October 6, 2011

21 Dharmas for New Yoga Teachers: When Life Happens in Front of Your Mat.

Now that you’ve done your 200 hours of teacher training, you’re ready to save the world with yoga. You start teaching and life happens right in your class. Now you have to save the situation along with your butt. That’s where dharma (right action) and equipoise kick in. Having personally experienced every one of these little yoga hells and come out laughing, I know you will, too. Here’s what you’re in for and the dharma for each situation.

  1. You get your first gig at a major gym, the class is packed. You scan all the toned, flexible gym rats in the room and get a mega jolt of insecurity. The dharma: take two or three full breaths and long exhales. Shift focus by imagining your best bud or spiritual teacher is sitting right in front of you with loving eyes and open heart. Offer the class to that Beloved.
  2. You’re showing the pose to the group but tongue-tied in guiding it. The dharma: While asking for inner guidance, smile and say: “My GPS must have shut off.” Breathe. If the words still don’t come, take them into down dog or child’s pose. The segue releases everyone’s tension, especially yours. Now go again.
  3. You get a major case of nerves when someone way more advanced than you are takes your class. The dharma: maintain your focus on the class as a whole, assisting those who most need it. This gives the advanced person breathing room to practice. Whenever an advanced student takes your class, remember that karma brought you together. Who knows, you might just be saying or demo-ing the very thing the advanced student needs to learn. While your karmas are intersecting a higher teaching is taking place.
  4. You get even more nervous when a really experienced teacher drops in to take your class. The dharma: See #3 above. Also be honored with a humble attitude.
  5. You’re assisting someone while the rest of the class is dying because you forgot to tell them to come out of the posture.  The dharma: say, “It’s okay to exit the posture whenever you’re ready.” The best time to tell everybody to exit whenever they’re ready is when you start the assist. Hearing the others moan or noticing them fall out cues you to remember for next time.
  6. You run overtime. As your group is another minute off from completing savasana, the crowd that’s outside waiting to grab the best spots for cardio class is banging on the door. Tensions are rising. The cardio crowd is ready to rush the room as soon as that door opens. The dharma: Ahimsa or non-aggression. Preemptively poke your head out and softly ask them to keep it down. Be firm yet sweet. Begin to practice asteya, the yama of non-stealing (here of cardio time) to prevent future class collisions. Set your sport watch to beep you or keep an eye on the clock. Tighten up the timing on your playlist. Learn to think ahead and toss a few postures or vinyasas from your format when time grows short.
  7. You run dry 20 minutes before the class is scheduled to finish. The class is waiting for the next instructions but your brain is drained. The opposite of #6. The dharma: consider the extra time a boon or gift of grace for deepening in other ways. Offer some slow breathing practices or guide a longer savasana.
  8. You complete instructing one side of a pose then leapfrog to a different posture without realizing you left the class unbalanced. The dharma: Whether or not your students catch you on this one, apologize and complete the original posture. If in the middle of a sequence for each side of the body, it may be possible to reinsert the move or posture at a later point.
  9. You have carefully built a mixed level class around an inversion but the people who show up can’t do the key poses. The dharma: teaching mixed level means being steady, speedy and skillful even if it feels like a three ring circus at times.  A wide variety of students can feel that you are giving them what is right for their bodies. It really brings your your creativity to the fore. Keeping a level head throughout a mixed level class is certainly great mindfulness practice.
  10. You are starting the class with centering practices, focusing awareness on the breath. All is serene until strobe lights flash, sirens wail and a voice comes over a loudspeaker – it’s fire alarm testing day. The dharma: become an example of equanimity. Instruct the class to stay focused on the breath. Just as likely everybody will crack up. Some may walk out and come back a bit later. Whatever happens, happens. You remain centered.
  11. You are expounding on the benefits of back bending when you catch an undercurrent of conversation between two students at the back of the room. The dharma: You could choose to ignore them but you want them to respect the sanctity of the class. Politely ask them to please keep it down or hold it until after class or step outside. They’ll probably give you the evil eye. Consider it an occupational hazard and wish them well from your heart. Alternatively, let them talk themselves out. Save the lecture for the next time they’re in class. Then mention to the entire group how important it is to maintain a quiet atmosphere during class to best absorb the benefits of yoga practice. If the culprits don’t get the hint, it’s time for an after class chat.
