

C. They need to do exactly the same thing you do. And believe me, they will try. Didn’t know that guy in the back had a ruptured disk? Oops. This brings us to point number four:

4. Love your students

Each time a student walks into my class I give a silent blessing. This individual actually got into their car, drove all the way over here and made a very conscious decision to roll their mat out to find out; “What is Rachel going to teach today?”

For this effort alone, they are worth the best of my time. They pay for this class. They take time out of their day. And they want so little in return: for me to, in the course of just 90 minutes, guide them into breath and body, stillness and movement. It still amazes me. So give your students the love they deserve! Talk to them, engage in their lives. Connect. And most importantly: find out where they are at in their bodies today, because each day is different. Connecting with your students means loving your students.

And I don’t mean loving from the ego because you should, but loving from the heart because you actually do.

The heart loves, that’s what it’s here for. Through this loving connectedness you will find out everything you need to know about how to teach this class. Knowing that guy in the back has a ruptured disk, you’ll stay away from those deep forward bends. Or better yet, show him variations on how to keep his back protected! Give him props (blocks are wonderful), and use your hands. A loving touch goes a long way. Do you have a woman in class going through a rough patch? Help her feel safe by grounding her feet with a blanket in Savasana. Even if a person shows up upset, reluctant and angry; do whatever you need to make these 90 minutes worth their effort. Give love, and you shall receive. It’s what makes your students come back, and what makes teaching yoga so rewarding! Let this be your inspiration, and take it to point number five:

5. Find what moves you

As with all things, sometimes our practice and our teaching flow easily. At other times, it simply does not. I teach in a huge pavilion right on the beach overlooking the Caribbean Sea (I’m spoiled, I know), so usually it’s not hard to find inspiration to move. But after getting the flu a few weeks back, it’s been hard for me to get creative in class again. I find that to stay inspired, we need to keep flowing towards wherever it is that life takes us. The strangest things will keep us motivated. So I recently took up kite surfing, something I never thought I would have the guts to do nor the ability to pull off. After a few lessons, lots of salt water up my nose (almost like using a neti pot, but more painful) and letting the fear of crashing my kite into other surfers/sail boats/paragliders nearly paralyze me at times – I did it. I stood up. More than stood up, I surfed! For real! I spent thirty minutes in complete bliss. No more fear, water spraying behind me, kite moving in perfect eights in the clear blue sky above. And then I went home, rolled out my mat and had a beautiful practice.

Don’t be afraid to try new things. If you’re lacking motivation, do something that scares you. Very cliché, but true.

Oh, and one last thing:

6. If you find yourself teaching yoga on a beach in the Caribbean, be very, very grateful.

About Rachel Brathen

Rachel is a yogi on a world tour. Born and raised in Sweden, she currently resides in the beautiful island of Aruba where she is busy teaching yoga at a resort in the mornings, coordinating retreats at noon, taking her three somewhat crazy dogs to the beach to keep up with the surf in the afternoon and trying to survive as a vegan (where no vegetables grow!) in the evenings. She firmly believes that life is not black or white – it’s black and white and blue and yellow with rays of pink and sparkle in between. You can teach yoga and still be a party animal. Meditate and ignore your spending problems. Be vegan and eat too much chocolate. Have a Swedish passport and live in the Caribbean. You can do anything, as long as it’s you! You can find Rachel on the beach, probably practicing her Astavakrasana, or on facebook.com/rachelsyoga.

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13 Responses to “Six Tips on How to Be the Best Yoga Teacher You Could Ever Be (and stay sane along the way).”

  1. Brandi says:

    Wow this is so inspiring! As a current teacher trainee, I have experienced many teachers who seem to follow NONE of these pieces of advice, and sometimes it feels like a very discouraging world to step into. Thank you for writing this!!

  2. Tanya Lee Markul tanya lee markul says:

    Hi Rachel – lovely and inspiring article. I really enjoyed this and your energy! A Swedish passport and in Aruba – kinda of beats my American passport in Denmark…..well, maybe just a little. ;-)

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

  3. laura says:

    i need to get my butt to aruba to take your classes! love you!

  4. Mandy says:

    Beautiful article Rachel! Thank you for speaking truth to us fellow teachers. These reminders are so very needed! Shanti.

  5. nancy says:

    this is a great post.. love it!

  6. yogiclarebear says:

    "They need to do exactly the same thing you do. And believe me, they will try."

    SO TRUE! Sometimes, to test/tease my students apeing issues, I'll offer several options as we practice Navasana (boat pose) and cycle through demonstrating them several times to see how many people follow my craziness vs. taking their version of the pose.

    Then we all laugh together as they realize they've become robotic and put themselves on my mat instead of theirs. Its cute, we are close that way.

    Anyways, GREAT list!

  7. Yogini5 says:

    3.D. Don't be triggering to someone with an eating disorder/arrested eating disorder.

    Do we really need to know that you have been fasting for the past 16 hours?
    Or that you were staring down a bag of goji berries and willing yourself not to eat them?
    Or that you think we all–or even any one of us–is in emergency need of a lecture about our food choices?
    (I am not talking cruelty-free eating here, which is a whole other issue)

    Really, I am getting the impression that none of the ladies under 65 years of age would be acceptable for you to look at until we became emaciated like you …

  8. Brit says:

    Thank you, Rachel! Such a lovely and inspiring piece. I wish more teachers would consider these advices – especially no. 3. I find it so ironic that so many Ego's can survive in this "industri", where the very foundation – the philosophy – is all about letting go of just that; the Ego.

    For me, as student and teacher, yoga is a work-in rather than a work-out.

  9. Rachel says:

    Loving these comments! Was hoping someone would disagree on some of the advice so we could get a debate going, especially since there seems to be so many teachers out there with different points of view (just reading about your experiences is enough!). But it seems like all of us ele readers we're all on pretty much the same page….! Love to you all! Om shanti!

  10. Deb says:

    One of the BEST Yoga Teacher Tip List I've ever read – - Thank you for the inspiration!

  11. lee says:

    #7. Start on time. End on time.

    • Yogini5 says:

      That's the best one. As a primarily home practitioner, I struggle more often than not with procrastination issues.
      I believe that it reflects well on a teacher to start on time.
      It conditions me not to procrastinate when I do it on my own.
      (And isn't that what yoga teachers have always wanted – I mean, before the boom in commercial yoga, so you really have to think back on THAT one.)

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