April 6, 2012

When a Yoga Teacher Puts the Class in Horror. ~ Ivan Nahem

Photo: Gustavo Peres

I’d never had anyone walk out of a class.

Because I had such a hard time finding employment in New York, I decided to upgrade my skills and enrolled in the YogaWorks 300 hour certification course. This turned out to be a good strategy and at the end of the program, I felt much better equipped to teach yoga. I was offered a spot in what’s called the Grad Class, an opportunity to teach my own class at YogaWorks for what could be considered a semester. I was assigned the 2-3:30 class on Tuesdays at the Westside studio.

I felt I’d done well in my classes and in my final presentation, so at first, I wasn’t too worried about my first class. After all, I’d already been teaching for several years, unlike some of the other graduates, and I felt I had my own style. I prepared the usual way, but one bit of preparation became my Achilles’ heel. I like playing music in class, and I’m very circumspect about my music. It must not intrude, rule number one. So I favor ambient, but not saccharine ambient.

But here’s the nub, I also like a lot of stuff in the “dark ambient” genre, even what I call creepy ambient. I’ve always been a kind of minor key type guy and for some reason, I like nothing better than being all by myself—isolated—it’s raining torrential outside and creepy music oozes from my devices. For example, “Mulholland Drive,” by Angelo Badalamenti is often in rotation, at home.

Of course, I never play this music in my yoga classes (okay, except for one time in Longford, where I played some of it in a class that fell on Halloween night, but that was special and fun).

In the week before my first Grad Class, I had added a track, “Temple,” by Robert Rich into one of my class playlists—probably just to listen to it more easily on my iPhone, since it was a recent purchase. And I have to admit, I wondered what it would sound like in class because there are temple bells deep in the belly of the music. But I knew it was too dark. That morning I saw it there at the bottom of the playlist, down where I knew it would not be played so I left it there. Bzzzzzzzt! Wrong!

My first challenge in the studio that day was figuring out the tuner device. I’m pretty good with techie stuff, but at first, I just couldn’t get it to play and I almost had to go to ask for help. Students were coming in and settling themselves onto their mats. I was beginning to feel the nerves. Things were not feeling right.

Moreover, to be honest, I had never liked the particular room where I was teaching. It’s nearly auditorium size, and unless it’s pretty filled up, it feels sparse and empty. The Grad Class rarely got much attendance—there are enough star teachers at YogaWorks. Not much natural light accesses the room either, as it is pressed up against the side of the adjoining building, so teachers have to use artificial light. And often, as now, music from rehearsal studios would bleed through the back wall.

I got off to a fair start. I could feel my nerves, my throat was dry, but I was beginning well. I had my asana set list pretty clear in mind. Still, I felt disconnected from these students, some of them 30 to 40 feet away, and of course, there weren’t that many.

When I had them on the way to standing, in Gate Pose, I began to walk around more. That’s when two realizations came together. First, I realized I was hearing “Temple.” And then I knew that somehow, well, an errant slip of the finger, no doubt, I’d put my iPhone in shuffle mode. It didn’t take long for the fallout to hit.

“What is this music?” a 30-something woman with shoulder length blondish hair asked icily as I approached her vicinity. She was cocking her head to the side in Parighasana, one arm suspended above her head.

“Oh, you know, I just realized my playlist is on shuffle,” I offered, but I wasn’t even sure this would make any sense to her. I came closer, so I was standing in front of her. “Everyone inhale the right arm straight up.”

She inhaled as she raised her arm straight up and then said loudly enough so everyone could hear, “I feel like I’m in a horror movie!” And with that she came out of the pose and began to roll up her mat.

“I’ll change the song,” I offered, turned and walked quickly over to the console to find my iPhone. But it was too late, damage done. I couldn’t blame her; she was right. It did seem dismal. She walked past me. Another woman followed.

I was stunned. I thought, This is gonna be harder than I’d thought.

For what it was worth the music was soon back to the usual lighter stuff. I adjusted the lamps as well, and kept on with the class. Looking back, the rest of the class is kind of a blur, but I do know that the atmosphere improved.

Still, it was awhile until I was able to laugh about it and nowadays I occasionally like to gaze skyward and cry out, “I feel like I’m in a horror movie!”). But I’d never had anyone walk out of a class, and here I’d racked up my first two huffing hoofers. I could tell myself that it was due to a sort of technical error, but in any case I’d shot myself in the foot, and I hadn’t handled it so well.

On the brighter side, it wasn’t a totally lousy class and I came back the next week for more, and I kept that slot for the winter months. When Grad Class was over I was even asked if I wanted to continue on, but I declined. I felt like getting away from YogaWorks for a time and finding my own way.

I’ve learned the obvious lesson that teaching anything isn’t easy and being a yoga teacher isn’t always gratifying.

So you thought this yoga life was going to be a bowl of dried patchouli leaves? No. Uh uh.It’s a lovely way to put yourself out there to learn life lessons, and of course sometimes those lessons are going to be the hard ones.

Photo: Gustavo Peres

At times I’ve been discouraged. I get thrown a curve ball and I strike out. Doggonit!

But certainly, I’m not alone in this.

One of my teacher friends had to watch in horror (there’s that word again!) as a prenatal student fell backward out of Trikonasana. Now there’s a bad day that beats any of mine.

But for me the opportunities yoga provides for making use of my inclinations toward healing and coaching is to be cherished and, so, I take solace in the fact that experience, and sometimes lousy experience, is really the supreme teacher. Furthermore, I know that if I’m ever to be as good at this as I want to be, sometimes I have to walk through the fire.

As Malcolm Gladwell asserted in Outliers, it takes many hours of experience to be good at something, and then many hours beyond that to be truly great at it.

So although it’s good to have high aims, when we fall short, when life in its mysterious generosity trips us up as it loves to do, that’s when the real yoga kicks in. That’s when we gave to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and just keep heading on down that road toward ultimate freedom from the ego. Chalk up another one and get on with it!



Read Ivan’s other adventures teaching yoga:

When a Yoga Teacher Needs to Release…All the Way

When a Yoga Teacher Would Just Rather Not Call the Ambulance


Ivan Nahem has been publishing stories, essays and poems for decades. He began teaching yoga when he lived in Ireland for a few years in the middle of the last decade, and now teaches six classes a week at Zen & Yoga in Forest Hills, NY. His yoga blog is at ivanteach.com and his writing website is ivannahem.weebly.com.


Editor: Brianna Bemel

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