  12. You are leading the group through an intense vinyasa flow at the community center. Halfway through, someone who never turned off her cell phone takes an important call. The people around her stop practicing to support her and in seconds whole room has stopped. There’s a dramatic energy shift. Your compassionate heart grasps her suffering. Your mind says you’re losing “control” of the class. The dharma: Open the door and indicate that she can go outside where she’ll have privacy. A buddy can escort her. Bless the group for their strong support which they can send out to her now. Have everyone take a deep breath in and a slow breath out. Then pick up with the practice. Should the woman return after the call, welcome her back with love.
  13. You’re leading the class through some variations when an experienced student on the left starts re-teaching the pose to the less proficient person in front of her. The dharma: Without glaring at her, calmly say, “Let’s focus on our own work now. Sometimes a little extra practice with a new pose helps learn it better.” Reinforce your words by having the group repeat the variation.
  14. You can’t get the room balanced. Yoga newbies who need the most observation set up their mats as far away from the front of the room as possible. Conversely the experienced students sit right up front of you. The dharma: Laugh. Tell the newbies “Hey it’s okay to sit up front, where there’s more room. I don’t bite.” They may not budge but they’ll feel more at ease.
  15. A couple is playing out their dysfunctional relationship during class. One of the partners, a regular, is practicing with zeal while the other, whose first yoga class this is, looks sullen. The dharma: Resist the urge to over-assist the newbie partner, which can bring up feelings of ineptness or jealousy toward you. (There’s a subtle triangle going on that’s not Trikonasana.) Teach  compassionately and with non-attachment as always.
  16. You have prepared a class with two new postures and some partner work. One person shows up. The dharma: Ask the person if there’s anything special they would like to work on and further on in class, offer the partner work and new postures. Many students love the personal attention.
  17. You forgot your notes. A dozen people show up. The dharma: Breathe. If you feel your pace is flagging, have them repeat the posture once or even twice more to deepen their experience. Demonstrate a variation.
  18. You welcome some new students and ask if they have any physical issues that need special attention. No one responds. Midway through class when one of the new students is having difficulty with a baby backbend you find out they had recent surgery. The dharma: Rather than chastise, saying “well I did ask up front and you said nothing,” get on their page. “How great that you wisely avoided this move.” If appropriate at that stage of recovery, offer a gentle assist.
  19. You are guiding the group at the fitness club in a centering breath when from the other side of the wall hip-hop drowns out you and the endless om’s streaming from your iPod. The dharma: instruct them to let all outside sounds drift to the edges of their awareness, a powerful off the mat practice as well.
  20. One of your regulars, whose persona always seems a little thrown together, lurches in, clearly coming off a serious bender. He sets down a mat, hurls himself onto it and within moments is stone cold asleep. You’re not sure whether to rouse him by splashing some water from your bottle onto his face face and then ask him to leave, or to let him be. Meanwhile your emotions are running from zero to sixty, from shit scared to embarrassed to pissed off. The dharma: let him be. He came for the safe, non-judgmental space you’ve created in your class. He may wake up in time to lip right into savasana. Of course if he didn’t get to class with a designated driver you will discreetly offer to drive them to them home. If you can’t, ask the class for a volunteer. You’ll sleep a lot better.
  21. You know that you were born to teach yoga, no matter what. The dharma: never forget to be a perpetual student, openhearted and ready to learn as the world comes through the door. Your students are always your greatest teachers.

Photos: stonesoupcommunities.com, phatasana.com, yoga-divine.com

Valerie Carruthers is a maverick yogini who loves teaching and practicing Yoga and meditation as well as writing for magazines and the Web, not always in the same order or on the same day. She first practiced Yoga in New York City back when there were mainly “Hatha” classes and no soundtracks. Back when performing an asana had absolutely nothing to do with toning one’s ass. Based in east central Florida, she has taught classes to diverse populations for the past decade. Valerie is currently focusing on teaching workshops that combine Yoga and art-making for all levels. When wearing her freelancer’s hat, Valerie writes about a) how to devolve from the world and evolve spiritually and b) whatever fascinates her about the social face of Yoga in its rapidly shifting manifestations merges into the cosmic face of Yoga in all its blazing glory. While her blog’s in development, Valerie can be found at [email protected].

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