June 10, 2011

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

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.

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